Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, begins with an awakening. The semi-mythical village spirit “Dead Papa Toothwart,” known to children through cautionary rhyme, wakes from his centuries-long sleep and at once begins to shapeshift:
He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles […] He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt. […] [He] wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins.
This isn’t just a fitting introduction to Porter’s style, but an accurate description of it. His 2015 debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, was a genre- and form-bending work, sitting somewhere on the border between novella and narrative-poem. Beyond formal concerns, it is stylistically shapeshifting, riffing on ideas from Ted Hughes’s The Crow, and full of heavy allusion, reference, and wordplay. The publication of Porter’s debut was both a major publishing event and a commercial success, despite its avant-garde leanings, and he gained a deserved reputation as a literary heavyweight.
It is therefore no surprise that Lanny, published in the U.K. by Faber, opens in language that owes as much to poetry as to the contemporary English novel. Every word is chosen not just for its meaning but for its feel and its sound.
But in Lanny, the most striking formal choice is its typographical quirks. As he approaches the village, Dead Papa Toothwart listens for the sounds of human conversation, and what he hears is conveyed to the reader by the words spreading themselves across the page as though floating through the air. Banal snippets of conversation wind in and out of each other, overlap, and run backwards or upside down between other paragraphs in a way that’s impossible to faithfully quote. It’s the kind of innovation that could be called a gimmick. But it’s also substantive. It helps us imagine how Dead Papa Toothwart experiences “his listening.” As readers, the shape of the words affects how we read them, and somehow influences the way it sounds. Of course, it doesn’t sound like anything, unless read aloud. But in doing so, Porter reminds us that our language is not primarily a written form of communication. Language is, above all, spoken. In these sections, words mimic the way they would travel toward the ear, the way the various villagers pronounce them, their country accents. They stretch out in the middle, or gracefully fall down the page like a descending scale. We feel as much audience to their everyday conversation as the enigmatic Dead Papa Toothwart does:
He swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes.
This focus on character as conveyed to the reader through narrative voice is a central concern of the novel. Porter uses language and form as a means to convey the spirit of the village, as faithfully as possible, in text. Following our introduction to Dead Papa Toothwart, the novel splits into several first-person narrative strands, taking on the voices and thoughts of “Mad” Pete, an octogenarian and retired artist; “Lanny’s Mum,” Jolie; and “Lanny’s Dad,” Robert.
The eponymous Lanny, seen by adults around him as an unusually inquisitive, maybe even gifted child, isn’t given his own sections, though he is central to the events of the novel, and to the thoughts and words of its characters. He is, of course, the main concern of his parents. Lanny’s dad, commuting every day from this small village into the center of London, thinks about his son all day, but often finds his playfulness, his sense of wonder, and his strange profundity a frustrating contrast to the supposedly sensible, practical concerns of everyday life. Lanny’s mum works from home—writing her crime novel—where Lanny continually interrupts with his comings-and-goings, “stinking of pine tree and other nice things” like a woodland sprite. And Pete, their eccentric neighbour, is tasked with giving the child art lessons, though they are as much conversations as they are lessons.
And Lanny is what Dead Papa Toothwart is most interested in, too—perhaps the reason he’s awoken after centuries of sleep. Out of all the voices in “his English symphony,” Lanny’s is the most delicious: “he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him. Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.”
In a novel made up of first-person voices, sometimes all streaming in at once, overflowing across the page, Lanny is never given a voice of his own. His character and his thoughts are always mediated through the words of others. To them, Lanny often feels less like a person and more like a thing that happens to them. Pete even notes that “[At] times like this Lanny seems almost possessed.” Rather than a fully-fleshed out character that we have direct access to as readers, Lanny is instead the thread that winds all the other characters and the overall structure of the book together. Like most children, he is implicitly patronised in this way: often more spoken about, and spoken for, than he is listened to.
The narrative pace speeds up in the novel’s second act. The once clearly distinct strands are replaced by long, unadorned sections. Character’s voices become brief vignettes without clear signposts as to who is speaking. We learn to infer from their idioms, their habits of speech, accents and turns-of-phrase. Here the whole village comes into play as a chorus of voices which butt in on the main characters with casual conversation, speculation, thoughts, and insults surrounding a dramatic event. Without knowing who’s speaking, we get the same sense of familiarity. In the most powerful passages, from the perspective of Mad Pete, there is no separation at all between voices, and events take place as one long stream: What’s thought, what’s said, and what’s heard by Mad Pete are distinguished only by tone and content.
It’s unsurprising how well-suited Porter’s work has become for theater. Lanny’s launch at London’s Southbank Centre will feature a dramatized reading. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers’s most recent iteration is a stage-play starring Cillian Murphy. Lanny in particular has plenty in common with George Saunder’s Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which reads as much like a script as it does a novel, featuring a cast of more than 100 characters with almost no third-person exposition. Similarly, both of Porter’s novels lack an authoritative third-person perspective and are instead mediated through the voices of their characters alone. In doing so, Porter highlights the importance of character in his work. For him, it is the way in which these voices are realised, rather than the content of what is said, that is most relevant.
Lanny, more than Grief, takes this idea of narrative voice as its subject and problematizes it. When the world of the novel is mediated through its characters, it fundamentally affects the nature of that world. There’s a moment midway through the novel that really draws this out. Lanny’s mum goes to her neighbour Mrs. Larton in a moment of emergency. Their confrontation is conveyed to the reader twice. The paragraphs alternate between Mrs. Larton’s voice and Jolie’s, both of whom see themselves as the more virtuous and innocent victim of the other’s rudeness. Even the specific wording of their conversation is contradictory. And afterward, they each reduce the wider problems of society to the small differences between them:
Oh god, you horrible crone, you are the worst thing about living here, you are the worst thing about this English village. You are the worst thing about England. And villages. I wish you would die so somebody nice could move in here.
I’d like to tell her about the real community around here, a community that is dead and gone thanks to people like her, buying up the houses and putting in ridiculous open kitchens and glass walls […] she may as well be a bloody foreigner. I worry about the impact on the community. I worry about the standards slipping. I worry about this country. I wish she would get bored and let somebody decent move in.
If language is an unfaithful lens into reality, Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, two characters who aren’t given their own unmediated first-person voice, are best understood by the reader as manifestations of, or reflections of, the people who describe them. The way Lanny is seen by the reader isn’t necessarily the way he actually is. Instead, he’s as much a reflection of the essential nature of the village as Toothwart is. Mad Pete, early in the novel, says of Toothwart:
He’s real if people believe in him. So yes. Just as mermaids or Springheeled Jack or the Green Children of Woolpit are real if people have thought about them, told stories about them. He’s part of this village and has been for hundreds of years, whether he’s real or not.
Both Toothwart and Lanny come to us as embodiments of the village itself—Toothwart because the villagers invented his legend; Lanny because their version of him is the only version we get. Lanny and Toothwart reflect the village’s essential, timeless character that is ultimately ambivalent to the temporary concerns of the humans that live in it. Both Lanny and Toothwart have an innocence and an ambivalence to them that reminds me of Miyazaki’s Forest Spirits in Princess Mononoke. Somehow ancient, and yet at the same time, they are an amalgamation of the villagers themselves, with all their contingent, messy humanity.
At one point, Jolie sees this: “and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.”
It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being. That your children exist when you’re not there. That they have a life beyond you. That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute center of their own experience.
Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way. He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwart’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as “A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”
By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter show us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one other. The existence of characters—such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart—who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there might be a way out. Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition—maybe something learned rather than innate. Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: “Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from wherever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”
Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely, in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices. It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project. But its representation isn’t always positive. People are human. They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative. They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism. They can be judgemental neighhors or maybe self-aggrandizing, polluters or gardeners. But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them. Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners. In doing so, we give them space to speak.
We can’t live each other’s experience. But we can start by listening to them.
As you learned last week, The Millions is entering into a new, wonderful epoch, a transition that means fretting over the Preview is no longer my purview. This is one of the things I’ll miss about editing The Millions: it has been a true, somewhat mind-boggling privilege to have an early look at what’s on the horizon for literature. But it’s also a tremendous relief. The worst thing about the Preview is that a list can never be comprehensive—we always miss something, one of the reasons that we established the monthly previews, which will continue—and as a writer I know that lists are hell, a font of anxiety and sorrow for other writers.
That said, the technical term for this particular January-through-June list is Huge Giant Monster. Clocking in at more than 120 books, it is quite simply, too long. (If I were still the editor and he were still the publisher, beloved site founder C. Max Magee would be absolutely furious with me.) But this over-abundance means blessings for all of us as readers. The first half of 2019 brings new books from Millions contributing editor Chigozie Obioma, and luminaries like Helen Oyeyemi, Sam Lipsyte, Marlon James, Yiyun Li, and Ann Beattie. There are mesmerizing debuts. Searing works of memoir and essay. There’s even a new book of English usage, fodder for your future fights about punctuation.
Let’s celebrate very good things, and a lot of them, where we find them. The Millions, its writers, and its readers have been some of my very good things. I’m so grateful for the time I’ve spent as editor, and with all of you. Happy new year, and happy reading. I’ll be seeing you around.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: Millions Contributing Editor Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is a merciless beauty and one of my favorites of 2015. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: The Fishermen garnered universal critical acclaim with its recasting of biblical and African mythos to create a modern Nigerian tragedy. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey blended with Igbo folklore that has received similar glowing notice so far. As Booklist says in a starred review, An Orchesta of Minorities is “magnificently multilayered…Obioma’s sophomore title proves to be an Odyssean achievement.” (Adam P.)
Hark by Sam Lipsyte: In Lipsyte’s latest novel since The Ask, we meet Hark Morner, an accidental guru whose philosophies are a mix of mindfulness, fake history, and something called “mental archery.” Fellow comedic genius Paul Beatty calls it “wonderfully moving and beautifully musical.” While Kirkus thought it too sour and misanthropic, Publishers Weekly deemed it “a searing exploration of desperate hopes.” Their reviewer adds, “Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.” (Edan)
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Fever Dream, published in America in 2017 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was, excepting Fire and Fury, perhaps the most frightening book of the last two years. Schweblin has a special knack for blending reality and eerie unreality, and she provides readers more nightmare fuel with Mouthful of Birds, a collection of 20 short stories that has drawn advance praise describing it as “surreal,” “visceral,” “addictive,” and “disturbing.” If you like to be unsettled, settle in. (Adam P.)
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: VQR columnist and essayist Ruffin now publishes his debut novel, a near-futurist social satire about people in a southern city undergoing “whitening” treatments to survive in a society governed by white supremacy. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls this a “singular and unforgettable work of political art.” For Ruffin’s nonfiction, read his excellent essay on gentrification and food in New Orleans for Southern Foodways or his work for VQR. (Lydia)
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: It took Hadley 46 years to publish her first novel, 2002’s Accidents in the Home. In the 17 years since, she has made up for lost time, publishing three story collections and six novels, including Late in the Day, about two middle-aged married couples coping with the death of one member of their tight-knit quartet. “Hadley is a writer of the first order,” says Publishers Weekly, “and this novel gives her the opportunity to explore, with profound incisiveness and depth, the inevitable changes inherent to long-lasting marriages.” (Michael)
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: House of Stone is a debut novel by Zimbabwean author Tshuma. The book opens with the narrative of a 24-year-old tenant Zamani, who works to make his landlord and landlady love him more than they loved their son, Bukhosi, who went missing during a protest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In his book review for The Guardian, Helon Habila praises Tshuma as a “wily writer,” and says that her book is full of surprises. House of Stone not only takes unexpected turns in terms of plot lines, but also bears no single boring sentence. It makes the violent political scenes and circumstance-driven characters vivid on the page and thus renders Zimbabwean history in a very powerful and yet believable way. (Jianan)
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In what Publishers Weekly describes as an “impressive debut replete with luminous prose,” Maren’s Sugar Run tells the story of Jodi McCarty, unexpectedly released from prison after 18 years inside. McCarty meets and quickly falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother, and together they set out towards what they hope will be a better life. Set within the insular confines of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing, gritty novel about escape—the longing for it, the impossibility of it—and it announces Maren as a formidable talent to watch. (Adam P.)
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay: Searching for answers about her late mother, Shalini, a 30-year-old privileged woman, travels from Bangalore to Kashmir in search of a mysterious man from her past. In the remote village, political and military tensions rise and threaten the new community she’s immersed herself in. Publishers Weekly, in starred review, wrote: “Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.” (Carolyn)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A scholar who has earned acclaim both within her discipline of Sociology and outside of the academy for her book Lower Ed, on the predatory for-profit college industry, Cottom has a huge following that looks to her for her trenchant analyses of American society. Now she publishes a collection of essays on race, gender, money, work, and class that combines scholarship and lived experience with Cottom’s characteristic rigor and style. (Lydia)
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rebeah Ghaffari: A story of the family of a retired judge in Iran just before the Revolution, where the events that roil the family are set against, and affected by, the events that will roil the nation. Kirkus calls this “an evocative and deeply felt narrative portrait.” (Lydia)
Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea: Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s Young Adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures. (Ed)
Mothers by Chris Power: Smooth and direct prose makes Power’s debut story collection an entrancing read. In “Portals,” the narrator meets Monica, a dancer from Spain, and her boyfriend. “We drank a lot and told stories.” A year later, Monica messages the narrator and says she wants to meet up—and is newly single. Power pushes through the narration, as if we have been confidently shuffled into a room to capture the most illuminating moments of a relationship. Lying on the grass together, Monica stares at the narrator as she rolls onto her back. “It was an invitation, but I hesitated. This was exactly what I had come for, but now the tiny space between us felt unbridgeable.” Mothers is full of those sharp moments of our lives: the pulse of joy, the sting of regret. (Nick R.)
Nobody’s Looking At You by Janet Malcolm: This essay collection is a worthy follow-up to Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In this new collection, readers can catch up on the masterful profiles of Eileen Fisher, Rachel Maddow, and Yuju Wang they may have missed in The New Yorker, as well as book reviews and literary criticism. (Hannah)
Talent by Juliet Lapidos: This debut is a literary mystery/campus novel set into motion by a graduate student, Anna Brisker, who can’t finish her dissertation on “an intellectual history of inspiration.” When Anna crosses paths with the niece of a deceased writer famous for his writer’s block, she’s thrilled to discover that the eminent writer has left behind unfinished work. Anna thinks she’s found the perfect case study for her thesis, but soon learns that the niece’s motives aren’t what they seem and that the author’s papers aren’t so easily interpreted. (Hannah)
Golden State by Ben Winters: With The Last Policemen Trilogy and Underground Airlines, Winters has made a career of blending speculative fiction with detective noir. His next in that vein is Golden State, a novel set in California in the not-too-distant future—an independent state where untruth is the greatest offense. Laszlo Ratesic works as a Speculator, a state force with special abilities to sense lies. (Janet)
Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé: Prix Goncourt winning French playwright Gaudé’s philosophical meditation on human foibles and violence makes its English language debut. Bracketed around the romance of a French intelligence officer and an Iraqi archeologist, the former in pursuit of an American narco-trafficker and the latter attempting to preserve sites from ISIS, Hear Our Defeats ultimately ranges across history, including interludes from Ulysses S. Grant pushing into Virginia and Hannibal’s invasion of Rome. (Ed)
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian: The short story collection whose centerpiece is “Cat Person,” the viral sensation that had millions of people identifying with/fearing/decrying/loving/debating a work of short fiction last year. (Lydia)
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen: This writer from Greenland was 22 when she won a prestigious writing prize, and her subsequent debut novel took the country by storm. Now available for U.S. readers, a profile in The New Yorker calls the novel “a work of a strikingly modern sensibility—a stream-of-consciousness story of five queer protagonists confronting their identities in twenty-first-century Greenlandic culture.” (Lydia)
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer: A guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic (please don’t copyedit this sentence). George Saunders calls it “A mind-blower—sure to jumpstart any writing project, just by exposing you, the writer, to Dreyer’s astonishing level of sentence-awareness.” (Lydia)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Following up his Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has written the first book in what is to be an epic trilogy that is part Lord of the Rings, part Game of Thrones, and part Black Panther. In this first volume, a band of mercenaries—made up of a witch, a giant, a buffalo, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter who can track anyone by smell (his name is Tracker)—are hired to find a boy, missing for three years, who holds special interest for the king. (Janet)
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li: Where Reasons End is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Li creates this fictional space where a mother can have an eternal, carefree conversation with her child Nikolai, who commits suicide at the age of 16. Suffused with intimacy and deepest sorrows, the book captures the affections and complexity of parenthood in a way that has never been portrayed before. (Jianan)
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang: Wang writes brilliantly and beautifully about lives lived with mental illness. Her first novel, The Border of Paradise, traces a family through generations, revealing the ways each becomes inheritors of the previous generation’s isolation and depression. In The Collected Schizophrenias, her first essay collection (for which she was awarded the Whiting Award and Greywolf Nonfiction Prize), Wang draws from her experience as both patient and speaker/advocate navigating the vagaries of the mental healthcare system while also shedding light on the ways it robs patients of autonomy. What’s most astonishing is how Wang writes with such intelligence, insight, and care about her own struggle to remain functional while living with schizoaffective disorder. (Anne)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson: It’s the mid-1980s and American Cold War adventurism has set its sights on the emerging west African republic of Burkina Faso. There’s only one problem: the agent sent to help swing things America’s way is having second, and third, thoughts. The result is an engaging and intelligent stew of espionage and post-colonial political agency, but more important, a confessional account examining our baser selves and our unscratchable itch to fight wars that cannot be won. (Il’ja)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: The two-time
finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award has written a road novel
for America in the 21st century. In the book, a family of four set out from their home in New York to visit a place in Arizona called Apacheria, a.k.a. the region once inhabited by the Apache tribe. On their way down south, the family reveals their own set of long-simmering conflicts, while the radio gives updates on an “immigration crisis” at the border. (Thom)
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): In 2016, Kang’s stunning
novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize; in 2018, she drew Man Booker attention again with her autobiographical work The White Book. There are loose connections between the two—both concern sisters, for one, and loss, and both feature Han’s beautiful, spare prose—but The White Book is less a
conventional story and more like a meditation in fragments. Written about and to the narrator’s older sister, who died as a newborn, and about the white objects of grief, Han’s work has been likened to “a secular prayer book,” one that “investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.” (Kaulie)
Bangkok Wakes to Rainby Pitchaya Sudbanthad: NYFA Fellow Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, has already been
hailed as “important, ambitious, and accomplished,” by Mohsin Hamid, and a book
that “brilliantly sounds the resonant pulse of the city in a wise and far-reaching meditation on home,” by Claire Vaye Watkins. This polyphonic novel follows myriad characters—from a self-exiled jazz pianist to a former student
revolutionary—through the thresholds of Bangkok’s past, present, and future. Sudbanthad, who splits his time between Bangkok and New York, says he wrote the novel by letting his mind wander the city of his birth: “I arrived at the site of a house that, to me, became a theatrical stage where characters…entered and left; I followed them, like a clandestine voyeur, across time and worlds, old and new.” (Anne)
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A new collection of nonfiction–speeches, essays, criticism, and reflections–from the Nobel-prize winning Morrison. Publishers Weekly says “”Some superb pieces headline this rich collection…Prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment…” (Lydia)
Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolano: Spirit of Science Fiction is a novel by the critically acclaimed author of 2666, Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Apparently it is a tale about two young poets aspiring to find their positions in the literary world. But the literary world in Bolano’s sense is also a world of revolution, fame, ambition, and more so of sex and love. Like Bolano’s previous fiction, Spirit of Science Fiction is a Byzantine maze of strange and beautiful life adventures that never fails to provide readers with intellectual and emotional satisfaction. (Jianan)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: It’s hard to believe it’sbeen 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House,perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short storycollections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fanswill no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows threegenerations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to acandlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls“almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determineprosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praisesMcCracken’s “psychological acuity.” (Edan)
Good Will Come from the Sea by Christos Ikonomou (translated by Karen Emmerich): In the same way that Greece was supposedly the primogeniture of Western civilization, the modern nation has prefigured over the last decade in much of what defines our current era. Economic hardship, austerity, and the rise of political radicalism are all manifest in the Greece explored by Ikonomou in his short story collection Good Will Come from the Sea. These four interlocked stories explore modern Greece as it exists on the frontlines of both the refugee crisis and scarcity economics. Ikonomou’s stories aren’t about the Greece of chauvinistic nostalgia; as he told an interviewer in 2015 his characters “don’t love the Acropolis; they don’t know what it means,” for it’s superficial “to feel just pride;” rather, the author wishes to “write about the human condition,” and so he does. (Ed)
The Heavens by Sandra Newman: This novel connects analternate universe New York in the year 2000 with Elizabethan England, througha woman who believes she has one foot in each era. A fascinating-soundingromance about art, illness, destiny, and history. In a starred review, Kirkuscalls this “a complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wideacclaim.” (Lydia)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (translated by Alice Whitmore): Argentinian writer Dimópulos’s first book in English is a novel that focuses on a narrator who has been traveling for a decade. The narrator reflects on her habit of leaving family, countries, and lovers. And when she decides to commit to a relationship, her lover is murdered, adding a haunting and sorrowful quality to her interiority. Julie Buntin writes, “The scattered pieces of her story—each of them wonderfully distinct, laced with insight, violence, and sensuality—cohere into a profound evocation of restlessness, of the sublime and imprisoning act of letting go.” (Zoë)
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah: An account of 19th-century Ghana, the novel follows twoyoung girls, Wurche and Aminah, who live in the titular city which is a notoriouscenter preparing people for sale as slaves to Europeans and Americans. Attah’s novelgives a texture and specificity to the anonymous tales of the Middle Passage,with critic Nadifa Mohamad writing in The Guardian that “One of the strengthsof the novel is that it complicates the idea of what ‘African history’ is.”(Ed)
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: This much sought-afterdebut, which was the object of a bidding war, is based on the life of LeeMiller, a Vogue model turned photographer who decided she would rather “take apicture than be one.” The novel focuses on Miller’s tumultuous romance withphotographer Man Ray in early 1930s Paris, as Miller made the transition frommuse to artist. Early reviews suggests that the novel more than lives up to itspromise, with readers extolling its complicated heroine and page-turningpacing. (Hannah)
Northern Lights by Raymond Strom: A story about the struggle for survival in a small town in Minnesota, the novel follows the androgynous teen run-away ShaneStephenson who is searching in Holm, Minn., for the mother who abandonedhim. Shane finds belonging among the adrift and addicted of the crumbling town,but he also finds bigotry and hatred. (Ed)
Adèle by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourtin 2016, became famous after publishing Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which is nowbeing translated and published in English as Adèle. The French-Morocconnovelist’s debut tells the story of a titular heroine whose burgeoning sexaddiction threatens to ruin her life. Upon winning an award in Morocco for thenovel, Slimani said its primary focus is her character’s “loss of self.” (Thom)
The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung (translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl): Known as “one of the most beloved masterpieces in Korean literature,” The Nine Cloud Dream (also known as Kuunmong) takes readers on a journey reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno combining aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous Korean shamanic religions in a 17th-century tale, which, rare in Buddhist texts, includes strong representation of women. Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and an introduction, notations, and translation done by one of my favorite translators, Heinz Insu Fenkl. Akin to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, an intriguing read for readers interested in Buddhism, Korea, and mindfulness. (Marie Myung-Ok)
Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins: Notlong after completing her first feature film, Losing Ground, in 1982, Collins died from breast cancer at age 46. In 2017, her short story collectionabout the lives and loves of black Americans in the 1960s, Whatever Happened toInterracial Love?, was published to ringing critical acclaim. Now comes NotesFrom a Black Woman’s Diary, which is much more than the title suggests. Inaddition to autobiographical material, the book includes fiction, plays,excerpts from an unfinished novel, and the screenplay of Losing Ground, withextensive directorial notes. This book is sure to burnish Collins’sflourishing posthumous reputation. (Bill)
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper: A collection of essays on therelationships between family members and friends, with background on the author’schildhood in an evangelical family. The collection garnered a starredreview from Kirkus and praise from essayist Leslie Jamison, who calls is “extraordinary.”(Lydia)
A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits: Markovits is aversatile writer, his work ranging from a fictional trilogy about Lord Byron toan autobiographical novel about basketball. He returns to athletics in AWeekend in New York, where Paul Essinger is a mid-level tennis player and1,200-1 shot to win the U.S. Open. Essinger may be alone on the court, but he hasplenty of company at his Manhattan home when his parents visit during thetournament. Upon its British publication, The Guardian praised the “light,limber confidence” with which Markowits handles sporting knowledge and hisacute treatment of the family tensions amid “first-world also-rans.” (Matt)
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This debut is the memoirof a young woman’s life shaped by unrelenting existential terror. The story istold in fragmentary vignettes beginning with Shalmiyev’s fraught emigration asa young child from St. Petersburg, Russia to the United States, leaving behindthe mother who had abandoned her. It closes with her resolve to find herestranged mother again. (Il’ja)
Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C. Hayden): It is 1930 in the Soviet Unionand Josef Stalin’s de-kulakization program has found its pace. Among thevictims is a young Tatar family: the husband murdered, the wife exiled toSiberia. This is her story of survival and eventual triumph. Winner of the 2015Russian Booker prize, this debut novel draws heavily on the first-personaccount of the author’s grandmother, a Gulag survivor. (Il’ja)
The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar: This novel’sinciting incident is a police raid on the home the daughter of Bengaliimmigrants, told from her perspective as she lies bleeding and running throughthe events, experiences, and memories that have led her to this moment. KieseLaymon calls Laskar’s book “as narratively beautiful as it isbrutal…I’ve never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages.Laskar has changed how we will all write about state-sanctioned terror in thisnation.” (Lydia)
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis: Imagine if Malcom Lowry’shallucinogenic masterpiece Under the Volcano, about the drunken perambulationsof a British consul in a provincial Mexican village on Dia de Los Muertos, hadbeen written by a native of that country? Such could describe Aridjis’snovel Sea Monsters, which follows the 17-year-old Luisa and her acquaintanceTomás as they leave Mexico City in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves whohave defected from a Soviet circus. Luisa eventually settles in Oaxaca whereLuisa takes sojourns to the “Beach of the Dead” in search of anyone who “nomatter what” will “remain a mystery.” (Ed)
Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela: The 13 stories inAboulela’s new collection are set in locales as distant as Khartoum and London,yet throughout they explore the universal feelings of the migrant experience:displacement, longing, but also the incandescent hope of creating a differentlife. (Nick M.)
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: Mildred Groves, TheCassandra’s titular prophetess, sometimes sees flashes of the future. She isalso working at the top-secret Hanford Research Center in the 1940s, where theseeds of atomic weapons are sown and where her visions are growing morehorrifying—and going ignored at best, punished at worst. Balancing thoroughresearch and mythic lyricism, Shields’s novel is a timely warning of whathappens when warnings go unheeded. (Kaulie)
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen: A new title from ShadeMountain Press, Tonic and Balm takes place in 1919, it’s setting a travelingmedicine show, complete with “sideshows,” sword-swallowers, anddubious remedies. The book explores this show’s peregrinations against thebackdrop of poverty and racist violence in rural Pennsylvania. Allen’s firstbook, A Place Between Stations: Stories, was a finalist for the Hurston-WrightLegacy Award. (Lydia)
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price): “Most of my friendshave left the country and are now refugees,” Khalifa wrote in a recentessay. Yet he remains in Syria, a place where “those of us who have stayed aredying one by one, family by family, so much so that the idea of an empty citycould become a reality.” If literature is a momentary stay against confusion,then Khalifa’s novels are ardent stays against destruction and decay—and DeathIs Hard Work continues this tradition. The novel begins with the dying hours ofAbdel Latif al-Salim, who looks his son Bolbol “straight in the eye” in orderto give his dying wish: to be buried several hours away, next to his sister.The novel becomes a frenetic attempt for his sons to honor this wish and reachAnabiya. “It’s only natural for a man,” Khalifa writes, “to be weak and makeimpossible requests.” And yet he shows this is what makes us human. (Nick R.)
Aerialists by Mark Mayer. For those gutted by the news ofRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closing in 2017, Mayer’s debutcollection supplies a revivifying dose of that carney spirit. The storiesfeature circus-inspired characters—most terrifyingly a murderous clown-cum-realestate agent—in surrealist situations. We read about a bearded womanrevolutionist, a TV personality strongwoman, and, in the grand tradition of petburial writing that reached its acme with Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, thefuneral of a former circus elephant. Publishers Weekly called it a “high-wiredebut [that] exposes the weirdness of everyday life.” (Matt)
Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri: Published for thefirst time in the U.S., this is the seventh novel by the renowned writer, awork of autofiction about a novelist named Amit Chaudhuri revisiting hischildhood in Mumbai. Publishers Weekly says, “in this cogent andintrospective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allowindividuals to connect their present and past.” (Lydia)
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams: An anthology of 25 speculative stories from a range of powerful storytellers, among them Maria Dahvana Headley, Daniel José Older, and Alice Sola Kim. LaValle and Adams sought stories that imagine a derailed future—tales that take our fractured present and make the ruptures even further. Editor LaValle, an accomplished speculative fiction writer himself (most recently The Changeling, and my personal favorite, the hilarious and booming Big Machine), is the perfect writer to corral these stories. LaValle has said “one of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot…[including] racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill”—the perfect description for this dynamic collection. (Nick R.)
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten: Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha,is the first and last Trump novel I’ll ever want to read. Doten started writingthe novel in 2015, when our current predicament, I mean, president, was a mereand unfathomable possibility. Doten’s President Trump brings about the nuclearapocalypse, and in its aftermath a journalist takes an assignment to researchInternet humor at the end of the world. The result? An “unconventional anddarkly satirical mix of memes, Twitter jokes, Q&As, and tightly writtenstream-of-consciousness passages,” according to Booklist. From this feat, saysJoshua Cohen,“Mark Doten emerges as the shadow president of our benightedgeneration of American literature.” (Anne)
Nothing but the Night by John Williams: The John Williams ofStoner fame revival continues with the reissue of his first novel by NYRB,first published in 1948, a story dealing with mental illness and trauma withechoes of Greek tragedy. (Lydia)
Famous Children and Famished Adults by Evelyn Hampton:“[Evelyn] Hampton’s stunned sentences will remind you, because you haveforgotten, how piercingly disregulating life is,” writes Stacey Levine ofHampton’s debut story collection Discomfort, published by Ellipsis Press. Ifirst encountered Hampton’s fictions through her novella, Madam, a story of aschoolteacher and her pupils at an academy, where memory is a vehicle and somuch seems a metaphor and language seems to turn in on itself. Hampton’sforthcoming story collection Famous Children and Famished Adults won FC2’sRonald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and continues with the quixotic. Inthis collection, Noy Holland says, “the exotic and toxic intermingle.” (Anne)
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: Described as the “Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for,” this debut novel, from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, tells the story of three Zambian families—black, white, and brown—caught in a centuries-long cycle of retribution, romance, and political change. Serpell asks, “How do you live a life or forge a politics that can skirt the dual pitfalls of fixity (authoritarianism) and freedom (neoliberalism)? And what happens if you treat error not as something to avoid but as the very basis for human creativity and community?” Recipient of a starred review from Kirkus and advance praise from Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Sebold, and Garth Greenwell, The Old Drift is already well positioned to become the Next Big Thing of 2019. (Jacqueline)
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi became a criticaldarling in 2014 with Boy, Snow, Bird, a retelling of “Snow White.” She takes usback into fairy tale world with Gingerbread, the story of mother and daughter,Harriet and Perdita Lee, and their family’s famous, perhaps…magical,gingerbread recipe. Along with Harriet’s childhood friend Gretel, the Leesendure family, work, and money drama all for the sake of that crunchy spice.(Janet)
The Reign of the Kingfisher by TJ Martinson: Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’sone of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologuereads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detectivefiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanlystrong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until hismutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once againbegan to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death?If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way,the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of theold one. We must save ourselves. (Emily)
Lot by Bryan Washington: Washington is a talentedessayist—his writing on Houston for Catapult and elsewhere are must-reads—andLot is a glowing fiction debut. Imbued with the flesh of fiction, Lot is aliterary song for Houston. “Lockwood,” the first story, begins: “Roberto wasbrown and his people lived next door so of course I went over on weekends. Theywere full Mexican. That made us superior.” Their house was a “shotgun withswollen pipes.” A house “you shook your head at when you drove up the road.”But the narrator is drawn to Roberto, and when they are “huddled in hiscloset,” palms squeezed together, we get the sense Washington has a keen eyeand ear for these moments of desire and drama. His terse sentences punch andpop, and there’s room for our bated breath in the remaining white space. (NickR.)
The New Me by Halle Butler: If Butler’s first novel,Jillian, was the “feel-bad book of the year,” then her second, The New Me, is askewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment. Butlerhas already proven herself a master of writing about work and its discontents,the absurdity of cubicle life and office work in all of its dead ends. The NewMe takes it to a new level in what Catherine Lacey calls a Bernhardian “darkcomedy of female rage.” The New Me portrays a 30-year old temp worker whoyearns for self-realization, but when offered a full-time job, she becomesparalyzed realizing the hollowness of its trappings. (Anne)
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander: Pulitzer finalist Englander’s latest novel follows Larry, an atheist in a family of orthodox MemphisJews. When he refuses to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead,for his recently deceased father, Larry risks shocking his family andimperiling the fate of his father’s soul. Like everyone else in the21st century, Larry decides the solution lies online, and he makes awebsite, kaddish.com, to hire a stranger to recite the daily prayer in hisplace. What follows is a satirical take on God, family, and the Internet thathas been compared to early Philip Roth. (Jacqueline)
Minutes of Glory by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Thiong’o, the perennial Nobel Prize contender who once got through a prison sentence by drafting a memoir on toilet paper, has collected his best short stories in this collection, which spans half a century. From “The Fig Tree,” which Thiong’o wrote when he was an undergraduate in Uganda, to “The Ghost of Michael Jackson,” which he wrote while teaching at Irvine, these stories affirm the wide range of a global sensation. (Thom)
Guestbook: Ghost Stories by Leanne Shapton: A collection of haunting stories and illustrations from the writer and visual artist Shapton, of which Rivka Galchen says, “Guestbook reveals Shapton as a ventriloquist, a diviner, a medium, a force, a witness, a goof, and above all, a gift. One of the smartest, most moving, most unexpected books I have read in a very long time.” (Lydia)
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike: A couple of months ago I zipped through this funny and poignant collection of stories about women grappling with motherhood in many different ways: one struggles with infertility, for instance, and another gets pregnant by accident. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of feeling, not once compromised by the brevity of the form. In its starred review, Kirkus calls it “an exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.” Meaghan O’Connell says, “Each story in Look How Happy I’m Making You is a lovely universe unto itself — funny, intimate, casually profound — but there is something transcendent about reading them together like this.” (Edan)
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Ostensibly a memoir.Yet the idea of a Beat poet rhapsodizing, eulogizing or—God help us—memorizing his life as a Beat would be a defeat difficult to recover from.Don’t worry. There’s plenty of indignation, wry observation, and inevitableprognostication as Ferlinghetti looks back on his near-century on the planet toremind us to—among other matters—stop griping and play the hand we’redealt. (Il’ja)
If, Then by Kate Hope Day: In a quiet mountain town, four neighbors’ worlds are rocked when they begin to see versions of themselves in parallel realities. As the disturbing visions mount, a natural disaster looms and threatens their town. From a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.” (Carolyn)
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden: With a sparkling blurb from Mary Gaitskill—“Sad, funny, juicy and prickly with deep and secret thoughtful places”—and a sparkling cover (literally—see her website), T. Kira Madden’s debut memoir, a coming-of-age story set in Boca Raton, is primed for buzz. As a grownup, Madden self-describes as an “APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician”; as a child, “Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability . . . she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.” One of the best, most evocative titles of the release season, IMHO. (Sonya)
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum: Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl in 1990, prefers reading to suitors, but after her family marries her to an American deli owner she finds herself living in Brooklyn, trapped in a losing struggle against his oppressive mother, Fareeda. Eighteen years later, Fareeda attempts to pressure Isra’s oldest daughter into an early marriage, but an estranged family member offers Isra a chance to determine her own life. Rum, who was born to Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, has written that she hopes her debut novel moves readers “by the strength and power of our women.” (Kaulie)
The White Card by Claudia Rankine: The author of Citizen, Macarthur Genius grant honoree, and founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute will publisher her first play, one that examines the concept of whiteness and white Americans’ failures to acknowledge it, through a series of interactions between an artist and an affluent couple. In the play’s introduction, Rankine writes “The scenes in this one-act play, for all the characters’ disagreements, stalemates, and seeming impasses, explore what happens if one is willing to stay in the room when it is painful to bear the pressure to listen and the obligation to respond.” (Lydia)
EEG by Dasa Drndic: I first encountered Daša Drndic through her novel Belladona in June, unwittingly a mere two weeks after the author’s death from lung cancer. I was struck by the character Andreas Ban, and his idiosyncratic reflection upon ears, that “marvelous ugly organ,” accompanied by a diagram of an ear marked with the body’s points. This character Ban continues into Drndic’s next and final book, EEG, where after surviving a suicide attempt he goes on to dissect and expose the hidden evils and secrets of our times. He’s stand-in for Drndic herself, who wrote emphatically and had stated that “Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” (Anne)
Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda: Poet Terese Svoboda brings a lyrical intensity to her collection of short stories in Great American Desert. Svoboda examines the excavations that we perform on ourselves and on the land, with her stories ranging from the ancient North American Clovis people, to a science fiction description of a massive pink pyramid arising from the prairies far into the future. Author of Swamplandia! Karren Russel describes Great American Desert as “A devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.” (Ed)
King of Joy by Richard Chiem: Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential Books of the American West, and now he brings us King of Joy, an experimental narrative that explores fantasy, trauma, survival, and resilience. The novel follows Corvus, a woman that can imagine her way out of any situation–until she experiences a grief so profound that she cannot escape through fantasy. Foreword Reviews recently gave it a starred review and Kristen Arnette describes the novel as “a brilliant, tender examination of the unholy magnitude of trauma. It shows how pain can simultaneously destroy and preserve a person. Most of all, it is just goddamn beautiful writing.” (Zoë)
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means: Means’s last publication, Hystopia, was a Booker-nominated novel, but he is still best known for his short stories. Instructions for a Funeral is therefore a return to (the short story) form, 14 pieces, previously published in the New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review, and VICE, that display the intelligence and questing range for which Means is known. From a fistfight in Sacramento to a 1920s FBI stakeout in the midwest, Instructions for a Funeral invites readers on a literary journey with a master of the modern short story. (Adam P.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor): Writes Priya Parmal in her 2014 New York Times review of Maylis de Kerangal’s first novel translated into English, The Heart, “These characters feel less like fictional creations and more like ordinary people, briefly illuminated in rich language, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, that veers from the medical to the philosophical.” In the The Cook, a “hyperrealist” tale centered around a self-taught professional cook, we are treated to “lyricism and [the] intensely vivid evocative nature of Maylis de Kerangal’s prose, which conjures moods, sensations, and flavors, as well as the exhausting rigor and sometimes violent abuses of kitchen work.” The Cook is her 10th novel, her second translated into English (also by Taylor); Anglophones can be grateful that we’re finally catching up with this many-prize-winning author. (Sonya)
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan: A speculative novel about the “end of the Internet,” and what comes after for a society increasingly dependent on Big Data, surveillance, and the other sinister trappings of the 21st century. From the author of this vivid take on Santa Claus and his elves in the age of Amazon. (Lydia)
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young: A memoir in essays by the co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com, heartfelt and bursting with humor. In Young’s words, “it’s a look at some of the absurdities, angsts and anxieties of existing while black in America,” and includes deeply personal material, including about the death of his mother, which was rooted in racism in America. (Lydia)
The Parade by Dave Eggers: No one can accuse Eggers of playing it safe. Last year, in The Monk of Mokha, he profiled a Yemeni American who dreams of reconstituting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee. A couple years before that, he wrote a novel, Heroes of the Frontier, about an American dentist road-tripping around Alaska with her kids. In his latest novel, two Western contractors, one named Four, the other named Five, travel to an unnamed country to build a new road intended to mark the end of a ruinous civil war. It’s “a parable of progress, as told by J.M. Coetzee to Philip K. Dick,” says Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (Michael)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: For her seventh novel, the celebrated Siri Hustvedt goes meta. A novelist of a certain age, known as S.H., discovers a notebook and early drafts of a never-completed novel she wrote during her first year in New York City in the late 1970s, some four decades ago. The discovery allows S.H. to revisit her long-ago obsession with her mysterious neighbor, Lucy Brite. Weaving the discovered texts with S.H.’s memories and things forgotten, Hustvedt has produced a rich novel built on the sand of shifting memory. As a bonus, the book includes a sampling of Hustvedt’s whimsical drawings. (Bill)
Sing to It by Amy Hempel: Hempel, the short story legend best known for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” is back with her first new collection of stories in over a decade. From “Cloudland,” which depicts a woman’s reckoning with her decision to give up her child, to “A Full-Service Shelter,” which follows a volunteer at a shelter where abandoned dogs are euthanized, the stories in Sing to It are fitting additions to Hempel’s work. (Thom)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Lalami, whose previous novel, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, returns with a “structurally elegant mystery” (Kirkus). At the opening of this highly anticipated new novel, Morroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui is killed by a speeding car on a California highway. The book then follows a number of characters connected to and affected by his death, including his jazz composer daughter, his wife, and an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident. J.M. Coetzee says, “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.” (Edan)
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf: When a huge, garish home called the White Elephant infiltrates Willard Park, a quiet suburb, the neighborhood falls into utter comedic chaos. In the shadow of the home, neighbors begin to fight, lives are upended, and their once-peaceful town becomes anything but. Meg Wolitzer calls the debut novel a “smart, enjoyable suburban comedy.” (Carolyn)
The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser: The intellectually peripatetic Brad Leithauser—poet, novelist, editor, translator and MacArthur fellow whose interests range from Iceland to insects, American music and ghosts—has produced a sharp comic novel about a monster of a mid-life crisis. Louie Hake, a 43-year-old professor at a third-rate Michigan college, comes undone when his actress wife is discovered performing acts of “gross indecency” with her director. Bipolar Louie sets off on a tour of great world architecture, but he has stopped taking his lithium (though not all psychotropic substances), so he can get erratic. He can also be very funny—and very touching on those great American taboos, shame and failure. (Bill)
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker: Touted as “an international sensation” and sold in many countries, this debut novel follows the quest of a down-on-his-luck professor to get his mitts on his children’s inheritance. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “a painfully honest, but tender, examination of how love goes awry in the places it should flourish.” (Lydia)
When All Else Fails by Rayyan al-Shawaf: Past Millions contributor and NBCC critic al-Shawaf is out with his own novel, an absurdist tale of a lovelorn and luckless Iraqi college student in the States whose life is upended by 9/11 and who later moves to Lebanon. (Lydia)
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: A graphic novel about raising her mixed-race son in a white supremacist society by the author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, built around conversations with a curious six-year-old. Jacqueline Woodson says “In Jacob’s brilliant hands, we are gifted with a narrative that is sometimes hysterical, always honest, and ultimately healing.” (Lydia)
Working by Robert A. Caro: Widely known—and celebrated—for his monumental biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, Caro steps out from behind his subjects in Working, a collection of personal writings about, well, working. Here he describes his experiences searching Johnson’s presidential archives, what it was like to interview some of the major figures of the last half century, and how exactly he goes about structuring those massive, award-winning books. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes look at how “the greatest political biographer of our time” gets the job done. (Kaulie)
Morelia by Renee Gladman: It’s been said again and again that no one writes quite like Renee Gladman, whose writing and drawing explore movements of thought. Gladman’s Ravicka series of novels, published by Dorothy Project, traverses the fictional city, where “everything is vivid and nothing is fixed.” In Gladman’s essay collection Calamities, she writes toward the experience of the everyday where nothing of importance happens (which are most days, she has commented). Gladman’s latest, short novel, Morelia, “is an expansive mystery,” Amina Cain writes, “but I don’t think it exists to be solved…. There is a city with structures in it that multiply or are ‘half-articulated,’ where climate dictates how the city’s inhabitants move.” (Anne)
Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Canadians have come to accept that we can’t keep Toews to ourselves any longer. After her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, became an international sensation, the timely and urgent Women Talking is set to do the same. It’s a fictionalized telling of real life rapes that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After repeated attacks, a group of women are told they are lying about the violence or being punished by Satan. The narrative unfolds as they meet to decide what they will do: forgive, fight, or run. (Claire)
Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: This story collection by the author of the acclaimed epic novel, Kintu, is centered on the lives of Ugandans living in Britain, where they are both hyper-visible and unseen, excluded from British life as they work jobs in airport security, in hospitals, in caring for the elderly. In the title story, when the protagonist’s husband dies in England, her fellow Ugandans start a fund-raising drive to pay for transporting the body back home. Their motivation beautifully captures the dislocation of exile: “We are not burying one of us in snow.” It has been said that Makumbi has done for Ugandan writing what the great Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian literature. (Bill)
Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş: Of her family, global citizen (of Turkish descent) Savaş writes, “They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic . . . This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms . . . are nicked from brothel fires.” Evidently drawing on her own life, Savas’s debut novel is set in Paris (where she lives) and features a young Turkish woman who tells her family’s stories to a novelist friend. “Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much . . . fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.” Writes Helen Phillips, “This quietly intense debut is the product of a wise and probing mind.” (Sonya)
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar: A story about a young woman who is lured to an intentional community in the North Carolina mountains by an enigmatic man, only to find out that her community members are disappearing one by one. Samantha Hunt says “Dektar’s unstoppable tale of a country beyond is an addictive read so engrossing I forget where I am.” (Lydia)
I Miss you When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott: An debut essay collection from the Emmy-winning TV host and beloved bookseller at Parnsassus Books in Nashville. Philpott’s inspiration came from readers who would beeline to the memoir section to pick up Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, then ask, “What do you have like this, but more like me?” With essays that Ann Patchett calls relentlessly funny, self-effacing, and charming,” the result is a kind of wisdom that comes from making so many wrong turns they strangely add up to something that is exactly right. (Claire)
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead): Critically acclaimed Argentinian writer Maria Gainza’s first book translated in English. The story interweaves the narrator’s fascination and obsession with art and art history and her intimate experiences involving her family, romantic relationships, and work life. Mariana Enríquez declares, “In between autofiction and the microstories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate, and other times brutal.” (Zoë)
Naamah by Sarah Blake: In a stunning, feminist retelling of Noah’s Ark, Blake’s debut novel focuses on Naamah (Noah’s wife) and their family in the year after the Great Flood. Full of desire, fury, strength, and wavering faith, Naamah becomes the bedrock on which the Earth is rebuilt upon. Written in poetic prose, Lidia Yuknavitch praises the novel as “a new vision of storytelling and belief” and “a new myth-making triumph.” (Carolyn)
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: With accolades from all-stars like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short-story collection promises to wow us. “Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force.” A two-book deal with historical novel to follow. (Sonya)
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: This debut has it all—a novel of the Korean immigrant experience, a courtroom thriller, an exploration of controversies over autism therapies (specifically here, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, HBOT). Kirkus calls it “deeply satisfying” and says “it should be huge.” (Marie Myung-Ok)
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s previous novel The Animals, was downright masterful, and I’ve been anticipating Phantoms ever since. In this new novel, veteran John Frazier returns shaken from the Vietnam War to witness a dispute between his family and their former neighbors, a Japanese-American family that was displaced during World War II and sent to an internment camp. The jacket copy calls it “a fierce saga of American culpability.” Luis Alberto Urrea says, “Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” I, for one, cannot wait! (Edan)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: In this novel’s opening section, Dave and Sarah, two new students at a prestigious performing arts high school, fall madly in love under the watchful eye of a charismatic acting teacher. But in a second segment, set 12 years later, a change in narrative viewpoint calls into question everything the reader has understood to have happened before. Early reviews are highly polarized. Publishers Weekly says the novel is “destined to be a classic” while a reader on Goodreads, speaking for a number of other dissatisfied early readers, complained “the payoff wasn’t worth the ick.” (Michael)
Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney, the Irish author known for the acclaimed Conversations with Friends, has written a second novel about the lives of young people in modern Ireland. The protagonists of Normal People are teenagers named Connell and Marianne, who develop a strange friendship that both are determined to hide. Years pass, and as the two get older, their relationship grows steadily more complicated. (Thom)
The Gulf by Belle Boggs: The author of a trenchant inquiry into fertility and maternity in America, Belle Boggs turns to satire in her debut novel, a divinely witty look at the writing industry and religion. A job is a job, and so Marianne, a struggling Brooklyn poet—and atheist—agrees to direct a Christian artists’ residency program, “The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch,” in Florida. (One of the residents is working on a poem cycle about Terri Schiavo, the comatose woman in the “right-to-die” case that galvanized religious groups in 2005.) There’ll be skewering aplenty, but also a comic hero’s conversion toward acceptance of her new community. (Matt)
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie: How do our charismatic teachers set the stage for the rest of our lives? That’s one of the questions that Ann Beattie tackles in this novel. When a former New England boarding school student named Ben looks back on his childhood, he starts to questions the motives of his superstar teacher. Later on, his teacher gets in contact, and Ben has to grapple with his legacy. (Thom)
The Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno: Sometimes, you don’t stop being obsessed with something just because the book’s written. The Appendix Project takes up where Kate Zambreno’s last book, Book of Mutter, left off, examining, as Kate Briggs describes it, about “how things – interests, attachments, experiences, projects – don’t finish.” The Appendix Project is a genre-crossing work about grief, time, memory, and the maternal, which is also a work about writing itself. Oh, and she’s also got a collection of stories and a novel coming out this year – no big deal. “I try to work on many books at the same time,” Zambreno has said. Same. (Jacqueline)
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker: Meet the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor. His wife Urmila imports artisanal African crafts. Their son Sunil is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. But for all their outward success, theirs is a family riven with secrets, and when the family is forced to return to Nairobi, where Premchand and Urmila were born, Sunil reveals an explosive secret of his own: his Jewish girlfriend, who has accompanied the family on the trip, is already his wife. (Michael)
Cape May by Chip Cheek: A novel about a 50s couple from Georgia on what turns into a louche honeymoon in Cape May. It sounds like whatever the literary opposite of On Chesil Beach is, with lots of sex, gin, and intrigue. (Lydia)
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate: A collection of essays about subjects too painful or explosive to broach among families. Based on Filgate’s essay of the same name, about being abused by her stepfather, the essay features work from a stellar lineup of writers like Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, André Aciman, and Leslie Jamison, among others. (Lydia)
Furious Hours by Casey Cep: Did you know Harper Lee wanted to write her own true-crime story à la In Cold Blood? That following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent a year living in the Alabama backwoods to report it, and many more years in research, but ultimately never completed the work? In Furious Hours, Casey Cep completes the work Lee couldn’t, writing a vivid portrayal of a killer, but also exploring the effects of fame and success on one of the most famous writers in U.S. history. (Nick)
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Home Remedies, forthcoming in May 2019, is a debut collection of stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. The characters in the 12 stories vary from an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street who tries very hard to fit in, to a couple of divers at the Beijing Olympics who reach for their success. Wang conveys a promising message through her mind-boggling stories that whoever they are and wherever they are from, they have their rights to live extraordinary lives. (Jianan)
Lanny by Max Porter: The follow-up to Porter’s highly lauded Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. This follow-up gives readers all the experimental typography and poignant insight they might expect—with a twist of gut-wrenching suspense thrown in. Lanny is a mischievous young boy who moves to a small village outside of London, where he attracts the attention of a menacing force. Porter has done it again. (Claire)
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores: Move over, chupacabra—there’s a new mythical Southwestern beast in town: the trufflepig, a creature worshipped by a lost Aranana Indian tribe in this exuberant novel set on a trippier version of the American border. Drugs are legal in this near-future society, but the new (illegal) craze is “filtered animals,” extinct species revived, Jurassic-park style, and sold at great cost. The novel follows Esteban Bellacosa, trying to live the quiet life amid the region’s traffickers, obscenely rich pleasure seekers and legends. This is Flores’s first novel after a short story collection, wonderfully titled Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. (Matt)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: A Taiwanese family of six struggles to make a go of it in far-flung Anchorage, Alaska, but tragedy strikes like a stone in a still pond, rippling out to affect each family member differently. Lin’s debut novel is a raw depiction of grief and resolve set against the terrible beauty of the Alaskan north. (Nick M.)
The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This debut novel takes us to Golden Oaks Farm, where the super-rich begin life in utero with the best of everything, including balanced organic diets in young, cortisol-optimized wombs. The surrogate Hosts offer their wombs in exchange for a big payday that can transform their marginal lives. But as the Hosts learn, nine months locked inside the Farm can be a very long time. The story roams from the idyllic Hudson Valley to plush Fifth Avenue to a dormitory in Queens crowded with immigrant service workers. Echoing The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel explores the tensions between ambition and sacrifice, luck and merit, and money and motherhood. (Bill)
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman: In a New York penitentiary, a doorman-turned-inmate has barricaded himself inside the computer lab while a prison riot rages like hell. Alone, the inmate confesses, recounting the twists of fate that landed him in this predicament, and pondering the many—often hysterically funny—questions he has about it all. Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch. (Nick M.)
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew): A new novel from the Chinese novelist who lives in exile in the U.K. and whose books have never been allowed to appear in China. A dystopian satire where the dystopia is today, and an exploration of totalitarianism in China. Madeleine Thien writes for The Guardian: “Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives.” (Lydia)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Fulbright alumna Phillips has written a literary mystery about two sisters who go missing on the Kamchatka peninsula, an isolated spot and one of the easternmost points of Russia. Jim Shepard called this “a dazzlingly impressive first novel.” (Lydia)
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Ybarra’s critically acclaimed first novel, which won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Her novel makes connections between two losses in her family: her mother’s private death from cancer and her grandfather’s public kidnapping and murder by terrorists in the 1970s. Drawing on research and personal experiences, the book creatively blends nonfiction and fiction. The Irish Times praises her work as a “captivating debut…written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer.” (Zoë)
Exhalation by Ted Chiang: A new collection by the beloved science fiction writer, winner of many Hugo and Nebula awards, whose story “The Story of Your Life” formed the basis of the movie Arrival. (Lydia)
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Lots of people grow up loving horses; few of them end up competing (and winning) in the “world’s longest, toughest horse race.” Lara Prior-Palmer, the niece of famed British equestrian Lucinda Green, is just the person to attempt that challenge, galloping across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland, competing in a country so adept at riding that they once conquered the world from the backs of horses. In Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer follows in the hoofs of Genghis Khan and becomes the first woman to win the challenge. (Ed)
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In her much anticipated second novel, the author of the acclaimed Here Comes the Sun—a Young Lions, Center for Fiction, and John Leonard National Book Critics Circle finalist, and Lambda Literary Award winner, among other honors—Dennis-Benn plumbs the wrenching, too-real inner (and outer) conflict that women face when self-fulfillment is pitted against nurturing loved ones. Immigration, mother-daughter estrangement, sexuality and identity; “Frank, funny, salty, heartbreaking,” writes Alexander Chee. What else could you ask for? (Sonya)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Vincent and Alice and Alice by Shane Jones: There’s always a hint of play and whimsy in Shane Jones’s fictions. His previous novel, Crystal Eaters, was a wonderfully sad and tender story where what remained of a character’s life could be measured in crystal counts—and where a young girl attempted to save her sick mother by reversing her diminishing numbers. In his latest, Vincent and Alice and Alice, Vincent’s life has hit some doldrums with a divorce from his wife Alice and a mindless job with the state. However, things turn weird when work enrolls him in a productivity program and Alice returns, but changed. Is she a clone? A hologram? Possibly. It’s a book that Chelsea Hodson calls both “laugh-out-loud funny and knife-in-your-heart sad.” (Anne)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann: In the essay “Spill Spilt,” T Fleischmann writes of itinerancy, languorous Brooklyn summers, and art-going, with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) at its center. The artwork is a pile of candies piled high in a corner that visitors are invited to take from and consume, and I am struck how sensual and alluring and and contemplative and intimate both the artwork and Fleischmann’s writing feel, how this pairing seems essential. I can only imagine that essential is the word to describe Fleischmann’s forthcoming Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a book-length essay which reflects on Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork while probing the relationships between bodies and art. Bhanu Kapil says the book “is ‘spilled and gestured’ between radical others of many kinds. Is this love? Is this ‘the only chance to make of it an object’? Is this what it’s like to be here at all? To write ‘all words of life.’” (Anne)
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: The bestselling author of The Signature of All Things—and of course, Eat, Pray, Love—returns to historical fiction with a novel set in the theater world of 1940s New York City. Ninety-five-year-old Vivian Morris looks back on her wild youth as a Vassar College dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg, the owner of a decrepit, flamboyant, Midtown theater, called the Lily Playhouse. There, Vivian falls in love with the theater—and also meets the love of her life. (Hannah)
How Could She by Lauren Mechling: A novel about women’s friendships and professional lives within the cutthroat media world that Elif Batuman called “as wise and unforgiving as a nineteenth-century French novel.” (Lydia)
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge (translated by Frank Wynne): A perverse love story about two victims of traffickers in an unnamed country who become traffickers themselves, by the renowned novelist from Mexico. The Guardian says “Monge’s realist, deadly topical fiction is a weighty metaphor for our world gone mad.” (Lydia)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: A new collection of essays by Native writers using the art of basket-weaving as a formal organizing principle for the essays and collection. Featuring work by Stephen Graham Jones, Deborah Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Eden Robinson, and Kim TallBear. (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?
A: Why shouldn’t they?
Reading Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, Oct. 2018), Sabrina Orah Mark’s new collection of short stories, I couldn’t get that joke above out of my mind. It’s not only because the stories themselves are infused with the Yiddish sensibility and domestic humor of the Borscht Belt comics, but also because all of these small tales are not so much told as they are posed. Beyond their narrative snap and ingenious conceits, Orah Mark’s stories—rich in language, synaptic leaps, and, yes, humor—resonate into the larger questions of our lives and, indeed, become an interrogation of our specific cultural moment. The questions in Wild Milk beget further questions, which in turn beget … well, you understand.
I was glad to speak to Orah Mark over the last few months about her new book, jokes, puzzling presidents, and how writing fiction is like eating a complicated sandwich.
The Millions: I read a blog post from 2017 in which you write about the frustration of attempting to sell a short story collection without “a commercially viable novel” alongside it. Can you talk about what happened between then and now, and specifically your experience with Dorothy a publishing project?
Sabrina Orah Mark: About two hours and 37 minutes after posting my “Notes on Rejection,” I received an email from Dorothy accepting Wild Milk. It was eerie and wonderful. At the end of my post, I wrote: “Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble. And he will swallow this pebble. And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly. And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly. That would make me happy. Even if I never know.” And as much as I believe Wild Milk still has the chance to one day turn into a magic pebble, I am so grateful Dorothy is giving it the opportunity to first be a book.
Arriving from the Land of Poets, the phrase “commercially viable” was a strange-sounding cough I’d hear and cringe and back away from. I mean, I get it. We need to eat. But it’s boring and depressing to imagine my stories wandering around with price tags around their necks. I heard over and over again: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” As if Wild Milk was an odd child, growing older and older in the living room, eating snacks and studying a dying language. “This one,” I imagine a mother might say, “is a miracle going nowhere.”
But Dorothy knocked. Dorothy said, “Come with us.”
TM: In the same post from 2017, you talk about a story from Wild Milk called “For the Safety of Our Country,” relating it to a question you got from your son’s school principal about how the current state of our country has affected your surrealism. Has it?
SOM: The current state of our country has pierced a hole through my surrealism, and when I look through the hole I can now see my own face staring back at me. Problem is, the face staring back at me now has a hole through its forehead. Whether this hole is for planting or just an abyss I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say is that these days I’m writing from less of a distance. My first collection of poems, The Babies, was haunted by the Shoah. By something that seemed to be over, and far away. Wild Milk knows the present is thick with the past, and has seen what’s Impossible suddenly holding Possible’s soft hand. Sharing its water. Reflecting its face. Speaking its language. Sleeping in its bed.
TM: In that story, a whole new batch of presidents enters the White House. There are thirsty presidents, humming presidents, beautiful presidents, see-through presidents, presidents with faces as blank as almonds. It’s a riot of a story, but I feel like one can’t even say the word “president” anymore without invoking anxiety, heartache, anger, etc. Inherent in the principal’s question is the assumption that the state of things will change the stories we write, but I’m interested in the flip side of that question: how you think the stories we tell might change the state of things, specifically thinking about a story like “For the Safety of Our Country,” which, while it’s a comic gem, I also see as a creature with a defiant sword thrust into the air, a little hero. What might it do?
SOM: Oh, thank you. I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about.
TM: I’ve heard your stories described as fiction with the hearts of poems, and there’s certainly a sneaky subversive quality to these, an interruption and maybe even a corruption of narrative. But another form I can’t help thinking of is the joke, a form you also seem to be subverting throughout this collection. Jokes often set disparate elements (Mr. Horowitz and his bag of dried apricots in “The Very Nervous Family”; a maid and a collection of snails in “The Maid, The Mother, the Snail & I”) on a course for collision, which becomes the punchline. You often begin along those lines, laying out the elements and establishing trajectories, but most of these stories don’t “wind up” in the way we might expect from a joke or even from micro-narratives. Of course, this, too, is a sort of tension, the way we’ll follow two parallel lines to where they seem to meet on the horizon, but it isn’t what we generally expect from a joke. Were you thinking a lot about jokes as you wrote these stories?
SOM: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny.
TM: I also kept thinking of Jewish jokes, the kind my Uncle Larry used to tell at every gathering, where the punchlines are often less of a relief of tension than an acknowledgement that the state of suffering will continue, is endless; and also an acknowledgement of the fact that Judaism is built around questions, not answers. I’m wondering where you see the stories in Wild Milk fitting into this comedic tradition?
SOM: As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: It gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying stop I can’t breathe.
TM: Do you have a favorite joke?
SOM: Here’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s in the last story of my collection. So one old man says to another, what’s red, hangs from a wall, and whistles? I don’t know, what? A herring. But a herring isn’t red. OK, so you paint it red! But a herring doesn’t hang from a wall. OK, so you get a nail and a hammer and you nail it to the wall! But a herring doesn’t whistle. OK! So it doesn’t whistle!
I love this joke because it’s a joke that seems to wonder mid-self what it is, what it is even doing here. Is it a joke, or has it veered off in the direction of another form, like the herring which is and isn’t the punchline to a joke it too has found itself lost inside? This is my relationship to story and to poem, too. I like my stories to discover halfway through they have the heart of poem, or maybe even the lungs of a prayer, or maybe even the eyes of a very, very old animal, or the hat of a missing boy.
Here’s a joke my son told me this morning: Why was the broom late for school? Because it overswept. What’s even better than a great joke is a simple joke told by a little kid because inside the telling is the realization that language can get slippery, dislodge a whole world, turn a broom human-like and late for school. It is like in Waiting for Godot when Vladimir and Estragon find a hat (“now our troubles are over!”) and swap it with their own like jugglers. The hat they find looks as similar to their own hats as overslept looks to overswept. I love that Beckett scene with all my heart because you can feel Vladimir and Estragon trying to know (through the hat) the unknowable parts of themselves, as if wearing a hat that could so easily be mistaken for your own but is not your own hat could shift your perspective ever so slightly so that what keeps not appearing (inside and outside yourself) might suddenly appear.
TM: I want to halt the proceedings, just for a moment. Inspired by the stories in Wild Milk, I’d like to present an interview-inside-an-interview in the form of interrogatives. Answer these however you see fit.
SOM: They had come into our home and rearranged all the furniture. What other choice did we have?
SOM: Edith, Edith, and Edith.
SOM: The year August never turned into September, and just stayed August for 30 extra days.
SOM: Father’s house. On the corner of Orange and Old.
SOM: We waited three months until it began to snow and then we used the snow.
TM: Thank you! OK, back to the previously scheduled programming. Two-pronged question: Are there other writers primarily identified as poets who have written or are writing fiction that you’re following these days? And are there writers of micro-narratives/flash who you’re interested in?
SOM: When I first read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I thought holy God, because it’s a novel but also it’s a poem but also it’s a wail but also it’s a prayer but also it’s a transcription of two boys’ hearts missing their dead mother, but also it’s the impossible translation of Crow who is grief.
I love poets who trap themselves in unpoetic spaces, like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, like let’s see what the poet looks like under florescent lighting opening a packet of ketchup. I love contrast and unlikely spaces. At the heart of the Surrealists is this simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Comte de Lautréamont), and I guess it’s a simile at the center of me, too.
James Allen Hall and Rachel Zucker and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer and Carmen Gimenez Smith are some of my favorite poets writing not fiction exactly but really gorgeous, poem-marked prose.
I’m waiting for Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (forthcoming from Catapult), which sounds like a magnificent collision of tears/forms.
TM: A teacher of mine once described micro or flash fiction as stories which contained something that burns really brightly but, by their nature, burns quickly. Your stories are full of what I’d call “image germs” (the lice in “Spells”; the drawing of a mouse in “The Stepmother”) that align with this idea, but there’s also something “slow” contained in them. I don’t always see these “burning” as much as I see them rippling or refracting the way that longer stories or even novels do. I’m wondering, now that you’ve begun writing fiction, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and if so what that might resemble?
SOM: When I write fiction, I feel like I’m slowly sneaking up on myself in the middle of a cafeteria, and there I am (a poet) quietly eating a terrible and complicated sandwich, and I am like hello, and she (who is me) is like hello, and eventually The Napkin Lady will come by and ask, “Would you like a napkin,” and we will both say yes. We will both say thank you (we’re both polite). I will watch her (poet) eat her terrible and complicated sandwich for a long time. I’ll watch her for practically a whole month to tell you the truth. If I’m patient enough and lucky she’ll give me a bite. Sometimes even an idea or two. Neither one of us will ever use the napkin.
When I write poems I feel like I’m bursting into flames. As a mother of small children, it has become harder and harder to burst into flames. And so right now I’m sticking to the “slow” (as you so beautifully put it) “refraction.”
I will say this, though—there is for me something much, much more dangerous writing fiction. Maybe because for me it’s a radical departure from a form that once kept me very safe (the prose poem). I often think of my stories as what happens after the bottom of a prose poem drops out. It’s like I think I’m standing on solid ground, but no, it’s a gigantic, gaping hole, and in the hole is my whole family and everybody is hungry. And all I have is one bite of the terrible and complicated sandwich. And I’ve already swallowed it. So I better start making something out of nothing and fast. Something to feed everyone I’ve ever loved. Chances are, when it’s over, everyone will be mad at me.
If I ever write a novel it will probably be called The Grandmothers. Some of it is already written.
TM: When I first read the story “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened” in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I started laughing at the title and didn’t really stop except to gulp, here and there, at how poignantly you get at sibling and family dynamics. I’m hoping you’ll take me through the writing of this story, talk a little about its genesis and how you wrote your way to its end.
SOM: Oh wow, you’re asking me for the only secret I have left. What I will give away, though, is that you really can get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can.
My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.
When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.
Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.
I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.
After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)
Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.
Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.
I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)
I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.
Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things. The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes. This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby. I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.
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Laura and I began 2016 with a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and though I can’t think of a better place to initiate a new life to go along with your new year — what other city is as amenable to Americans’ obsessive sense of self-mythology and cyclical renewal? — I always forget how profoundly strange Los Angeles is, particularly in the winter. The very qualities that make it America’s chosen stage on which to mount the drama of self-creation also make it a site of a profound dislocation. Swaddled year-round in warmth and light, you imagine yourself to be moving through a perpetual present; there’s always time to begin again, to wake up and do things better, to manufacture yourself anew. Time is a renewable resource, plentiful as sunshine. The sky looks like someone’s taken the roof off the world and the city itself stretches on ecstatically, looking like someone jammed a bunch of buildings together with great enthusiasm but little forethought.
You can abide all this for a few months until you actually are moving through a perpetual present in which the seasons at best mark infinitesimal variations in light and warmth and the palm trees are always swaying gently, imperceptibly, maddeningly to and fro like faulty metronomes. This isn’t to say that time is static. No, it dilates and contracts according to the whims of traffic; a trip that took you 20 minutes one day takes you an hour the next. You reminisce about an episode in your life as if it took place a year ago, only to find that three years have elapsed. Henry James disparaged certain giant 19th-century novels without a sense of composition as loose, baggy monsters. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way of describing Los Angeles itself; reverence for the accidental and arbitrary is its operating principle.
I like reading books that honor this reverence rather than treat it as a problem to be solved, ones that don’t try to depict the city so much as appropriate its flux. These books tend towards nothing more than a continual confounding, an arabesque that turns the failure to find composition into something interesting.
In January, serendipity brought me one such book. Laura and I ducked into Skylight Books in Los Feliz and loitered in the fiction section until an attractive, slender little gray volume attracted our eyes — Jarett Kobek’s BTW. The novel follows an unnamed, overeducated, literary young man who flees New York in the wake of a failed relationship, chronicling his attempt to — what else? — restart his life in contemporary Los Angeles He consorts with a cast of distinctly Southern Californian weirdoes who seem to be always high, drunk, weeping, or some combination of the three. The narrative is one of those aforementioned arabesques: we accompany Kobek’s characters as they sit in cafes, drink in bars, get sick at parties, read books, make scant progress on artistic projects, and try their hardest to navigate out of romantic cul-de-sacs. Imagine The Day of the Locust updated so that it encompasses the travails of interracial dating, celebrity worship, and college debt, among other topics. It’s a wonderfully observed novel about Los Angeles because one detects the presence of a mind actively wrestling with the city’s strangeness, rather than drawing from cultural stereotypes.
It doesn’t hurt that Kobek’s language is impossibly precise, imbued with a crystalline quality, so that when he describes something like the Grand Central Market you don’t just feel the pang of familiarity that any good novel generates, the sense that the author is in your head; you feel like you’re seeing something clearly for the first time. And while Kobek’s acerbic humor (on even more impressive display in anti-tech polemic I Hate the Internet, another of my year’s highlights) is what initially caught my attention, it’s the depth of Kobek’s feeling that haunted me when I finished the novel. BTW is a stinging social satire, but all that humor supports a sensitive evocation of what it feels like to live your mid- to late-20s in an era of ever-accelerating social fragmentation, in a city that reifies such fragmentation.
In those conditions, it’s no wonder Angelenos have developed any number of idiosyncratic practices to ground themselves. To outsiders these practices might seem exorbitant or silly, but they arise out of the starkest necessity. To prevent putting your head through your car window one day as you lurch through the city, you seize upon something, anything that might give your year a shape. When I read Eve Babitz’s glamorously lethargic nonfiction collection Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB Classics reissued this past summer, I felt like she understood this. Babitz chronicles a different time than Kobek’s novel, a decade when gas was relatively cheap and writers mingled with models and actors. She and her friends don’t live off much more than spurts of money from family, lovers, or the occasional gig, but they live well anyway, impulsively snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, and driving around Southern California as if everything between Palm Springs and Bakersfield were Los Angeles. Sometimes they work, but mostly they gossip and self-medicate. This book is a perpetual motion machine whose elliptic form elides what a canny chronicler of the human mind Babitz is. Her prose is as psychologically savvy as Joan Didion’s, but considerably more playful. Didion looked on her hometown’s surface frivolity and found an apocalyptic lack of substance and order. Babitz looks on the same and finds an aesthetic opportunity.
Nathaniel Mackey’s multivolume epistolary novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate — currently at four volumes and counting — hooked me for the same reason. The novel takes the form of letters written by a L.A. jazz musician known only as “N.” to a mysterious figure named the Angel of Dust, wherein he holds forth on everything from slavery’s legacy to the etymology of the word “oboe.” There are some loosely constructed narratives floating around these volumes (sometimes ghosts emanate from record players, or speech bubbles expand from saxophones, for example) but mostly Mackey is content to let alliteration, rhyme, and copious punning propel the novel forward. I was particularly in love with the third volume, Atet A.D., which constructs an entire storyline out of the fact that one character plays an oboe, a word derived from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” which another character later misrecognizes as “high would.” Highbrow hijinks ensue. In this way, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Mackey emulates both jazz improvisation and L.A.’s love of the accidental. The effect is a text that detaches language from the need to communicate anything at all other than beauty, in the hopes that beauty might teach us how to exist in solidarity with one another. This is the kind of writing that reorganizes thought patterns and social relations.
There was so much else that I read and loved this year. Zero K delighted me despite the fact that at this point Don DeLillo seems set on self-parody. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was addictive, employing a narrative structure that has the same effect as a binge-worthy TV show; it doesn’t hurt that Gyasi has sharp observations on black diaspora and slavery’s echo. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bizarre delight, heart wrenching without being sentimental or cloying. The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative whose speculative fiction elements force us to confront slavery’s lingering horror. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a sensitive and searching epic that chronicles the social effects of AIDS across several decades. And Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is an inspiring debut that undermines its own title: nothing belongs to us, because we are so thoroughly enmeshed with others.
Looking back on my year in reading from the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, I feel a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, a friction between the great pleasure that characterized my reading life, and the thickening sense of fear at what awaits us on January 20th. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian impulse that Trump represents, such pleasure feels exorbitant. But I also wonder if such exorbitance can be a form of resistance. It puts us in more attentive relation to the people and environments in which we’re enmeshed.
To close the year out, I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s indispensableThe Origins of Totalitarianism. Early on, she makes a point that clarifies the nature of the threat looming over our nation: “Totalitarian politics — far from being simply anti-Semitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value …have all but disappeared.” Totalitarian politics want to estrange us from lived experience, from the fact that we’re wrapped up in and with others. My year in reading taught me that such immersion is what we must fight hardest for.
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This year was unlike any other year in my life, to put it mildly. I was lucky enough that people wanted me to travel to their cities and talk about my book (and, I’m sorry to say, myself) for the better part of this year. Friends, I am here to tell you that there is nothing more soul-deadening than talking about yourself for weeks and months on end — or talking about a book that lives in amber, while your brain (ideally) does not. Grateful as I was for every last opportunity, the lack of a normal routine or schedule was upending in every way. For much of the year, I worried I’d lost the power (or will) to do any of the things that I knew would make me feel more like pre-publication me: read for pleasure; cook a proper meal; sleep peacefully; put in an honest day writing; exercise; pretend to meditate. All of my non-work reading this year was an effort to remind myself of my stay-at-home, solitary self. Although I have an e-reader for travel, I found I wanted physical books more than ever. I needed ballast but couldn’t afford too much extra weight. I needed slender volumes I could tuck into a purse or a coat pocket and take out during a flight delay, a train ride, or while having many a solo drink in many a hotel bar. Some on this list are old favorites I grabbed on impulse as I was leaving the house; some I acquired along the way. All have one thing in common — they are light in weight, but not in substance. So, in no particular order, here are some of the books I carried in 2016.
John Berger’s About Looking and Susan Sontag’s On Photography I reread for a project that might not live but who cares when the reading is that great. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety also belongs on that pile. I don’t think I’ve had a nonfiction book recommended to me more by so many fiction writers than Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I loved as much as the rest of the non-physicist world. Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City was an excellent reminder to turn off HGTV (Dear Ladies of Say Yes to the Dress, if an item of clothing moves you to tears you need to get out in the greater world a little more) and leave my hotel room and walk, walk, walk no matter where I was. One of my favorite literary magazines is One Story, perfectly pocket-sized, and I always had a few with me, old and new. Somewhere (Seattle? Portland?) I picked up Meghan Daum’s excellent essay collection The Unspeakable. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen went into the bag after Wimbledon, specifically so I could reread the Serena Williams parts, but of course I reread all of it. Missing Elena Ferrante, I packed what might be my favorite, if forced to commit at gunpoint, The Days of Abandonment. How have I never read The Lover by Marguerite Duras? An embarrassing confession, but I was so happy to have it with me as I waited out weather in some airport somewhere only to be told later that flights were grounded because Air Force One was landing; my irritation at that political inconvenience feels laughably (tragically?) quaint now. At the Mississippi Book Festival, I picked up Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time (after the powerful panel of the same name) and devoured both. My well-thumbed copy of Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing lived in my carry-on for a few months because I never get tired of dipping in. On a train ride from Paris to Frankfurt, I read the beautiful and devastating The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. An advance copy of the always great Tessa Hadley’s Bad Dreams and Other Stories fit my page requirement. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different did not, but I packed it anyway because I didn’t want to wait. On a muggy, rainy afternoon in Cincinnati, I popped into a bookstore and am so grateful I bought Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. I woke up in Germany on November 9th to discover the unthinkable had actually happened and was too busy — and too rattled — for most of that trip to read anything but election news when I could get the Internet to cooperate. But the following week in Barcelona, I pulled from my suitcase Eric Puchner’s new story collection Last Day on Earth. The book is out in February and it’s marvelous. What a relief to be reminded of the vital importance of books when it feels like the world around is crumbling. Worth remembering as we stumble together into 2017.
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If you haven’t read Randa Jarrar, it’s time to. Jarrar’s debut novel, A Map of Home, introduced her as a smart and funny/not-so-funny writer. Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and Egypt, the daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and Palestinian father. She moved to the United States after the first Gulf War. A Map of Home is a coming of age story about Nidali, a girl with similar background to the author’s, who lands in Texas after migrating through various parts of the Middle East. Laced with family antics — affectionate and keenly observed — A Map of Home is an immigrant story with kick. Here’s Nidali, just off the plane in Texas:
I looked out the car’s window, mesmerized by the highway. Cars stayed in their lanes. They stopped at traffic lights; here, those red and yellow and green circles were not mere suggestions or street decorations….A woman was crossing the street and no one appeared to offer her luscious love bone.
We arrived at our new home, a long narrow house that was a little off the ground. You had to take three big steps to stand on its front porch. It was on a short dirt road…lined here and there, and here again, with cans of Lone Star. This must by the soda they drink here, I thought.
Alia Malek’s A Country Called Amreeka uses nonfiction to tell the story of Arab immigration to America over the last century. Malek profiles a series of individuals — an Alabama football player in the Jim Crow South, a politician giving voice to Arab American constituents, a gay man who has to navigate bi-culturally — each an immigrant “success,” each quintessentially American. A Map of Home deploys fiction similarly; it offers a fresh lens on the immigrant experience so core to being American. In an interview with Beirut39, Jarrar said, “Texas kind of reminds me of an Arab country in America where everyone speaks Spanish instead of Arabic. I like the approximation in culture.” That approximation is deftly illustrated in her debut novel.
If A Map of Home travels from Kuwait to Texas with humor and wit, Jarrar’s forthcoming short story collection, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, paints with an even broader brush. With compelling themes of displacement and reinvention, these stories push boundaries — probing race, class, sexual identity, and family; the role of women in Arab and American culture; and much more. In this collection, mythology meets reality, and Jarrar’s palette spans the world.
The stories are full of pithy asides. Describing a mentorship with an imperious and mesmerizing Egyptian feminist in “How Can I Be of Use to You?” the narrator wants to hitchhike “back to my family — to their familiar oppression and their unspoken support.” In “Grace,” a heartbreaking story worthy of Borges, a seven-year-old girl is kidnapped from a Pathmark in Paramus, renamed Grace, and raised by a female commune. She plays with a doll that she convinces herself is a “still and shrunken Ida,” her little sister. She is never found. As an adult, however, she discovers that Ida has written a novel that precisely describes her captivity.
It hurt me that Ida could have found me and not reached out to me. But I guessed we were even. Still I felt angry that she imagined me as a lonely old hag, still imprisoned….
Each night, before I go to sleep, I picture myself driving to our old house. I imagine Ida waiting for me by the staircase, still a child…. We run through the empty house, no one there but us, stopping in the vast, wooden den. And there Ida asks me where I’ve been, and I tell her: that I’d been taken away by those who wanted to share a life with me, that I’d been quickly kidnapped by love.
There’s boy trouble and religion trouble. In “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers,” the narrator is thrown out of her home, pregnant and single:
When you’re disowned, your mother becomes your secret lover, calling you from pay phones, visiting at odd hours and for short bits of time. And your lover becomes your mother, has to take care of you now that she’s gone.
Despite her mother’s urging, the narrator is not interested in trying to convert the father of her child — “He’ll be shitty Muslim and a shitty husband too.” She drives home with the drunken boyfriend after the birth, “a ton of shit going on inside my head.”
This is it? I ask myself, hating the government and financial rules, my reproductive system, his big dick, and mostly, my God. Not just God, but the God, the one who wrote the book resting in the car-door pocket on my left, the book that my boyfriend erroneously skims from left to right, the book that provides Guilt big enough to make me want to marry this ape with several mental illnesses he does not plan on addressing any time soon.
Politics are never far below the surface. “Testimony of Malik, Prisoner #287690” is written in the form of a report from Istanbul describing a kestrel named Malik Kareem Aziz El-Hajj Aamer Kan’un found in a “nearby village with Israeli tag on claw and placed under arrest…We believe the small falcon is a spy.” Interrogated by a series of Commanders, the kestrel says
As a child, I saw the bodies of collaborators hung from the lines my kin and I used to hunt from. Their bodies swayed. The punishment for spying was always death. And death never appealed to me….
One day, while I was en route to the sea, I saw the bigger birds, the warplanes, hovering far above me. The plane urinated a white phosphorous that clouded the air I flew in, and soon I was in the sea.
The kestrel is captured by university students in Tel Aviv, investigated, and tagged. “In Aqraba, everyone was angry with me for being captured by the Israelis.” He falls in love with a gull from Istanbul. “She said we could never breed, because I was not one of them.” The final transmission from Prisoner #287690’s recording chip is one of longing and displacement: “I am too elderly to fly home now. I want to return to Aqraba, to say goodbye, not to those who have shunned me, but to my land, to the olive trees, the earth, and the cicadas.” (Are birds a current stand-in for grief and rage? Max Porter’s new novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, substitutes a crow for a nanny/grief counselor following the death of a young mother.)
Jarrar’s title story opens with the death of the narrator’s father from a brain aneurysm “on the Metro-North train from White Plains to Grand Central; his fellow commuters didn’t notice until Scarsdale.” The narrator is the daughter of a transcontinental marriage between two journalists — a Black American man and an Egyptian woman from Sydney — who meet at the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire.
After their engagement, my parents wrote their respective stories on the plane and filed them from Cairo, then took the Egypt Rail to Alexandria. My dad exaggeratedly said he was pissing out of his ass the entire ride over. In Alexandria, he was greeted as family, converted to Islam a week later, and married my mum in the front hall of her apartment building.
She left my dad and moved back to Sydney before I turned one. I never knew why, but suspected…that he’d cheated on her.
Everyone in Sydney treated me like an Egyptian kid. I looked like one of them, and nobody mentioned my Black dad.
The narrator recalls being the victim of racist epithets, remarking that her Mom was good at hiding things. “The whole time she was my mother,” Jarrar writes, suggesting that the connection was temporary, “I assumed she never got laid or even dated, but I was mistaken.” Again, there is deracination, complex family relationships, and humor that telegraphs heartache.
Jarrar channels Isaac Babel in “The Story of My Building” and in the final story covers territory reminiscent of Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden (about a centaur born to a Jewish family in Brazil). “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie” is the tale of a “half woman — the upper half — and half Transjordanian ibex.” If ever there was an allegory of an outsider, this is it.
Ibex were once the supermodels of the Near East, where our fine likeness were painted on vases and water jugs, our horns curling back like shells. Sadly, I do not have horns…but I am horny. As you can imagine, though, I have been single for a while.
Nowadays, when I go on dates, I drive my disability-equipped van, which allows me to accelerate with my hands and provides my lower body lots of room. But when I was younger, I used to show up at dates’ doors, carry them on my back, and gallop off to dinner. This was a problem because it created an intense and too-premature sense of intimacy.
The thirteen stories in this collection blend humor with rage, wit with pathos. Jarrar presents an astonishing variety, each story as inventive as it is insightful. It’s a book for this oppressive electoral season, where presidential politics are ugly and destructive, and demagoguery is endeavoring to trample a core American truth: Our country’s strength derives from open borders. Jarrar is here with a correction.
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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