Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Rooney, Tóibín, Groff, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Sally Rooney, Colm Tóibín, Lauren Groff, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beautiful World, Where Are You: “Rooney (Normal People) continues her exploration of class, sex, and mental health with a cool, captivating story about a successful Irish writer, her friend, and their lovers. Alice Kelleher, 29, has suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her work’s popularity. After moving from Dublin to a small seaside town, she meets Felix, a local with a similar background—they both grew up working-class, and both have absent fathers—who works in a shipping warehouse. She invites him to accompany her to Rome, where he falls in love with her but resents what he takes to be her superior attitude. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Alice’s university friend Eileen Lydon works a low-paying literary job and explores her attraction to a childhood friend who seems to return her feelings but continues seeing other women. Alice and Eileen update each other in long emails, which Rooney cleverly exploits for essayistic musings about culture, climate change, and political upheaval. Rooney establishes a distance from her characters’ inner lives, creating a sense of privacy even as she describes Alice and Eileen’s most intimate moments. It’s a bold change to her style, and it makes the illuminations all the more powerful when they pop. As always, Rooney challenges and inspires.”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Magician: “The Booker-shortlisted Tóibín (House of Names) unfurls an expansive fictional biography of Thomas Mann, a Nobel laureate who was devoted to family, obsessed with physical beauty, and driven by desire. Tóibín draws on excerpts from Mann’s diary entries, exposing unrequited loves and erotic encounters with male classmates and boarders as a young man in Lübeck, Germany, around the turn of the 20th century. The Mann who emerges in these pages is a man led by dangerous impulses and constantly pursued by the ‘lure of death and the seductive charm of timeless beauty’ who creates a thinly veiled depiction of a merchant family from Lübeck in Buddenbrooks, records his hypersexual attraction to a young Polish boy in Death in Venice, and draws from his visits to his ailing tubercular wife at a sanatorium for The Magic Mountain. An academic sojourn in Princeton and worldwide lecture tours lead a U.S. State Department official to tell him, ‘after Einstein, you are the most important German alive.’ But a series of traumatic events including several suicides (siblings and two of his six children) compound the effects of the wars and his struggles with his sexuality, and he goes into exile in the Pacific Palisades. The glory of music dominates much of the novel—the strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin; the ‘collision between bombast and subtlety’ of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony; and the glow said to have radiated from Bach when his music was performed, which Mann aspires to replicate in prose. This vibrates with the strength of Mann’s visions and the sublimity of Tóibín’s mellifluous prose. Tóibín has surpassed himself.”

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Matrix: “Groff (Florida) fashions a boldly original narrative based on the life and legend of 12th-century poet Marie de France. After Marie is banished to a poverty-stricken British abbey by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine at age 17 in 1158, she transforms from a reluctant prioress into an avid abbess. With the rhythm of days and nights regulated by the canonical hours from Lauds to Prime, from Compline to bed, Marie reshapes the claustrophobic community into a ‘self-sufficient… island of women,’ where ‘a woman’s power exists only as far as she is allowed.’ To that end, she confesses a series of 19 beatific visions that guide her in designing an impenetrable underground labyrinth as a secret passageway to the convent, building separate abbess quarters, establishing a scriptorium, and constructing a woman-made lake and dam to insure a constant water supply. Groff fills the novel with friendships among the nuns, inspirational apparitions, and writings empowered by divine inspiration. Transcendent prose and vividly described settings bring to life historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. Groff has outdone herself with an accomplishment as radiant as Marie’s visions.”

How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Wrestle a Girl: “Blackburn (Black Jesus and Other Superheroes) presents a variety of Black and queer voices in this provocative collection. In ‘Bear Bear Harvest TM,’ a girl’s family members have their excess body fat siphoned and sold for food processing. In ‘Biology Class,’ a girl’s classmates bully a teacher into a breakdown. The second half of the collection follows an unnamed Black queer teen through a series of linked stories as she struggles to endure after her father’s death and her mother’s neglect. In ‘Fat,’ she reacts to a white male physician’s assistant telling her she’s fat. In ‘Dick Pic’ and ‘Black Communion,’ she ponders her mother’s relationship with a pastor who sends pictures of his penis to her sister, and in ‘Halloween,’ she and her friend Esperanza intervene after witnessing a car suspiciously follow a little girl. ‘Ground Fighting,’ one of the strongest and longest stories on offer, finds the narrator coming out to a friend. Blackburn relies a bit too much on clever forms, such as crossword puzzles and lists, which tend to feel like exercises, but many entries present well-wrought narratives of young women coming to terms with their bodies and sexuality. It’s a mixed bag, but Blackburn clearly has plenty of talent.”

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Freedom: “Critic Nelson (The Argonauts) traces the limits of liberty and the call to care in this expansive and sharp-eyed study. Exploring ‘structural questions’ about freedom, Nelson exposes instances where conventional uses of the term—for instance, the ‘intensely American’ idea ‘that liberty leads to well-being’—clash with the contradictions of human nature. Skillfully reading the works of such critics as Eve Sedgewick and Hannah Arendt, Nelson outlines the complexities at the heart of her subject: the paradox of sexual freedom, for example, means ‘many of our most basic and hard-earned sexual freedoms… are legally dependent on principles of individual liberty.’ On climate change, she probes the costs of personal liberty when humans are changing the planet in ‘genocidal, geocidal’ ways. Patient and ‘devoted to radical compassion,’ Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance: ‘We tend to grow tired of our stories over time; we tend to learn from them what they have to teach, then bore of their singular lens.’ Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.”

Hao by Ye Chun

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hao: “Chun’s tender and skillful debut collection explores the power and shortcomings of language for a series of Chinese women in the U.S. and China over the past three centuries. In the gripping opener, ‘Stars,’ Luyao is doing graduate studies in the U.S. when she suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak. Her speech therapist gives her exercises in English, which reminds her of when she learned the language as a child in China, though she craves the ability to speak Chinese again. In the title story, set during the Cultural Revolution, Qingxin plays a ‘word game’ with her four-year-old daughter, Ming, tracing Chinese words on Ming’s back for her to guess their meaning. ‘Milk’ depicts a young man selling roses in an unnamed Chinese city while posting commentary on his blog about anachronisms on the streets of his purported ‘world class metropolis.’ ‘Gold Mountain’ features an abstract but vivid portrait of 1877 anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco, as a woman takes shelter above a store and tries to decipher overheard English speech. While some stories feel like exercises, serving mainly to provide connective tissue for the overarching theme, Chun consistently reveals via bold and spare prose how characters grasp onto language as a means of belonging. Not every entry is a winner, but the best of the bunch show a great deal of promise.”

The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Archer: “Swamy’s affecting debut novel (after A House is a Body) follows a woman’s interest in dance and self-determination after growing up in poverty in 1960s Northern India. At seven, Vidya encounters a class of girls learning kathak, a form of Indian classical dance. By the time she’s in her teens, Vidya has become a dedicated kathak pupil, devoted to the ‘wild, nearly unbearable pleasure’ of dance. In college, she studies engineering while continuing to work every day with a new dance teacher from Bombay. Always set slightly apart from her peers by her poverty and intensity, Vidya is surprised by the depth of her connection to another student, the solitary and brilliant Radha. Swamy writes with keen perception of Vidya’s anger and unyielding will to dance, despite her predicament (she never forgets that she is ‘dark, overeducated, unpedigreed’). Later in the book, after Vidya’s brief romance with Radha, she marries a man from a very different socioeconomic class, a decision that further illustrates how the odds are stacked against her as a young woman attempting to live on her own terms. Swamy confidently evokes the time and place with spare, precise prose. This writer continues to demonstrate an impressive command of her craft.”

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beautiful Country: “In this extraordinary debut, civil rights lawyer Wang recounts her years growing up as an undocumented immigrant living in ‘the furtive shadows’ of America. During China’s Cultural Revolution, her uncle was thrown in prison for criticizing Mao Zedong, leaving his parents and younger brother, Wang’s father, to pay for his ‘treasonous’ ways in the form of public beatings and humiliation. This fueled her father’s desire to find a better life in America, the ‘Beautiful Country.’ In China, Wang’s parents were professors, but upon arriving in New York City in 1994, their credentials were meaningless. ‘Pushing past hunger pains,’ they took menial jobs to support Wang, who worked alongside her mother in a sweatshop before starting school at age seven. During her five years in the States—’shrouded in darkness while wrestling with hope and dignity’—Wang managed to become a star student. With immense skill, she parses how her family’s illegal status blighted nearly every aspect of their life, from pushing her parents’ marriage to the brink to compromising their health. While Wang’s story of pursuing the American dream is undoubtedly timeless, it’s her family’s triumph in the face of ‘xenophobia and intolerance’ that makes it feel especially relevant today. Consider this remarkable memoir a new classic.”

The Breaks by Julietta Singh

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Breaks: “In a kind of spiritual successor to the genre-defying No Archive Will Restore You, Singh, an associate professor of English and gender studies, reveals the most intimate details of her life and politics. Using the form of a letter to her daughter, Singh offers ‘alternative histories… of those who have faced annihilation and lived toward survival’ in the face of Western capitalism’s ‘wholesale destruction of the earth,’ and criticizes the ‘dominant narratives’ that have shaped mainstream culture—such as Disney’s painting of Indigenous peoples as ‘savage’ and the white man as ‘fundamentally good’ in the movie Pocahontas. To go ‘against the grain’ of these racist depictions, Singh recalls her youth fighting discriminatory aggression as a mixed ‘Brown’ child in the ‘purportedly multicultural Canada of the 1980s,’ her lifelong endurance of bodily and medical trauma, and the home she’s created with her partner—as ‘queer collaborators’ who play ‘with what constitutes family.’ Singh has a tendency to wax academic, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of her insights as she exquisitely links theory and poetics to her own fears, insecurities, and certainty that one day her child will need to break away from her. This is a stunning work.”

The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Water Statues: “In this strange and shimmering nonlinear text from Swiss writer Jaeggy (I Am the Brother of XX), the lonely children of the wealthy and their eccentric employees negotiate the boundary between companionship and solitude. In Amsterdam, Beeklam grows up with only his father, Reginald, after the death of his mother, Thelma. Reginald never remarries and lives in seclusion with his servant, Lampe, a man curiously similar to him: ‘the two men had hardly met but were in perfect agreement, two finicky little plants,’ Jaeggy observes. As an adult, Beeklam stocks the basement of his house with statues and spends more and more time with them, ‘losing control of the hours and of life.’ Beeklam, too, has only one companion: his servant, Victor. After Reginald, at 70, suddenly leaves his house and abandons Lampe, Lampe goes to work for Kaspar, another widower who was a friend of Thelma’s. Through this new connection to Kaspar and a child who lives with him and may be Kaspar’s daughter, Beeklam and Victor’s small universe grows a little larger. In short, enjoyably expressionistic sections, Jaeggy sketches the emotional lives of people marooned but not content to remain entirely alone. What emerges is a fascinating and memorable portrait of a milieu obsessed with the passing of time.”

Martita, I Remember You by Sandra Cisneros (translated by Liliana Valenzuela)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Martita, I Remember You: “In this bilingual edition (written originally in English and translated into Spanish by Liliana Valenzuela) of Cisneros’s exquisite story (after Puro Amor), a woman relives her time in Paris two decades earlier via a cache of discovered letters. At 20, Corina aspires to become a writer and escape her poor Mexican Chicago family, prompting her to travel to Paris. She meets Marta, from Chile, and Paola, from Italy, and mingles with artists, dancers, and performers. She stretches her money to stay longer, realizing, ‘I can’t go home yet. Because home is bus stops and drugstore windows, elastic bandages and hairpins, plastic ballpoints, felt bunion pads, tweezers, rat poison, cold sore ointment, mothballs, drain cleaners, deodorant.’ Back in Chicago, she holds onto a photo of herself with Marta and Paola, but swiftly loses touch with them. Decades later, she discovers a letter from Marta sent shortly after she’d left, suggesting they meet in Spain, ‘in case you’re still traveling.’ Corina speaks to Marta in her thoughts and gives the rundown of her life: divorced, remarried, two daughters. Cisneros’s language and rhythm of her prose reverberate with Corina’s longing for her youth and unfulfilled promise. The author’s fans will treasure this.”

Also on shelves this week: Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor, Letters to Amelia by Lindsay Zier-Vogel and Misfits by Michaela Coel.

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