In the Country of Women: A Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Susan Straight

I live in a place where all our stories are told in the park, in the truck, in the yard, on the porch, at the baseball diamond, or in the bar. Every year, I balance those hundreds of daily stories, of the hundreds of people in my life, here where I have lived since birth in the part of inland Southern California that Joan Didion wrote of as doomed and overlooked, strafed by Santa Ana winds, with the hundred or more books I read when I am finally alone.

I have done this since I was a child. Listened to narratives wild and devious, tender and violent, about the great-aunt who shot a man between the eyes and then with her friend dragged his body away, about my brother and his friend fishing by throwing dynamite into a lake, about my father-in-law and his brothers putting their bodies to the plow in Oklahoma after their father and their mule died; then read novels and memoirs and poetry by strangers from far away, across America and the world. But this year, on the road for my memoir, In the Country of Women, I met a lot of new writers, bought or traded for their books, and was captivated by the different incarnations of family in their pages, which I consumed at night, finally alone.

I met Laurie Frankel in Seattle, at Elliot Bay Books, and her novel This Is How It Always Is was among my favorites of the decade.  So funny I laughed on planes and in hotel rooms and then on my porch back home, the love story of two parents who have four sons, and the youngest son is a daughter, a character like I had never read before, a singular human moving through existence with plumed grace and sharp observance, and the whole world limned through the eyes of the family as tribe.

I met Faith Sullivan in Minneapolis, at a book festival, and her novels The Cape Ann and Ruby and Roland took me to rural Minnesota, her fictional town of Harvester so much like the place Sullivan’s grandmother was raised, during the early part of the century and the Depression. The girls and women of these novels witness violence and alcoholism and mental illness, they bake cakes and pies and wash clothes and try to find home in railroad stations and tiny farmhouses, and always, they help other women who are losing babies, losing love, losing their sanity, and finding their way back to hope.

I met Steph Cha in Los Angeles at another book festival, and read her amazing literary thriller Your House Will Pay in two days. Few writers know southern California like Cha, whose characters live in Granada Hills, Palmdale, South Los Angeles, Pacoima and Silver Lake; based on a shooting at a convenience store in LA, when a Korean-born woman killed a young black woman born in the neighborhood over a container of juice, this novel traces two families trying to survive the reverberations and losses after a death, and then another death, for revenge.

Also in Los Angeles, I met Bridgett Davis and bought her memoir The World According to Fannie Davis, a book countless visitors saw on my porch in April, touching the cover, as Fannie Davis, the author’s mother, who worked in the Detroit number business, looked so much like the women in my family, whose stories I had just written for my own book. Davis writes of her mother’s desire to make sure her daughter knew she was valuable, with yellow patent leather shoes and a sense of pride; I was writing about my mother-in-law and her three sisters, whose beauty and hard work are legendary here. Davis’s book sat on a small white wrought-iron table my neighbors had given me, found on the street, with a bouquet of yellow roses, and when another friend or relative saw me sitting outside, reading after work, and pulled up in a car to visit, Fannie Davis seemed part of our family, too. One of the central women in my book, Jennie Stevenson, ran numbers from her house in Los Angeles, even in her 80s, and so we told those stories again.

I have not met Tupelo Hassman yet, but cannot get over her novel Gods with a Little G, which I have read twice this year, which is about a group of teenagers in a repressive Northern California city, girls and boys who take shelter in a tire yard with beer and each other, a novel for which I have read sections aloud to countless people, especially this chapter—The Golden Rule: Beat others as you would wish to be beaten.

Last week, in Mexico City, I met my former student Gabriela Jauregui, a writer/mother/activist, and she gave me her new book, La Memoria de las Cosas, so I am reading this on the porch now, a great line: Escondidos in Escondido, California. Hidden, in Hidden, California.

A Year in Reading: 2019

Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile. 
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main pagesubscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of  What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of  White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of  City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of  The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of  Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of  Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of  The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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‘In the Country of Women’: Featured Nonfiction from Susan Straight

In our latest edition of featured nonfiction, we present an excerpt from National Book Award finalist Susan Straight’s new novel, In the Country of Women, out now from Catapult.

The book—which is part social history, part personal narrative—earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, with Kristal Brent Zook saying: “In the end, Straight’s book is about far more than a country of women. It’s an ode to the entire multiracial, transnational tribe she claims as her own…In fact, her words are for all those who now call her mother, aunt, cousin and sister, in the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life. And for all those who survived, so these women could live.”

                         Daisy Belle: Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1915

You so fine I might just have to kill you. Some other fool is gonna take you away, and I can’t have that. Family legend: This is what Daisy’s first husband said to her, holding the gun he kept on the small table beside their bed.

Alberta, my mother-in-law, told me the story of her own mother, Daisy, only once, and it was not until after I had my first daughter. Alberta was Daisy’s third daughter, named for Daisy’s sister. We were sitting knee to knee by the massive ochre-brick fireplace in the fall, when Gaila was four months old. In the living room that was never empty, we were alone that day at lunchtime, on my break from work, while I nursed the baby. Alberta was watching the damp black curls of my daughter, glistening with heat from the flames, her head lolling back and a drop of milk near the corner of her mouth as she fought sleep. Gaila, the fourth generation of descendants from Mary Thomas Ford, killed for secrets.

“My mother never had a home when she was little. Not after her mother died.”

She paused. My mother-in-law’s hands were elegant, her nails strong and oval and painted, her eyebrows vivid with pencil, her lips always defined with liner and lipstick. We were sitting in maroon leather club chairs whose arms were rolled and graceful, with brass rivets. Alberta said softly, “They were walking down a road. Her and her mother. Mary. She was holding her mother’s hand. My grandmother saw the car coming. She threw my mother out of the way, threw her up where no one could see her, and then the car ran her over.”

The driver was a young white man with another young white male passenger; the car plowed into Mary Thomas at great speed and then the driver swerved back onto the road and left her behind. Mary had three children – Daisy, 5, Arthur, 2, and Alberta, 1. It makes sense that only Daisy was walking with her, because the others were so young, but no one can say for certain. The three children had been given the surname of their father: Ford. But no one ever mentions him again, either.

This part stays the same, no matter who tells the story: it was dusk, and suddenly a car was speeding down the narrow dirt lane, raising dust, careening toward them, and Mary knew what was coming, and why, and she threw Daisy up onto the roadbank into the trees, or in the ditch into the weeds.

That day by the fire, Alberta said sadly, “My mother was so little. And after that, she went from pillar to post. Yes, she did. Pillar to post.”

Alberta held out her arms for the baby. I had to go back to work, and Alberta would hold her for hours while a procession of women came to visit and watch soap operas and share food and stories and rock this grandchild who was so loved that her cheeks would be red with kisses and lipstick when I came to retrieve her at 5.

I didn’t understand the phrase – pillar to post. Alberta watched my daughter relax back into sleep against her elbow, eyelids sliding shut. She said, “My mother never had a home. Not ’til she got here.”

Pillar to post: when someone has gone from a wealthy home, with pillars at the front, as grand embellishment, to a poorer house, with porch held up by simple wooden posts. But in Sunflower County, Daisy went from farmhouse to sharecropper cabin, wherever relatives would take care of her for a time. Alberta went to Mary’s sister Margaret, and Arthur went to an uncle. Daisy attended school until the fifth grade, as did Arthur.

That night, I lay awake thinking of the car speeding straight toward Daisy’s mother while her small daughter lay on the roadbank. I remember the Country Squire passing over me like a large animal. I remember the smell of damp asphalt against my cheek. I shivered, wondering what Daisy’s mother felt. She lay in soft Mississippi dirt. Did she die there, with her daughter afraid to come out from where she’d been thrown for safekeeping? Did Mary hear her child crying?

Did she crawl? Did Daisy see her mother’s eyes?

Years later, at family gatherings, other relatives would offer:

They were drunk and they killed her, but they were rich white boys and no one in that county was gonna prosecute them.

     They were sent to kill her because she knew things. About the rich white men around there. They didn’t want her to tell.

     They killed her because no one wanted her to say who were the fathers of those children. Daisy and Arthur and Alberta. Mary was the prettiest of all the girls. She was beautiful.

     There were only about six cars in the whole county – it was a poor place! The police knew whose car it was. Of course they did.

Imagine Daisy’s memory, of her small body being flung by her mother’s hands to safety, and where she landed, and how it felt. What she saw and heard after that. It’s beyond comprehension: did the men stop and look at Mary Thomas? Was Daisy so scared she knew to keep hidden in the trees or the weeds? Did she breathe? Did she hear her mother’s breath? Did she hear pain or crying? How long did she wait by the roadside, and who drove the next vehicle or wagon that came upon them, and what never left her memory?

Violence like that enters the blood. Changes the DNA. We know this now, from accounts of survivors of genocide, of the Holocaust, of war and torture and imprisonment. Reading historical narratives from the elderly people formerly enslaved in the American South, in places like Sunflower County, Mississippi, reminds us of how injury, rape, and psychological pain were endured, and interred, in the bones and brain.

Some Americans have tried to make slavery a single chapter in the nation’s history, a finite number of years that ceases influence at the end of the Civil War. Tell this to the family of Mary Thomas, and the thousands of other black men and women killed in carefully-planned acts of retribution or for casual sport – from the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was read, through the terrors of Reconstruction, to the countless lynchings between 1900-1950s, to the murders during the civil rights movement, to killings that happen right now. This moment.

By 1989, when Alberta told me that story, her mother, Daisy, had travelled through seven states to make sure Alberta’s childhood was rooted deeply and firmly in a radius of three miles, and we sat in the center of that radius. But Daisy’s odyssey had been long and dangerous, and at the end of it, she had four daughters, and endless secrets.

Daisy Belle Ford Morris Carter remains the mystery woman of our family. We still talk even now about how she never told anyone the identities of the fathers of her daughters. In a time when every pair of high heels chosen for the club, every new hairstyle or cup of coffee is documented in cell phone images with time, date, and exact street location, it seems astonishing that the phrase “she took that knowledge to the grave” could be true. Over six decades, Daisy never told anyone. Maybe those men were so dangerous she knew what she was doing.

And so, so my three daughters, I want to say that these women crossed thousands of miles of hardship so that when I was fourteen and your father was fifteen, he could walk two miles from his house to the end of my street — no one had cars, no one had any money for a date, we met only in parks — where he bounced a basketball in the playground of my elementary school. I walked there to meet him. We sat on the wooden bench against the chainlink fence that separated the playground from the railroad tracks twenty feet away. His shirt: white waffle-weave long underwear with the sleeves cut off for a tank top. I remember the smell of freshly-laundered cotton and Hai Karate even now. My shirt: a halter top I’d sewn from two red bandannas, from a pattern I found in Seventeen magazine. We talked for a long time in the darkness, played a few games of H-O-R-S-E (I wondered why it was always horse and never something more entertaining, like platypus or elephant or anaconda), and returned to the splintery bench. We kissed for the first time.

His arms were the color of palm bark – brown with a glossy red underneath — and his fingers so long and elegant that when he put my palm against his, my whole hand barely came to the middle knuckles. My arms should have been pale, but this was 1975 – girls rubbed Johnson’s baby oil onto their skin and lay at the beach or beside pools to get brown. I had the baby oil – but no beach or pool. I mowed lawns and lay in the bed of my dad’s truck while he drove us to the desert.

Your father pointed to the dark-brown dot on the skin below my collarbone. “What’s that?” he said quietly.

Was I supposed to say mole? Mole sounded terrible. A blind animal nosing out of the earth. I was so near-sighted I could barely see the playground, because I’d left my glasses at home. “Beauty mark?” I said.

He laughed. “That’s if you paint it on your face.”

“Who says?”

“All my aunts.”

I remember too the smell of sulfur in the rocks along the railroad tracks, and the pepper trees nearby with their spicy pink berries.

Thousands of miles of migration – from slave ships arrived to America, from boats leaving Europe after World War II, from indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, hardened ranchwomen, and fierce mothers. The women moved ever west, fled men, met new men, made silent narrow-eyed decisions in the darkness, got on buses and in cars and walked for miles to survive. West until there was no more west.

We were born here, to more dreamers of the golden dream, the ones you never hear about. We moved through the streets of southern California, still with no money, but we had more than those women did when they were girls. We shared one burrito four ways, we rode eight to a car in a Dodge Dart or Ford pickup, we partied in the orange groves or in a field by the towering cement Lily Cup, where our friends’ parents worked at the plant making paper cups that Americans used to hold at the water cooler.

More than a year later, your father finally picked me up in the Batmobile, a 1961 Cadillac with vintage oxidized brown like faded coffee ground, with huge fins as if sharks would chaperone us down the street. The sound was like a freight train. Sitting in the passenger seat, I saw a dark stain along the inside of the door. It was cold, and I asked your father to roll up the window, but he didn’t want me to see the spiderweb cracks around the bullet hole in the glass. Some guy had been leaning against the car window when he was shot. The stains were reminders of his blood. General Sims II, your grandfather, had bought the car from under a pepper tree where it had sat since the murder, covered in California dust. Your father drove me a mile and a half, to General and Alberta’s house, and in the driveway Alberta held out her hand and said, Come and make you a plate, and my life changed.

That is how you, our three daughters, became California girls. Via the Batmobile. You are the apex of the dream, the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, watching all of us as we raised you, hoping they — the ancestors — won’t be forgotten.

Copyright © 2019 by Susan Straight, from In the Country of Women. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Horrocks, Russo, Lenz, Zink, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Caitlin Horrocks, Richard Russo, Lyz Lenz, Nell Zink, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vexations: “Horrocks’s vivid, hard-edged debut about French composer Erik Satie focuses on his erratic career, difficult personality, and dysfunctional family. In 1872, widower Alfred Satie leaves his children—six-year-old Eric, youngest brother Conrad, middle sister Louise—to be raised by their grandmother in Normandy. A great-uncle takes Louise to live with him. When the grandmother dies, Alfred brings the boys home to Paris. By his early 20s, Eric, now calling himself Erik ‘with a k,’ plays piano at Chat Noir and other Montmartre cafes. Louise, widowed within a year of getting married, resides with her son on her husband’s debt-ridden estate, until relatives confiscate both the estate and the son. Often neglectful and hurtful of friends and family, Erik collaborates with modernists like Cocteau and Diaghilev to varying success. Horrocks includes the perspectives of Erik’s onetime librettist (fictional Philippe) and sometime lover (real-life Suzanne Valadon) for a portrait of avant-garde turn-of-the-century Paris that proves art isn’t easy and neither are artists. Horrocks shines while envisioning Erik scoring a silent film, debuting a masterpiece, or being released from jail (where he was held for defaming a reviewer) so he can complete a commission. Horrocks’s description of Satie’s music is also apt for her noteworthy novel: slow, spare, and at its best finely filigreed.”

Chances Are… by Richard Russo

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Chances Are…: “Russo’s first standalone novel in a decade (after Everybody’s Fool) mixes his signature themes—father-and-son relationships, unrequited love, New England small-town living, and the hiccups of aging—with stealthy clue-dropping in a slow-to-build mystery about a young woman’s 1971 disappearance. Set mostly in Martha’s Vineyard circa 2015 with flashbacks to the characters’ coming-of-age in the 1960s and ’70s, the story follows three college buddies who, now in their mid-60s, decide to reunite on the island. There’s Lincoln, a happily married and successful real estate broker with six kids; Teddy, an editor and publisher of a small university press who’s prone to panic attacks and disorienting spells that leave him depressed; and Mickey, a musician renowned for his ability to rock hard, play hard, and sometimes beat up anyone in his way. Then there’s the missing link—gorgeous Jacy, the ‘three musketeers’ ’ closest gal pal from college and secret crush—who was engaged to ‘privileged, pre-school, Greenwich, Connecticut’ Vance, and had joined her boys at Lincoln’s Vineyard cabin for one last hurrah before she vanished. Relayed in alternating chapters from mostly Lincoln and Teddy’s perspectives, the narrative touches on the Vietnam draft, Lincoln’s complicated relationship with his dogmatic father and meek mother, and an accident that befalls Teddy. In the final stretch, surprising, long-kept secrets are revealed. This is vintage Russo.”

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Chelsea Girls: “The strong friendship between two women who meet performing in USO shows during WWII is tested as the country descends into McCarthy-era madness in the solid latest from Davis (The Masterpiece). Hazel Ripley is a perennial understudy, pushed into performance by a mother who is grieving Hazel’s brother, a talented actor who died during the war. When Hazel joins the USO tour as the maid in Blythe Spirit, she initially dislikes star Maxine Mead, but as the women endure a sideline view to the horrors of war, they find that they are a good team, with Maxine acting and Hazel writing. After the war, they meet again in New York City when both are living at the Chelsea Hotel. Maxine has become a rising Hollywood starlet, and Hazel is staging her first play on Broadway. Soon the Red Scare consumes the nation, and Hazel is flagged as a possible communist and threatened with being blacklisted due to her association with Chelsea Hotel proprietor Lavinia Smarts. Maxine and Hazel are fearful their newly found community might be broken apart when they find mysterious men investigating the building. As a government agent appears to monitor rehearsals, Hazel is irritated but remains confident there’s nothing to be found. However, as the production nears opening night, Hazel worries her confidence could be misplaced. Featuring vibrant, witty characters who not only weather but thrive in a dark period of American history, Davis’s tale of one friendship’s strength will stun and satisfy readers.”

Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Marilou Is Everywhere: “Smith’s solid debut follows the isolated and overlooked life of a teen in rural Pennsylvania. After 14-year-old Cindy Stoat and her older brothers, Clinton and Virgil, are abandoned by their mother, they make do with canned goods, candy, and income from the brothers’ lawn-mowing business amid the constant meddling of education officials who hope to bring Cindy back to school. Their stagnant and isolated existence is broken open when a teenage neighbor, Jude Vanderjohn, goes missing. A popular but complicated girl, Jude is so much of what Cindy herself feels she could never be, and her disappearance rocks not only the community, but Cindy’s day-to-day existence, especially after Virgil begins bringing her to spend time with Jude’s mother, Bernadette. Bernadette is a former hippie, a half-mystic, and an alcoholic who mistakes Cindy for her disappeared daughter, an identity crisis that Cindy cherishes, hoping desperately for her life to change, and leading to a terrible decision as she tries to maintain the illusion. Smith’s rural world is brought to life with precise and devastating descriptions of poverty and neglect, though sometimes the lyricism of the prose doesn’t gel. Still, fans of Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling will appreciate Cindy’s toughened point of view and Smith’s close attention to the details of rural Appalachian life. This is a promising debut.”

This Is Not America by Jordi Puntí

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Is Not America: “This thoughtful collection of short stories from Catalonian writer and translator Puntí (Lost Luggage) is set primarily in Barcelona and largely features a cast of jaded male protagonists. Though the stories often blend together, one not particularly standing out from the other, memorable instances occur throughout, such as the somber twist at the end of ‘Kidney,’ about a loner ignoring letters from his sick, estranged brother. In ‘My Best Friend’s Mother,’ and ‘Consolation Prize,’ men pursue fantasies of women they barely know, then realize their dream doesn’t match their reality. In ‘Seven Days on the Love Boat,’ a disgruntled husband exchanges anniversary tickets to France for a solo trip on a Mediterranean cruise liner, where he meets a sage American pianist. In ‘The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes,’ a Catalonian with a gambling problem moves to Las Vegas, where he manages to turn his addiction into an unexpected career. Although the collection lacks variety, the stories make for a consistently pleasant reading experience, especially when consumed in small doses.”

The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Accidentals: “Evocatively depicting the small town of Opelika, Miss., in 1957, Gwin (Promise) tells the heart-rending story of a mother feeling trapped in her life, whose death throws her family into turmoil. Olivia goes to a ‘chiropractor’ for an illegal abortion, dying a few days later from complications. Her husband, Holly, copes by trying to protect his daughters from the unlikely threats of bombs and natural disasters while ignoring their emotional needs. The older daughter, Grace, blames herself for not finding Olivia sooner, and her own poor choices lead to her becoming pregnant at 16 and getting sent away to have the baby in secret. The younger daughter, June, grows up to marry unhappily. Meanwhile, Ed Mae, the orphanage worker who cares for Grace’s child, has a moment of distraction that leads to complex consequences. Though the story is wrought with sadness, there’s a sense of hope that those thrown off course may find happiness in the end. Fans of tear-jerkers will forgive the occasional too-pat coincidence as Gwin brings all the threads together for an uplifting finale. This is a satisfying fable of errors and consequences in a tumultuous era.”

In the Country of Women by Susan Straight

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Country of Women: “Novelist Straight (Between Heaven and Here) focuses on the lives of the women in her family in this moving memoir. The narrative is framed as a letter to Straight’s three daughters—Gaila, Delphine, and Rosette—whom Straight shares with her ex-husband Dwayne Sims, and honors the daughters’ rich ancestral past through stories of female relatives struggling to overcome violence, oppression, and hardship. Straight celebrates Jennie Stevenson, an aunt on the Sims side who, in the early 1900s, shot a man who cornered her, and Straight’s mother, a Swiss immigrant who left home after her stepmother tried to marry her off at 15 to a pig farmer. The author excels in chapters about raising her kids, and about finding her place in the Sims clan (Straight is white, Sims is African-American). She feels indebted to her mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, who showed her how to keep family and friends close (‘she took my hand and led me to the kitchen…. Alberta cooked for the whole community’). In the touching final chapter, Straight reflects on the enduring power of memory: ‘All we women have to give you is memory…. What we felt we might keep to ourselves, unless someone wrote it down.’ Straight passionately illuminates the hard journeys of women.”

The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Other’s Gold: “Four women form an intense bond as college freshmen and support one another through life-altering mistakes across a decade and a half in Ames’s unfocused debut. In 2002, sporty Alice, uber-rich Ji Sun, stunningly beautiful but academically struggling Margaret, and feisty, adopted Lainey arrive at Quincy-Hawthorne College. After immediate friendship, Alice divulges that years before she caused her brother’s intellectual disability by intentionally pushing him off a tractor. In their sophomore year, all four become entranced by a popular professor until Ji Sun fabricates a claim of sexual harassment against him. After college they all gravitate to New York City, where Lainey becomes a well-known voice of the Occupy Movement and Alice struggles with fertility problems. The foursome’s friendship cools when Margaret, now a popular blogger and wife to a wealthy scion, crosses a serious line, and drifts further apart when Lainey makes an even more shocking mistake. Ames rarely provides sufficient retribution for characters’ bad decisions, and the tangents about their lives become distracting. Though there are moments of powerful emotion, and the details and emotional crises are well drawn, most readers will feel frustrated by the meandering plot and the characters’ choices.”

Black Card by Chris L. Terry

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Card: “Terry’s darkly humorous coming-of-age novel (after Zero Fade) explores the nuances and challenges of being a young black man in America. A punk rock bassist with a white mother and black father living in Richmond, Va., the unnamed narrator struggles with feeling ‘black enough.’ ‘Being mistaken for white erases half of me,’ he muses, ‘and happens so often that I think I’ve failed at blackness.’ In a desperate attempt to finally earn his Black Card—an actual card—he indulges in misconceived stereotypes of blackness. He tries to ‘speak more black’ and changes up his style of dress. He earns his card but has it revoked by his guide/mentor Lucius when he fails to speak up during a racist incident. Determined to earn back his card, he performs rap songs at a white karaoke bar and musters up the courage to ask out his black coworker, Mona. When Mona is assaulted in her apartment, he becomes a suspect and is finally forced to face his racial identity. ‘The minute Mona told the cops about me, she’d given me something. She’d made it so I’d never, ever doubt that I was black.’ This memorable, deeply insightful work has echoes of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Terry’s provocative and timely novel challenges readers to confront the racial stereotypes and injustices in America.”

God Land by Lyz Lenz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about God Land: “Journalist Lenz blends memoir and reporting in this slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America. After a lifetime of straining against her prescribed place within a white, Protestant world, Lenz left both her marriage and church in the wake of the 2016 election. Unable to compromise any longer with a husband who voted for Donald Trump, and unable to worship at a church that ignored violent white supremacy, divorce and departure become her only path forward. ‘The story of who leaves the church,’ Lenz writes, ‘is just as important as the story of who stays.’ In a series of episodic chapters, the author travels across the Midwest exploring stories of both the belonging and exclusion she finds there. Highlights include her tale of a home church that imploded around questions of authority and submission, and her tracking of a resurgent ‘muscular’ and patriarchal Christianity. She also reveals online and physical communities built by women, queer Christians, and people of color pushed out of conservative evangelical spaces. This work will resonate with any readers interested in understanding American landscapes where white, evangelical Christianity dominates both politics and culture.”

Doxology by Nell Zink

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Doxology: “Beginning in the early days of the 1990s and moving through the years to the 2016 election, Zink’s solid fourth novel (after Nicotine) follows the exploits of the members of a short-lived New York City punk band. Pam and Daniel have a daughter, Flora, before their careers can even begin to take off; meanwhile, Joe, the singer, has a breakthrough when he writes an unexpected hit single. As his fame grows, Pam and Daniel focus on raising Flora. On 9/11, everything changes, not just because of the attacks, but also because of an unexpected death that occurs on the same day. The second half of the book focuses more on Flora’s coming-of-age as she, among other things, becomes a campaign staffer for Jill Stein. As time passes, Zink infuses the novel with as many period details as possible (for instance, ‘bricklike cell phones’), but the repeated intrusion of the narrator explaining the political and cultural developments during the last 30 years becomes a bit overbearing and, worse, mostly unnecessary. Still, Zink’s gifts for characterization and richly evoked periods and places are on display throughout. Zink’s longest novel is her most ambitious and perhaps her most effective.”

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