Houses of Ravicka

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Beattie, Toews, Boyle, Filgate, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ann Beattie, Miriam Toews, T.C. Boyle, Michele Filgate and more—that are publishing this week.

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Morelia by Renee Gladman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Morelia: “Gladman’s strange and hypnotic novella (following Houses of Ravicka) depicts a woman moving through a dreamlike world and trying to find meaning in its inexplicable shifts. Upon discovering a sentence in a language that ‘wasn’t English’ written on a piece of paper tucked inside one of her books, the unnamed woman attempts to figure out what it means. She moves from one situation to another, often either without an explanation as to how she traveled from one place to the other, or with the explanation provided taking a surrealist bent. For example, in a scene where a man tries to violently extract information from her for an ominous figure named Mr. Otis, the narrator realizes she can escape through the man’s “eyebrows” and does just that, somehow. She’s being chased by Mr. Otis and ‘his goons,’ but the exact reason remains obscure. Returning again and again to the mysterious and almost indecipherable sentence (which continues to appear in different places and in different forms), the woman believes that with each reappearance she knows a little more about it than before. An exquisitely written yet confounding tale, Gladman’s novella functions like a dream on the contours of a person’s imagination, making for a singular ride.”

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Women Talking: “After more than 300 women in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna were attacked between 2005 and 2009, eight of the settlement’s women, from the Loewen and Friesen families, gather secretly to discuss their plan of action in this powerful novel by Toews (All My Puny Sorrows). They believed that the nightly attacks were by ghosts and demons until a man was caught and named other perpetrators; then the women realized that the victims were drugged and raped by men from their community. The Friesens want to stay and fight the men, and the Loewens want to leave Molotschna altogether; the rest of the women in the colony decide to do nothing and skip the clandestine meetings. Schoolteacher August Epp—who takes the minutes of the meetings for the women, since they are illiterate, and is trusted by them because he’s been ostracized by the community’s men—tracks every conversation leading to the women’s final decision. Through Epp, Toews has found a way to add lightness and humor to the deeply upsetting and terrifying narrative while weaving in Epp’s own distressing backstory. Epp’s observations (such as those about how the women physically react or respond when someone shares a divisive suggestion) are astute, and through him readers are able to see how carefully and intentionally the women think through their life-changing decision—critically discussing their roles in society, their love for their families and religion, and their hopes and desires for the future. This is an inspiring and unforgettable novel.”

I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Miss You When I Blink: “In this heartwarming if occasionally self-indulgent essay collection, Philpott (Penguins with People Problems) shares her struggle with depression despite an outwardly perfect life. Philpott weaves together a collection of anecdotes about her struggles with perfectionism, failure, and coming to terms with her need for change. She discusses her experiences with ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome caused by fertility medication, her disconnect from the mundane conversations with friends after they all had children, and her ongoing war with her neighbor over their respective troublemaking pets. Amid this, she became weighed down by an ‘existential angst’ and at times missed work deadlines, stopped washing her hair, and forgot about scheduled commitments. Philpott’s prose is conversational and easy to settle into (‘Maybe we all walk around assuming everyone is interpreting the world the same way we are, and being surprised they aren’t, and that’s the loneliness’). However, her tone, while aiming to be witty, can come across as arrogant (‘I’m not a monster. I just want everything to be perfect. Is that so much to ask?’). Readers who worry their type-A personalities have led them to be unsatisfied with their successes, or those who yearn for change but can’t pinpoint exactly why, will find this book comforting and reassuring.”

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Gulf: “Boggs (The Art of Waiting) brings characters to unexpected rapport in her droll yet genuine unpacking of contemporary for-profit education and culture wars. Underemployed atheist poet Marianne hesitantly agrees to serve as the director of a new low-residency writing program for Christian authors being set up by her ex-fiancé Eric in his great aunt’s rundown Florida hotel. An unusual set of writers forms the school’s first group, including a has-been singer attempting a born-again comeback and Janine, a frustrated home economics teacher who writes poems from the perspective of Terri Schiavo. Students initially complain about nearly everything but soon form productive bonds. Surprised by the apparent success of the program, Marianne wilfully ignores how Eric’s venture capitalist brother Mark is turning control over to an aggressive, Christian-oriented for-profit education group called God’s Word God’s World. When she learns that God’s Word God’s World has close ties with extreme pro-life activists, Marianne struggles to reconcile her own politics, her lingering feelings for Eric, and her attachment to the students. Readers will find this witty, nuanced work both satisfying and resonant.”


Beyond the Point by Claire Gibson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beyond the Point: “In Gibson’s debut, friendship and ambition buoy three young women through life as female cadets at West Point in the late 1990s and through the realities of adulthood in a post-9/11 world. Dani McNalley is known for her remarkable athleticism at West Point, but finds that her abilities in the classroom make her more of a threat to the male-dominated culture. Hannah Speer’s drive for excellence leaves her little time for a typical college experience. Talented and beautiful Avery Adams doesn’t take well to being sidelined—from the basketball court or her lively social life—and breaks many of the strict rules to vent her frustrations. Though each’s competitive nature batters down the first blooms of the threesome’s friendship, shared adversity cements a bond that lasts beyond graduation. Deployments, failed relationships, and unsuccessful attempts at careers outside of the military separate the women, and though they try to stay in touch, their fleeting interactions are not enough to sustain the friendship. Just when they feel they no longer really know one another, tragedy strikes, and suddenly they must remember the values that brought them together in the first place. The real-world experiences of the women of West Point come across in realistic dialogue delivered often in the form of email and instant message conversations. This heartening and heartbreaking story is an ode to the strength of friendship.”

Outside Looking In by T.C. Boyle

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Outside Looking In: “Boyle (The Terranauts) returns with a satisfying, if overlong take on Timothy Leary’s LSD studies from the early 1960s. After a brief explanation of LSD’s discovery in a Swiss laboratory in 1943, the novel leaps forward to center on Fitz Loney, a Harvard psychology graduate student, and his wife, Joanie, in 1962. They join Harvard professor Leary’s inner circle of hallucinogenic test subjects and researchers who are working to develop therapeutic methods of employing the drug. To avoid employer interference, Leary relocates his study to Mexico. Fitz and Joanie tag along, frequently trip, and sexually experiment with others, but caught in the middle is the couple’s teenage son, Corey, who gradually isolates himself from his parents. After Harvard fires Leary, he moves his group to an estate in Upstate New York, where Fitz theoretically works on his thesis while Joanie loses faith in the cause; she and Fitz drift apart, and Corey realizes his own rebellious nature. While early chapters set the scene, the real ride begins when the scientific evaluations wane and the characters give themselves over to the drug. Though it takes its time hitting its stride, Boyle’s novel picks up momentum and is an evocative depiction of the early days of LSD.”

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: “Beattie’s discursive, unfocused novel (following The Accomplished Guest) chronicles the coming-of-age of Ben, an intelligent teenager who, as the book opens, is studying at an elite New Hampshire boarding school called Bailey Academy. In the months before and after 9/11, he pines for his alluring fellow student LouLou Sils, copes with his fragmented family, and joins the group that congregates around enigmatic philosophy teacher Pierre LaVerdere. After graduation from Bailey and then Cornell, Ben eddies through a series of unsatisfactory jobs, fleeting sexual encounters, and a relationship with a troubled young woman named Arly. After he moves to a small town in 2011, LouLou, LaVerdere, and his family reveal themselves in new and challenging ways. Beattie’s depiction of the aimless and largely unremarkable Ben is overshadowed by the detail lavished on scores of vivid minor characters who pass briefly through his life. LaVerdere, whose interactions with Ben frame the novel, is also unsatisfying: pretentiously cerebral and verbose, he feels implausible as either a defining influence in his students’ lives or the dramatically problematic man who emerges at the novel’s close. As always, Beattie offers sharp psychological insights and well-crafted prose, but the novel lacks the power and emotional depth of her best work.”

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: “Filgate, contributing editor at Literary Hub, collects a fascinating set of reflections on what it is like to be a son or daughter. One of this anthology’s strengths lies in its diversity, both in the racial and socioeconomic backgrounds represented, and in the experiences depicted—some loving, others abusive. The strongest pieces are the most revealing: in Kiese Laymon’s essay about ‘the harm and abuse I’ve inflicted on people who loved me,’ he asks ‘Why do I… want to lie?’—a question that resounds throughout this book. Nayomi Munaweera offers an attention-grabbing account of growing up in an immigrant household and with a mother with a personality disorder, while Brandon Taylor conveys the shattering pain of verbal and physical abuse. In a sunnier entry, Leslie Jamison explores the magic of having a great mom and describes the spell cast by a parent shaped by hippie-era Berkeley. Despite the title, the contributors find it difficult to talk about what’s unsaid, with most discussing what has already been spoken. Nevertheless, the range of stories and styles represented in this collection makes for rich and rewarding reading.”

Also on shelves: Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.

A Year in Reading: Jeff VanderMeer

As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me.

I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year.

As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017.

The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum, “The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.”

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern.

The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.

The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer.

Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected.

The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader.

Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences.

Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant.

Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent.

Orgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.)

Black Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength.

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit’s Manifesto, released late in the year.

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