Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Keret, Solnit, Truong, Cruz, Rushdie, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Etgar Keret, Rebecca Solnit, Monique Truong, Angie Cruz, Salman Rushdie, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Fly Already by Etgar Keret

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fly Already: “Keret (The Seven Good Years) balances gravitas and drollery in this collection of 23 pieces. Stories often begin with declarative sentences—’I celebrate the kid’s birthday the day after.’—that presume an intimacy with the reader and immediately engage. Many are very short; ‘Evolution of a Breakup,’ ‘At Night,’ ‘The Next-to-Last Time I Was Shot Out of a Cannon,’ each capture a moment of emotional complexity. Longer stories start with that same directness and add complications. ‘Tabula Rasa’ begins with the explanation of a frightening recurrent dream rooted in academia and ends with echoes of the Holocaust. In ‘Crumb Cake,’ Mom is grumbling because her 50-year-old son is unsatisfied with the birthday cake she has made him. As a lunch celebration plays out, deeper fissures in their relationship are revealed. The longest story, ‘Pineapple Crush,’ begins with ‘the first hit of the day’ and follows the tumultuous life of a functioning drug addict who has a job working with an after-school program. Peppered throughout the book is an email thread about terrorism, Nazism, and UFOs; it’s the most unconventional story of all, bringing home the idea that the personal is political. The endlessly inventive Keret finds the truth underlying even the simplest human interactions.”

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dominicana: “The demands and expectations of family are an overpowering force in this enthralling story about Dominican immigrants in the mid-1960s from Cruz (Let It Rain Coffee). Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion, living in the Dominican countryside, becomes Ana Ruiz when she bends to her mother’s pressure and marries the brutish 32-year-old Juan, who has recently emigrated to America and is scratching out a living in New York. Juan and his brothers intend to build a restaurant on the Cancion family land back in the Dominican Republic, and part of the plan is for the brothers to first raise money by working in New York. When Juan brings Ana to the city, she’s overwhelmed, learning hard lessons about the locals and her husband—who’s abusive until Ana becomes pregnant—and she grows closer to Juan’s younger brother, Cesar. Ana comes of age while the Vietnam War protests surge around her in New York, and when the brewing conflict in the Dominican Republic erupts, Ana becomes determined to earn her own money and bring her mother and siblings to the relative safety of the States. The intimate workings of Ana’s mind are sometimes childlike and sometimes tortured, and her growth and gradually blooming wisdom is described with a raw, expressive voice. Cruz’s winning novel will linger in the reader’s mind long after the close of the story.”

The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sweetest Fruits: “Truong (The Book of Salt) gives voice to three women in the life of Lafcadio Hearn—the real-life 19th-century Greek-Irish writer who wrote about America, the West Indies, and most notably Japan—in her remarkable novel about love, the power of memory, and betrayal. On the island of Cythera in the late 1840s, Lafcadio’s mother, Rosa, meets Charles Hearn, an Irish military surgeon, and sees in him not only romance but a way to escape her oppressive father and loveless home. But when Rosa arrives in Ireland, family politics and homesickness drive her away, leaving a young Lafcadio with nothing but the memory of her scent of lavender. In 1872, Alethea Foley, a young woman born enslaved in the U.S. but now free, meets Lafcadio, also called Patrick, in Cincinnati, where he’s pursuing a career in journalism. Though they fall in love and marry, there are rifts in the marriage rooted in their racial and cultural differences that they cannot repair, and he leaves. In the last decade of the 19th century, Lafcadio arrives in Japan after reporting stints in New Orleans and the West Indies. Soon he meets Koizumi Setsu, who becomes his literary and cultural translator, wife, and mother of his children. Interwoven through these richly imagined narratives are excerpts from the first, actual biography of Lafcadio Hearn, published in 1906. Truong is dazzling on the sentence level, and she inhabits each of these three women brilliantly. Truong’s command of voice and historical knowledge brings the stories of these remarkable women to life.”

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cantoras: “This sensuous tale from De Robertis (The Gods of Tango) takes readers to the author’s native Uruguay during the 1970s to follow the harrowing lives of five women living under dictatorship. Bonded as cantoras, or ‘women who sing’ (a coded term for lesbians at the time), Flaca, Romina, Anita, Malena, and Paz escape the oppression of their country’s new regime and enjoy freedom at Cabos Polonio, a little known beach. Flaca is a risk taker who bucks tradition; Paz, a 16-year-old romantic just discovering who she is; Romina, a revolutionary who continues to fight despite punishment; Malena, a mysterious one hiding a dark past; and Anita, a beautiful housewife with dreams beyond her marriage. Back home in Montevideo, people disappear and women are raped, but in Polonio, relationships and romance flourish. Over the course of 35 years, these friends and lovers form a makeshift family as they struggle to find their place and awake to their true desires. After the dissolution of the civic-military dictatorship in 1985, formerly forbidden romances are allowed to take root and the characters learn how to live under democracy. De Robertis does a fine job of probing the harsh realities of what it takes to carve out a life of freedom under an oppressive government.”

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Axiomatic: “Examining the theme of trauma and grief over the course of five extended essays, cultural historian Tumarkin (Otherland) presents a remarkable tour de force. Each essay derives its title from a different axiom—to pick two: ‘You Can’t Enter the Same River Twice’ and ‘Time Heals All Wounds,’—and explores an easily sensationalized subject, such as, in the latter, teen suicide. That the essays come across as original is a testament to their artful construction, as they organically navigates the networks of a community and evoke a larger system through its smaller components. ‘Time Heals All Wounds’ delves into the repercussions of teen suicide for families, schools, and communities, and moves through different stories as if they were all part of the same larger case. In addition to trauma, the essays also touch on the effects of time, as in ‘History Repeats Itself,’ about a lawyer whose commitment to ‘being embedded in the community, walking the streets, using the same public transport as my clients’ causes Tumarkin to reflect on how time ‘lets trust stick, and relationships take anchor.’ Perhaps most impressive is how Tumarkin openly courts, yet escapes, cliché. These essays will linger in readers’ minds for years after.”

Whose Story Is This? by Rebecca Solnit

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Whose Story Is This?: “Solnit (Hope in the Dark) highlights gains in the reframing of the American narrative in her incisive latest essay collection. The new narrative, she argues, is progressive and wider in scope, and makes room for the voices of women and people of color. In a moving open letter to Christine Blasey Ford, who testified to the Senate during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while the two were in high school, Solnit notes the cultural and legislative changes that came about after Anita Hill’s testimony to demonstrate how the results of such an act of bravery ‘rippled outward in all directions.’ In ‘The Problem with Sex Is Capitalism,’ Solnit explores the entitlement that causes some misogynist men to become violent when denied access to women’s bodies; in ‘If I Were a Man’ she enumerates the challenges of being a woman devoted to her career in a society that still expects women to sacrifice their own ambitions in order to be a caregiver and supporter of others. The collection’s standout, ‘A Hero Is a Disaster,’ suggests a reevaluation of the American ideal of ‘rugged individualism’ to reflect the fact that America’s (and the world’s) problems cannot be solved by single actors, but by ‘movements, coalitions, [and] civil society’ working in tandem. Solnit reasserts herself here as one of the most astute cultural critics in progressive discourse. This brief but trenchant collection will please her fans.”

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Quichotte: “Rushdie’s rambunctious latest (following The Golden House) hurtles through surreal time and space with the author’s retooled Don Quixote on a quest for love and redemption in an unloving and irredeemable U.S.A. In this story within a story, Sam DuChamp, author of spy thrillers and father of a missing son, creates Quichotte, an elegant but deluded, TV-obsessed pharma salesman who strikes out cross-country with the son he’s dreamed into existence, to kneel at the feet of an actress by the name of Miss Salma R. Quichotte and son Sancho brave Rushdie’s tragicomic, terrifying version of America, a Trumpland full of bigots, opioids, and violence. They experience weird, end-of-time events—people turn into mastodons, rips appear in the atmosphere—but also talking crickets and blue fairies offering something like hope. Allowing the wild adventure to overwhelm oneself is half the fun. Rushdie’s extravagant fiction is the lie that tells the truth, and, hilariously, it’s not lost on the reader that he shares this Falstaffian and duplicitous notion with none other than Trump (who is never named). Rushdie’s uproarious comedy, which talks to itself while packing a good deal of historical and political freight, is a brilliant rendition of the cheesy, sleazy, scary pandemonium of life in modern times.”

Also on shelves: Chimerica by Anita Felicelli.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, Kristin Hersh’s chronicle of her long and complicated friendship with the musician Vic Chesnutt, was the first book I picked up this year, and little did I know then that its title would set the tone for what was to come in the following weeks and months. “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a pact Hersh and Chesnutt made, with regard to their music, with regard to their lives, and through her book Hersh attempts to come to terms with the loss of her cranky, tender, and at times cantankerous friend who died from an overdose on Christmas 2009.

But 2016 followed much in suit, full of broken promises, full of much sucking and dying, heralding the loss of visionaries David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics and music provided a soundtrack for my coming-to. I can’t help but think their absence has set us further off-kilter as we stumble into a future aligned with Cohen’s dystopian vision:

“the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”

Books like Fanny Howe’s Indivisible offered refuge. When reading Howe, I sense the necessity of writing as if breathing, of seeking the sacred alongside the profane. “Snow is a pattern in this story,” she writes, and it is; she follows the singularity of experience against an awareness of the multiplicity, community. Protagonist Henny resists complacency; an act that causes her discomfort tells her she’s doing something right: “I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me.”

With depth and melancholy and bitter humor, Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor pits narratives of a greedy billionaire CEO against an impoverished laborer focused on one goal — killing the CEO. The apathy of the wealthy and those in power, their ability to act with impunity, without conscience, and with cruelty towards laborers and those on strike resonates too deeply with the times.

And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending:
The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot.
This may be couched from the CEO’s perspective, but the question stands: how does one reconcile the impossibility of making a difference in the world while attempting to live as if you still can?

Fantasies, or rather, delusions and the way these delusions imposed upon others can have deleterious results, even a kind of violence, is what intrigued me most about Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. I read this book while staying at my aunt’s house beside the ocean for two weeks, and I could deeply understand Arrowby’s desire to retreat from his hectic theater life to a refuge where he could reflect and write. But in doing so he fools himself into thinking what he lacks is what he desires, and he goes to great lengths wrecking havoc on other’s lives with his hapless grasping.

I also read Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle while staying by the sea. The ocean is filled with water and whale and fish and ships and detritus, and together they comprise its vastness, even if when we think ocean, we think body of water or perhaps its outline on a map. Evening Oracle is a collection of poems that contains the sea and herons and plums and crossing vast distances; it also features other poet’s poems and excerpts from many email messages exchanged. The plurality of voices together remain spare, taken together form a patchwork quilt of a document.

Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is a book I carried with me for much of the year. Opening its pages is like entering a portal to elsewhere, dipping in sloughed sleep from my head, or rather maybe pushed me further in. Mommy is such a tender term and yet here it’s slippery and laced with contempt: mommy is caretaker, mommy is authoritarian, and with her swarm her body multiplies. Mothers eat moons, rats devour rabbits and pigs, rats crawl through corpses, flesh is rotting, it’s a garden of earthly delights as all hell breaks loose.

Perhaps this masochism and curiosity with messy and failing bodies explains too why I go to Adam Phillips for insight into human desire, motivation, fantasies, and our (at times) delightfully misguided ways. This year it seems we’re no closer to knowing what we desire, in fact as a plurality we seem to be drifting even further away. The Beast in the Nursery and Terrors and Experts go hand in hand, pitting the capacity of knowing against the ability to be absorbed, investigating what we’re avoiding with the thriving business of distraction, the tantrums we throw when we feel deprived, the curiosity that drives our inquiry into the unknown, the unrelenting desire for power and control.

Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” is a good place to start, when thinking about power and the presidency:
Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, to rule over others, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby. Winning drives winners, and maybe losers, too, Madame Realism considered. Power, that’s what it’s all about, everyone always remarked. But why did some want to lead armies and others wanted to lead a Girl Scout troop, or nothing much at all? With power, you get your way all the time.
Madame Realism, Tillman’s alter ego, is a divining rod to offset the cartoonish post-factual state, and so I consider the newly released Complete Madame Realism as part of the antidote. And, I remind myself, with the end of this year, a new one begins. Will I read differently? Yes, I’m certain. I will start the new year with a more auspicious title, or one that’s better equipped for what’s at stake — perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or Patty Yumi Cottrell’s forthcoming Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Keep Hope Alive

“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.” This seems a better time than most to revisit Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, an excerpt of which ran in The Guardian earlier this year. You can also read our review of Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby here.

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