Johnny Got His Gun: A Novel

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Most Anticipated: The Great Spring 2024 Preview

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April April 2 Women! In! Peril! by Jessie Ren Marshall [F] For starters, excellent title. This debut short story collection from playwright Marshall spans sex bots and space colonists, wives and divorcées, prodding at the many meanings of womanhood. Short story master Deesha Philyaw, also taken by the book's title, calls this one "incisive! Provocative! And utterly satisfying!" —Sophia M. Stewart The Audacity by Ryan Chapman [F] This sophomore effort, after the darkly sublime absurdity of Riots I have Known, trades in the prison industrial complex for the Silicon Valley scam. Chapman has a sharp eye and a sharper wit, and a book billed as a "bracing satire about the implosion of a Theranos-like company, a collapsing marriage, and a billionaires’ 'philanthropy summit'" promises some good, hard laughs—however bitter they may be—at the expense of the über-rich. —John H. Maher The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso, tr. Leonard Mades [F] I first learned about this book from an essay in this publication by Zachary Issenberg, who alternatively calls it Donoso's "masterpiece," "a perfect novel," and "the crowning achievement of the gothic horror genre." He recommends going into the book without knowing too much, but describes it as "a story assembled from the gossip of society’s highs and lows, which revolves and blurs into a series of interlinked nightmares in which people lose their memory, their sex, or even their literal organs." —SMS Globetrotting ed. Duncan Minshull [NF] I'm a big walker, so I won't be able to resist this assemblage of 50 writers—including Edith Wharton, Katharine Mansfield, Helen Garner, and D.H. Lawrence—recounting their various journeys by foot, edited by Minshull, the noted walker-writer-anthologist behind The Vintage Book of Walking (2000) and Where My Feet Fall (2022). —SMS All Things Are Too Small by Becca Rothfeld [NF] Hieronymus Bosch, eat your heart out! The debut book from Rothfeld, nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post, celebrates our appetite for excess in all its material, erotic, and gluttonous glory. Covering such disparate subjects from decluttering to David Cronenberg, Rothfeld looks at the dire cultural—and personal—consequences that come with adopting a minimalist sensibility and denying ourselves pleasure. —Daniella Fishman A Good Happy Girl by Marissa Higgins [F] Higgins, a regular contributor here at The Millions, debuts with a novel of a young woman who is drawn into an intense and all-consuming emotional and sexual relationship with a married lesbian couple. Halle Butler heaps on the praise for this one: “Sometimes I could not believe how easily this book moved from gross-out sadism into genuine sympathy. Totally surprising, totally compelling. I loved it.” —SMS City Limits by Megan Kimble [NF] As a Los Angeleno who is steadily working my way through The Power Broker, this in-depth investigation into the nation's freeways really calls to me. (Did you know Robert Moses couldn't drive?) Kimble channels Caro by locating the human drama behind freeways and failures of urban planning. —SMS We Loved It All by Lydia Millet [NF] Planet Earth is a pretty awesome place to be a human, with its beaches and mountains, sunsets and birdsong, creatures great and small. Millet, a creative director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, infuses her novels with climate grief and cautions against extinction, and in this nonfiction meditation, she makes a case for a more harmonious coexistence between our species and everybody else in the natural world. If a nostalgic note of “Auld Lang Syne” trembles in Millet’s title, her personal anecdotes and public examples call for meaningful environmental action from local to global levels. —Nathalie op de Beeck Like Love by Maggie Nelson [NF] The new book from Nelson, one of the most towering public intellectuals alive today, collects 20 years of her work—including essays, profiles, and reviews—that cover disparate subjects, from Prince and Kara Walker to motherhood and queerness. For my fellow Bluets heads, this will be essential reading. —SMS Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal, tr. Robin Moger [NF] Mersal, one of the preeminent poets of the Arabic-speaking world, recovers the life, work, and legacy of the late Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat in this biographical detective story. Mapping the psyche of al-Zayyat, who died by suicide in 1963, alongside her own, Mersal blends literary mystery and memoir to produce a wholly original portrait of two women writers. —SMS The Letters of Emily Dickinson ed. Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell [NF] The letters of Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest and most beguiling of American poets, are collected here for the first time in nearly 60 years. Her correspondence not only gives access to her inner life and social world, but reveal her to be quite the prose stylist. "In these letters," says Jericho Brown, "we see the life of a genius unfold." Essential reading for any Dickinson fan. —SMS April 9 Short War by Lily Meyer [F] The debut novel from Meyer, a critic and translator, reckons with the United States' political intervention in South America through the stories of two generations: a young couple who meet in 1970s Santiago, and their American-born child spending a semester Buenos Aires. Meyer is a sharp writer and thinker, and a great translator from the Spanish; I'm looking forward to her fiction debut. —SMS There's Going to Be Trouble by Jen Silverman [F] Silverman's third novel spins a tale of an American woman named Minnow who is drawn into a love affair with a radical French activist—a romance that, unbeknown to her, mirrors a relationship her own draft-dodging father had against the backdrop of the student movements of the 1960s. Teasing out the intersections of passion and politics, There's Going to Be Trouble is "juicy and spirited" and "crackling with excitement," per Jami Attenberg. —SMS Table for One by Yun Ko-eun, tr. Lizzie Buehler [F] I thoroughly enjoyed Yun Ko-eun's 2020 eco-thriller The Disaster Tourist, also translated by Buehler, so I'm excited for her new story collection, which promises her characteristic blend of mundanity and surrealism, all in the name of probing—and poking fun—at the isolation and inanity of modern urban life. —SMS Playboy by Constance Debré, tr. Holly James [NF] The prequel to the much-lauded Love Me Tender, and the first volume in Debré's autobiographical trilogy, Playboy's incisive vignettes explore the author's decision to abandon her marriage and career and pursue the precarious life of a writer, which she once told Chris Kraus was "a bit like Saint Augustine and his conversion." Virginie Despentes is a fan, so I'll be checking this out. —SMS Native Nations by Kathleen DuVal [NF] DuVal's sweeping history of Indigenous North America spans a millennium, beginning with the ancient cities that once covered the continent and ending with Native Americans' continued fight for sovereignty. A study of power, violence, and self-governance, Native Nations is an exciting contribution to a new canon of North American history from an Indigenous perspective, perfect for fans of Ned Blackhawk's The Rediscovery of America. —SMS Personal Score by Ellen van Neerven [NF] I’ve always been interested in books that drill down on a specific topic in such a way that we also learn something unexpected about the world around us. Australian writer Van Neerven's sports memoir is so much more than that, as they explore the relationship between sports and race, gender, and sexuality—as well as the paradox of playing a colonialist sport on Indigenous lands. Two Dollar Radio, which is renowned for its edgy list, is publishing this book, so I know it’s going to blow my mind. —Claire Kirch April 16 The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins by Sonny Rollins [NF] The musings, recollections, and drawings of jazz legend Sonny Rollins are collected in this compilation of his precious notebooks, which he began keeping in 1959, the start of what would become known as his “Bridge Years,” during which he would practice at all hours on the Williamsburg Bridge. Rollins chronicles everything from his daily routine to reflections on music theory and the philosophical underpinnings of his artistry. An indispensable look into the mind and interior life of one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of all time. —DF Henry Henry by Allen Bratton [F] Bratton’s ambitious debut reboots Shakespeare’s Henriad, landing Hal Lancaster, who’s in line to be the 17th Duke of Lancaster, in the alcohol-fueled queer party scene of 2014 London. Hal’s identity as a gay man complicates his aristocratic lineage, and his dalliances with over-the-hill actor Jack Falstaff and promising romance with one Harry Percy, who shares a name with history’s Hotspur, will have English majors keeping score. Don’t expect a rom-com, though. Hal’s fraught relationship with his sexually abusive father, and the fates of two previous gay men from the House of Lancaster, lend gravity to this Bard-inspired take. —NodB Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek [F] Graywolf always publishes books that make me gasp in awe and this debut novel, by the author of the entrancing 2020 story collection Imaginary Museums, sounds like it’s going to keep me awake at night as well. It’s a tale about a young woman who’s lost her way and writes a letter to a long-dead ballet dancer—who then visits her, and sets off a string of strange occurrences. —CK Norma by Sarah Mintz [F] Mintz's debut novel follows the titular widow as she enjoys her newfound freedom by diving headfirst into her surrounds, both IRL and online. Justin Taylor says, "Three days ago I didn’t know Sarah Mintz existed; now I want to know where the hell she’s been all my reading life. (Canada, apparently.)" —SMS What Kingdom by Fine Gråbøl, tr. Martin Aitken [F] A woman in a psychiatric ward dreams of "furniture flickering to life," a "chair that greets you," a "bookshelf that can be thrown on like an apron." This sounds like the moving answer to the otherwise puzzling question, "What if the Kantian concept of ding an sich were a novel?" —JHM Weird Black Girls by Elwin Cotman [F] Cotman, the author of three prior collections of speculative short stories, mines the anxieties of Black life across these seven tales, each of them packed with pop culture references and supernatural conceits. Kelly Link calls Cotman's writing "a tonic to ward off drabness and despair." —SMS Presence by Tracy Cochran [NF] Last year marked my first earnest attempt at learning to live more mindfully in my day-to-day, so I was thrilled when this book serendipitously found its way into my hands. Cochran, a New York-based meditation teacher and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner of 50 years, delivers 20 psycho-biographical chapters on recognizing the importance of the present, no matter how mundane, frustrating, or fortuitous—because ultimately, she says, the present is all we have. —DF Committed by Suzanne Scanlon [NF] Scanlon's memoir uses her own experience of mental illness to explore the enduring trope of the "madwoman," mining the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, and others for insights into the long literary tradition of women in psychological distress. The blurbers for this one immediately caught my eye, among them Natasha Trethewey, Amina Cain, and Clancy Martin, who compares Scanlon's work here to that of Marguerite Duras. —SMS Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman [NF] This science memoir explores Zimmerman's journey to botany, a now endangered field. Interwoven with Zimmerman's experiences as a student and a mother is an impassioned argument for botany's continued relevance and importance against the backdrop of climate change—a perfect read for gardeners, plant lovers, or anyone with an affinity for the natural world. —SMS April 23 Reboot by Justin Taylor [F] Extremely online novels, as a rule, have become tiresome. But Taylor has long had a keen eye for subcultural quirks, so it's no surprise that PW's Alan Scherstuhl says that "reading it actually feels like tapping into the internet’s best celeb gossip, fiercest fandom outrages, and wildest conspiratorial rabbit holes." If that's not a recommendation for the Book Twitter–brained reader in you, what is? —JHM Divided Island by Daniela Tarazona, tr. Lizzie Davis and Kevin Gerry Dunn [F] A story of multiple personalities and grief in fragments would be an easy sell even without this nod from Álvaro Enrigue: "I don't think that there is now, in Mexico, a literary mind more original than Daniela Tarazona's." More original than Mario Bellatin, or Cristina Rivera Garza? This we've gotta see. —JHM Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other by Danielle Dutton [NF] Coffee House Press has for years relished its reputation for publishing “experimental” literature, and this collection of short stories and essays about literature and art and the strangeness of our world is right up there with the rest of Coffee House’s edgiest releases. Don’t be fooled by the simple cover art—Dutton’s work is always formally inventive, refreshingly ambitious, and totally brilliant. —CK I Just Keep Talking by Nell Irvin Painter [NF] I first encountered Nell Irvin Painter in graduate school, as I hung out with some Americanists who were her students. Painter was always a dazzling, larger-than-life figure, who just exuded power and brilliance. I am so excited to read this collection of her essays on history, literature, and politics, and how they all intersect. The fact that this collection contains Painter’s artwork is a big bonus. —CK April 30 Real Americans by Rachel Khong [F] The latest novel from Khong, the author of Goodbye, Vitamin, explores class dynamics and the illusory American Dream across generations. It starts out with a love affair between an impoverished Chinese American woman from an immigrant family and an East Coast elite from a wealthy family, before moving us along 21 years: 15-year-old Nick knows that his single mother is hiding something that has to do with his biological father and thus, his identity. C Pam Zhang deems this "a book of rare charm," and Andrew Sean Greer calls it "gorgeous, heartfelt, soaring, philosophical and deft." —CK The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby [NF] Huge thanks to Bebe Neuwirth for putting this book on my radar (she calls it "fantastic") with additional gratitude to Margo Jefferson for sealing the deal (she calls it "riveting"). Valby's group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world. —SMS Appreciation Post by Tara Ward [NF] Art historian Ward writes toward an art history of Instagram in Appreciation Post, which posits that the app has profoundly shifted our long-established ways of interacting with images. Packed with cultural critique and close reading, the book synthesizes art history, gender studies, and media studies to illuminate the outsize role that images play in all of our lives. —SMS May May 7 Bad Seed by Gabriel Carle, tr. Heather Houde [F] Carle’s English-language debut contains echoes of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son and Mariana Enriquez’s gritty short fiction. This story collection haunting but cheeky, grim but hopeful: a student with HIV tries to avoid temptation while working at a bathhouse; an inebriated friend group witnesses San Juan go up in literal flames; a sexually unfulfilled teen drowns out their impulses by binging TV shows. Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón calls this “an extraordinary literary debut.” —Liv Albright The Lady Waiting by Magdalena Zyzak [F] Zyzak’s sophomore novel is a nail-biting delight. When Viva, a young Polish émigré, has a chance encounter with an enigmatic gallerist named Bobby, Viva’s life takes a cinematic turn. Turns out, Bobby and her husband have a hidden agenda—they plan to steal a Vermeer, with Viva as their accomplice. Further complicating things is the inevitable love triangle that develops among them. Victor LaValle calls this “a superb accomplishment," and Percival Everett says, "This novel pops—cosmopolitan, sexy, and funny." —LA América del Norte by Nicolás Medina Mora [F] Pitched as a novel that "blends the Latin American traditions of Roberto Bolaño and Fernanda Melchor with the autofiction of U.S. writers like Ben Lerner and Teju Cole," Mora's debut follows a young member of the Mexican elite as he wrestles with questions of race, politics, geography, and immigration. n+1 co-editor Marco Roth calls Mora "the voice of the NAFTA generation, and much more." —SMS How It Works Out by Myriam Lacroix [F] LaCroix's debut novel is the latest in a strong early slate of novels for the Overlook Press in 2024, and follows a lesbian couple as their relationship falls to pieces across a number of possible realities. The increasingly fascinating and troubling potentialities—B-list feminist celebrity, toxic employer-employee tryst, adopting a street urchin, cannibalism as relationship cure—form a compelling image of a complex relationship in multiversal hypotheticals. —JHM Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang [F] Ting's debut novel, which spans two continents and three timelines, follows two gay men in rural China—and, later, New York City's Chinatown—who frequent the Workers' Cinema, a movie theater where queer men cruise for love. Robert Jones, Jr. praises this one as "the unforgettable work of a patient master," and Jessamine Chan calls it "not just an extraordinary debut, but a future classic." —SMS First Love by Lilly Dancyger [NF] Dancyger's essay collection explores the platonic romances that bloom between female friends, giving those bonds the love-story treatment they deserve. Centering each essay around a formative female friendship, and drawing on everything from Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath to the "sad girls" of Tumblr, Dancyger probes the myriad meanings and iterations of friendship, love, and womanhood. —SMS See Loss See Also Love by Yukiko Tominaga [F] In this impassioned debut, we follow Kyoko, freshly widowed and left to raise her son alone. Through four vignettes, Kyoko must decide how to raise her multiracial son, whether to remarry or stay husbandless, and how to deal with life in the face of loss. Weike Wang describes this one as “imbued with a wealth of wisdom, exploring the languages of love and family.” —DF The Novices of Lerna by Ángel Bonomini, tr. Jordan Landsman [F] The Novices of Lerna is Landsman's translation debut, and what a way to start out: with a work by an Argentine writer in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares whose work has never been translated into English. Judging by the opening of this short story, also translated by Landsman, Bonomini's novel of a mysterious fellowship at a Swiss university populated by doppelgängers of the protagonist is unlikely to disappoint. —JHM Black Meme by Legacy Russell [NF] Russell, best known for her hit manifesto Glitch Feminism, maps Black visual culture in her latest. Black Meme traces the history of Black imagery from 1900 to the present, from the photograph of Emmett Till published in JET magazine to the footage of Rodney King's beating at the hands of the LAPD, which Russell calls the first viral video. Per Margo Jefferson, "You will be galvanized by Legacy Russell’s analytic brilliance and visceral eloquence." —SMS The Eighth Moon by Jennifer Kabat [NF] Kabat's debut memoir unearths the history of the small Catskills town to which she relocated in 2005. The site of a 19th-century rural populist uprising, and now home to a colorful cast of characters, the Appalachian community becomes a lens through which Kabat explores political, economic, and ecological issues, mining the archives and the work of such writers as Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Hardwick along the way. —SMS Stories from the Center of the World ed. Jordan Elgrably [F] Many in America hold onto broad, centuries-old misunderstandings of Arab and Muslim life and politics that continue to harm, through both policy and rhetoric, a perpetually embattled and endangered region. With luck, these 25 tales by writers of Middle Eastern and North African origin might open hearts and minds alike. —JHM An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children by Jamaica Kincaid and Kara Walker [NF] Two of the most brilliant minds on the planet—writer Jamaica Kincaid and visual artist Kara Walker—have teamed up! On a book! About plants! A dream come true. Details on this slim volume are scant—see for yourself—but I'm counting down the minutes till I can read it all the same. —SMS Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. Angela Rodel [F] I'll be honest: I would pick up this book—by the International Booker Prize–winning author of Time Shelter—for the title alone. But also, the book is billed as a deeply personal meditation on both Communist Bulgaria and Greek myth, so—yep, still picking this one up. —JHM May 14 This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud [F] I read an ARC of this enthralling fictionalization of Messud’s family history—people wandering the world during much of the 20th century, moving from Algeria to France to North America— and it is quite the story, with a postscript that will smack you on the side of the head and make you re-think everything you just read. I can't recommend this enough. —CK Woodworm by Layla Martinez, tr. Sophie Hughes and Annie McDermott [F] Martinez’s debut novel takes cabin fever to the max in this story of a grandmother,  granddaughter, and their haunted house, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. As the story unfolds, so do the house’s secrets, the two women must learn to collaborate with the malevolent spirits living among them. Mariana Enriquez says that this "tense, chilling novel tells a story of specters, class war, violence, and loneliness, as naturally as if the witches had dictated this lucid, terrible nightmare to Martínez themselves.” —LA Self Esteem and the End of the World by Luke Healy [NF] Ah, writers writing about writing. A tale as old as time, and often timeworn to boot. But graphic novelists graphically noveling about graphic novels? (Verbing weirds language.) It still feels fresh to me! Enter Healy's tale of "two decades of tragicomic self-discovery" following a protagonist "two years post publication of his latest book" and "grappling with his identity as the world crumbles." —JHM All Fours by Miranda July [F] In excruciating, hilarious detail, All Fours voices the ethically dubious thoughts and deeds of an unnamed 45-year-old artist who’s worried about aging and her capacity for desire. After setting off on a two-week round-trip drive from Los Angeles to New York City, the narrator impulsively checks into a motel 30 miles from her home and only pretends to be traveling. Her flagrant lies, unapologetic indolence, and semi-consummated seduction of a rent-a-car employee set the stage for a liberatory inquisition of heteronorms and queerness. July taps into the perimenopause zeitgeist that animates Jen Beagin’s Big Swiss and Melissa Broder’s Death Valley. —NodB Love Junkie by Robert Plunket [F] When a picture-perfect suburban housewife's life is turned upside down, a chance brush with New York City's gay scene launches her into gainful, albeit unconventional, employment. Set at the dawn of the AIDs epidemic, Mimi Smithers, described as a "modern-day Madame Bovary," goes from planning parties in Westchester to selling used underwear with a Manhattan porn star. As beloved as it is controversial, Plunket's 1992 cult novel will get a much-deserved second life thanks to this reissue by New Directions. (Maybe this will finally galvanize Madonna, who once optioned the film rights, to finally make that movie.) —DF Tomorrowing by Terry Bisson [F] The newest volume in Duke University’s Practices series collects for the first time the late Terry Bisson’s Locus column "This Month in History," which ran for two decades. In it, the iconic "They’re Made Out of Meat" author weaves an alt-history of a world almost parallel to ours, featuring AI presidents, moon mountain hikes, a 196-year-old Walt Disney’s resurrection, and a space pooch on Mars. This one promises to be a pure spectacle of speculative fiction. —DF Chop Fry Watch Learn by Michelle T. King [NF] A large portion of the American populace still confuses Chinese American food with Chinese food. What a delight, then, to discover this culinary history of the worldwide dissemination of that great cuisine—which moonlights as a biography of Chinese cookbook and TV cooking program pioneer Fu Pei-mei. —JHM On the Couch ed. Andrew Blauner [NF] André Aciman, Susie Boyt, Siri Hustvedt, Rivka Galchen, and Colm Tóibín are among the 25 literary luminaries to contribute essays on Freud and his complicated legacy to this lively volume, edited by writer, editor, and literary agent Blauner. Taking tacts both personal and psychoanalytical, these essays paint a fresh, full picture of Freud's life, work, and indelible cultural impact. —SMS Another Word for Love by Carvell Wallace [NF] Wallace is one of the best journalists (and tweeters) working today, so I'm really looking forward to his debut memoir, which chronicles growing up Black and queer in America, and navigating the world through adulthood. One of the best writers working today, Kiese Laymon, calls Another Word for Love as “One of the most soulfully crafted memoirs I’ve ever read. I couldn’t figure out how Carvell Wallace blurred time, region, care, and sexuality into something so different from anything I’ve read before." —SMS The Devil's Best Trick by Randall Sullivan [NF] A cultural history interspersed with memoir and reportage, Sullivan's latest explores our ever-changing understandings of evil and the devil, from Egyptian gods and the Book of Job to the Salem witch trials and Black Mass ceremonies. Mining the work of everyone from Zoraster, Plato, and John Milton to Edgar Allen Poe, Aleister Crowley, and Charles Baudelaire, this sweeping book chronicles evil and the devil in their many forms. --SMS The Book Against Death by Elias Canetti, tr. Peter Filkins [NF] In this newly-translated collection, Nobel laureate Canetti, who once called himself death's "mortal enemy," muses on all that death inevitably touches—from the smallest ant to the Greek gods—and condemns death as a byproduct of war and despots' willingness to use death as a pathway to power. By means of this book's very publication, Canetti somewhat succeeds in staving off death himself, ensuring that his words live on forever. —DF Rise of a Killah by Ghostface Killah [NF] "Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to the Romans while Jesus slept?" Ghostface Killah has always asked the big questions. Here's another one: Who needs to read a blurb on a literary site to convince them to read Ghost's memoir? —JHM May 21 Exhibit by R.O. Kwon [F] It's been six years since Kwon's debut, The Incendiaries, hit shelves, and based on that book's flinty prose alone, her latest would be worth a read. But it's also a tale of awakening—of its protagonist's latent queerness, and of the "unquiet spirit of an ancestor," that the author herself calls so "shot through with physical longing, queer lust, and kink" that she hopes her parents will never read it. Tantalizing enough for you? —JHM Cecilia by K-Ming Chang [F] Chang, the author of Bestiary, Gods of Want, and Organ Meats, returns with this provocative and oft-surreal novella. While the story is about two childhood friends who became estranged after a bizarre sexual encounter but re-connect a decade later, it’s also an exploration of how the human body and its excretions can be both pleasurable and disgusting. —CK The Great State of West Florida by Kent Wascom [F] The Great State of West Florida is Wascom's latest gothicomic novel set on Florida's apocalyptic coast. A gritty, ominous book filled with doomed Floridians, the passages fly by with sentences that delight in propulsive excess. In the vein of Thomas McGuane's early novels or Brian De Palma's heyday, this stylized, savory, and witty novel wields pulp with care until it blooms into a new strain of American gothic. —Zachary Issenberg Cartoons by Kit Schluter [F] Bursting with Kafkaesque absurdism and a hearty dab of abstraction, Schluter’s Cartoons is an animated vignette of life's minutae. From the ravings of an existential microwave to a pencil that is afraid of paper, Schluter’s episodic outré oozes with animism and uncanniness. A grand addition to City Light’s repertoire, it will serve as a zany reminder of the lengths to which great fiction can stretch. —DF May 28 Lost Writings by Mina Loy, ed. Karla Kelsey [F] In the early 20th century, avant-garde author, visual artist, and gallerist Mina Loy (1882–1966) led an astonishing creative life amid European and American modernist circles; she satirized Futurists, participated in Surrealist performance art, and created paintings and assemblages in addition to writing about her experiences in male-dominated fields of artistic practice. Diligent feminist scholars and art historians have long insisted on her cultural significance, yet the first Loy retrospective wasn’t until 2023. Now Karla Kelsey, a poet and essayist, unveils two never-before-published, autobiographical midcentury manuscripts by Loy, The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air, written from the 1930s to the 1950s. It's never a bad time to be re-rediscovered. —NodB I'm a Fool to Want You by Camila Sosa Villada, tr. Kit Maude [F] Villada, whose debut novel Bad Girls, also translated by Maude, captured the travesti experience in Argentina, returns with a short story collection that runs the genre gamut from gritty realism and social satire to science fiction and fantasy. The throughline is Villada's boundless imagination, whether she's conjuring the chaos of the Mexican Inquisition or a trans sex worker befriending a down-and-out Billie Holiday. Angie Cruz calls this "one of my favorite short-story collections of all time." —SMS The Editor by Sara B. Franklin [NF] Franklin's tenderly written and meticulously researched biography of Judith Jones—the legendary Knopf editor who worked with such authors as John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Tyler, and, perhaps most consequentially, Julia Child—was largely inspired by Franklin's own friendship with Jones in the final years of her life, and draws on a rich trove of interviews and archives. The Editor retrieves Jones from the margins of publishing history and affirms her essential role in shaping the postwar cultural landscape, from fiction to cooking and beyond. —SMS The Book-Makers by Adam Smyth [NF] A history of the book told through 18 microbiographies of particularly noteworthy historical personages who made them? If that's not enough to convince you, consider this: the small press is represented here by Nancy Cunard, the punchy and enormously influential founder of Hours Press who romanced both Aldous Huxley and Ezra Pound, knew Hemingway and Joyce and Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams, and has her own MI5 file. Also, the subject of the binding chapter is named "William Wildgoose." —JHM June June 4 The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan [F] A gay Hungarian immigrant writing crappy monster movies in the McCarthy-era Hollywood studio system gets swept up by a famous actress and brought to her estate in Malibu to write what he really cares about—and realizes he can never escape his traumatic past. Sunset Boulevard is shaking. —JHM A Cage Went in Search of a Bird [F] This collection brings together a who's who of literary writers—10 of them, to be precise— to write Kafka fanfiction, from Joshua Cohen to Yiyun Li. Then it throws in weirdo screenwriting dynamo Charlie Kaufman, for good measure. A boon for Kafkaheads everywhere. —JHM We Refuse by Kellie Carter Jackson [NF] Jackson, a historian and professor at Wellesley College, explores the past and present of Black resistance to white supremacy, from work stoppages to armed revolt. Paying special attention to acts of resistance by Black women, Jackson attempts to correct the historical record while plotting a path forward. Jelani Cobb describes this "insurgent history" as "unsparing, erudite, and incisive." —SMS Holding It Together by Jessica Calarco [NF] Sociologist Calarco's latest considers how, in lieu of social safety nets, the U.S. has long relied on women's labor, particularly as caregivers, to hold society together. Calarco argues that while other affluent nations cover the costs of care work and direct significant resources toward welfare programs, American women continue to bear the brunt of the unpaid domestic labor that keeps the nation afloat. Anne Helen Petersen calls this "a punch in the gut and a call to action." —SMS Miss May Does Not Exist by Carrie Courogen [NF] A biography of Elaine May—what more is there to say? I cannot wait to read this chronicle of May's life, work, and genius by one of my favorite writers and tweeters. Claire Dederer calls this "the biography Elaine May deserves"—which is to say, as brilliant as she was. —SMS Fire Exit by Morgan Talty [F] Talty, whose gritty story collection Night of the Living Rez was garlanded with awards, weighs the concept of blood quantum—a measure that federally recognized tribes often use to determine Indigenous membership—in his debut novel. Although Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, his narrator is on the outside looking in, a working-class white man named Charles who grew up on Maine’s Penobscot Reservation with a Native stepfather and friends. Now Charles, across the river from the reservation and separated from his biological daughter, who lives there, ponders his exclusion in a novel that stokes controversy around the terms of belonging. —NodB June 11 The Material by Camille Bordas [F] My high school English teacher, a somewhat dowdy but slyly comical religious brother, had a saying about teaching high school students: "They don't remember the material, but they remember the shtick." Leave it to a well-named novel about stand-up comedy (by the French author of How to Behave in a Crowd) to make you remember both. --SMS Ask Me Again by Clare Sestanovich [F] Sestanovich follows up her debut story collection, Objects of Desire, with a novel exploring a complicated friendship over the years. While Eva and Jamie are seemingly opposites—she's a reserved South Brooklynite, while he's a brash Upper Manhattanite—they bond over their innate curiosity. Their paths ultimately diverge when Eva settles into a conventional career as Jamie channels his rebelliousness into politics. Ask Me Again speaks to anyone who has ever wondered whether going against the grain is in itself a matter of privilege. Jenny Offill calls this "a beautifully observed and deeply philosophical novel, which surprises and delights at every turn." —LA Disordered Attention by Claire Bishop [NF] Across four essays, art historian and critic Bishop diagnoses how digital technology and the attention economy have changed the way we look at art and performance today, identifying trends across the last three decades. A perfect read for fans of Anna Kornbluh's Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism (also from Verso). War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, tr. Charlotte Mandell [F] For years, literary scholars mourned the lost manuscripts of Céline, the acclaimed and reviled French author whose work was stolen from his Paris apartment after he fled to Germany in 1944, fearing punishment for his collaboration with the Nazis. But, with the recent discovery of those fabled manuscripts, War is now seeing the light of day thanks to New Directions (for anglophone readers, at least—the French have enjoyed this one since 2022 courtesy of Gallimard). Adam Gopnik writes of War, "A more intense realization of the horrors of the Great War has never been written." —DF The Uptown Local by Cory Leadbeater [NF] In his debut memoir, Leadbeater revisits the decade he spent working as Joan Didion's personal assistant. While he enjoyed the benefits of working with Didion—her friendship and mentorship, the more glamorous appointments on her social calendar—he was also struggling with depression, addiction, and profound loss. Leadbeater chronicles it all in what Chloé Cooper Jones calls "a beautiful catalog of twin yearnings: to be seen and to disappear; to belong everywhere and nowhere; to go forth and to return home, and—above all else—to love and to be loved." —SMS Out of the Sierra by Victoria Blanco [NF] Blanco weaves storytelling with old-fashioned investigative journalism to spotlight the endurance of Mexico's Rarámuri people, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in North America, in the face of environmental disasters, poverty, and the attempts to erase their language and culture. This is an important book for our times, dealing with pressing issues such as colonialism, migration, climate change, and the broken justice system. —CK Any Person Is the Only Self by Elisa Gabbert [NF] Gabbert is one of my favorite living writers, whether she's deconstructing a poem or tweeting about Seinfeld. Her essays are what I love most, and her newest collection—following 2020's The Unreality of Memory—sees Gabbert in rare form: witty and insightful, clear-eyed and candid. I adored these essays, and I hope (the inevitable success of) this book might augur something an essay-collection renaissance. (Seriously! Publishers! Where are the essay collections!) —SMS Tehrangeles by Porochista Khakpour [F] Khakpour's wit has always been keen, and it's hard to imagine a writer better positioned to take the concept of Shahs of Sunset and make it literary. "Like Little Women on an ayahuasca trip," says Kevin Kwan, "Tehrangeles is delightfully twisted and heartfelt."  —JHM Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell by Ann Powers [NF] The moment I saw this book's title—which comes from the opening (and, as it happens, my favorite) track on Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece Blue—I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year. Powers, one of the very best music critics we've got, masterfully guides readers through Mitchell's life and work at a fascinating slant, her approach both sweeping and intimate as she occupies the dual roles of biographer and fan. —SMS All Desire Is a Desire for Being by René Girard, ed. Cynthia L. Haven [NF] I'll be honest—the title alone stirs something primal in me. In honor of Girard's centennial, Penguin Classics is releasing a smartly curated collection of his most poignant—and timely—essays, touching on everything from violence to religion to the nature of desire. Comprising essays selected by the scholar and literary critic Cynthia L. Haven, who is also the author of the first-ever biographical study of Girard, Evolution of Desire, this book is "essential reading for Girard devotees and a perfect entrée for newcomers," per Maria Stepanova. —DF June 18 Craft by Ananda Lima [F] Can you imagine a situation in which interconnected stories about a writer who sleeps with the devil at a Halloween party and can't shake him over the following decades wouldn't compel? Also, in one of the stories, New York City’s Penn Station is an analogue for hell, which is both funny and accurate. —JHM Parade by Rachel Cusk [F] Rachel Cusk has a new novel, her first in three years—the anticipation is self-explanatory. —SMS Little Rot by Akwaeke Emezi [F] Multimedia polymath and gender-norm disrupter Emezi, who just dropped an Afropop EP under the name Akwaeke, examines taboo and trauma in their creative work. This literary thriller opens with an upscale sex party and escalating violence, and although pre-pub descriptions leave much to the imagination (promising “the elite underbelly of a Nigerian city” and “a tangled web of sex and lies and corruption”), Emezi can be counted upon for an ambience of dread and a feverish momentum. —NodB When the Clock Broke by John Ganz [NF] I was having a conversation with multiple brilliant, thoughtful friends the other day, and none of them remembered the year during which the Battle of Waterloo took place. Which is to say that, as a rule, we should all learn our history better. So it behooves us now to listen to John Ganz when he tells us that all the wackadoodle fascist right-wing nonsense we can't seem to shake from our political system has been kicking around since at least the early 1990s. —JHM Night Flyer by Tiya Miles [NF] Miles is one of our greatest living historians and a beautiful writer to boot, as evidenced by her National Book Award–winning book All That She Carried. Her latest is a reckoning with the life and legend of Harriet Tubman, which Miles herself describes as an "impressionistic biography." As in all her work, Miles fleshes out the complexity, humanity, and social and emotional world of her subject. Tubman biographer Catherine Clinton says Miles "continues to captivate readers with her luminous prose, her riveting attention to detail, and her continuing genius to bring the past to life." —SMS God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer by Joseph Earl Thomas [F] Thomas's debut novel comes just two years after a powerful memoir of growing up Black, gay, nerdy, and in poverty in 1990s Philadelphia. Here, he returns to themes and settings that in that book, Sink, proved devastating, and throws post-service military trauma into the mix. —JHM June 25 The Garden Against Time by Olivia Laing [NF] I've been a fan of Laing's since The Lonely City, a formative read for a much-younger me (and I'd suspect for many Millions readers), so I'm looking forward to her latest, an inquiry into paradise refracted through the experience of restoring an 18th-century garden at her home the English countryside. As always, her life becomes a springboard for exploring big, thorny ideas (no pun intended)—in this case, the possibilities of gardens and what it means to make paradise on earth. —SMS Cue the Sun! by Emily Nussbaum [NF] Emily Nussbaum is pretty much the reason I started writing. Her 2019 collection of television criticism, I Like to Watch, was something of a Bible for college-aged me (and, in fact, was the first book I ever reviewed), and I've been anxiously awaiting her next book ever since. It's finally arrived, in the form of an utterly devourable cultural history of reality TV. Samantha Irby says, "Only Emily Nussbaum could get me to read, and love, a book about reality TV rather than just watching it," and David Grann remarks, "It’s rare for a book to feel alive, but this one does." —SMS Woman of Interest by Tracy O'Neill [NF] O’Neill's first work of nonfiction—an intimate memoir written with the narrative propulsion of a detective novel—finds her on the hunt for her biological mother, who she worries might be dying somewhere in South Korea. As she uncovers the truth about her enigmatic mother with the help of a private investigator, her journey increasingly becomes one of self-discovery. Chloé Cooper Jones writes that Woman of Interest “solidifies her status as one of our greatest living prose stylists.” —LA Dancing on My Own by Simon Wu [NF] New Yorkers reading this list may have witnessed Wu's artful curation at the Brooklyn Museum, or the Whitney, or the Museum of Modern Art. It makes one wonder how much he curated the order of these excellent, wide-ranging essays, which meld art criticism, personal narrative, and travel writing—and count Cathy Park Hong and Claudia Rankine as fans. —JHM [millions_email]

On War and Literature

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While it is not the most wicked injustice of war, it is still a barbarity that so much of our attention is on the murderers and not the murdered. An argument can be made—good, valid, and true—that the names of those who start wars must stay on our lips as a curse, but let others do that, because I don't want to do it now. To focus only on the monsters it is to reduce the innocent dead to corpses. Piles of rubble, of shoes and books and toys, of twisted bodies. We imperil our own conscience if we forget such evidence of life. Which is why I will not tell you the names of the two officers in the Japanese Imperial Army who, according to the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun engaged in a contest to see who could first kill a hundred Chinese civilians during the invasion of Nanjing. According to the paper, one man had killed 106 innocent humans and the other 105, with both lieutenants “going into extra innings." I will not tell you the name of those two officers because I do not know the names of the 211 women, children, and men whom they murdered. I will not tell you the names of these lieutenants because I don't know the names of the 150 additional people they killed the following day. Such atrocities "did not penetrate the world consciousness," writes historian Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, "because the victims themselves had remained silent," and so I will not say the perpetrators names, for they had their own opportunity to speak at their trials. During the six weeks of invasion that started in December of 1937, and 200,000 Chinese civilians were murdered, with at least 20,000 incidences of rape (both numbers are likely lower than what really happened). Robert O. Wilson, an American physician in Nanjing, recorded in his diary that the "slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases of rape and brutality almost beyond belief," and he does. The doctor would testify at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after the war's end; in 1948 that same commission executed the two who were involved in that horrific contest. Whether or not it's good and righteous and just to execute those who commit such crimes, I do not know. As to if it's true or not that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, I have no real opinion. To take any human life makes me uneasy, but I will tell you that deep in my heart, I do not mourn for those two officers on the gallows, nor does the thought of them in Hell bother me, and whatever that says about me is something that I probably should have more concern about. I know that atrocities are committed by normal people, that those two may have grown up in loving families, that they may have delighted in their wives and children. I know that these soldiers were not demons, but that they were humans, and that that is all the more terrifying. "Almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances," Chang writes. Also, important to remember that if everybody is capable of atrocity, only a small percentage of humans actually do so, lest we obscure evil in the gauzy miasma of moral universalism. Yet the question of what drives men to such wickedness is forever unanswerable. Why are some Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele and by contrast others are Mahatma Gandhi or Oscar Romero? Chang's research involved discovering the involvement of German businessman John Rabe who established the Nanking Safety Zone, where through diplomatic immunity he was able to protect civilians and saved 200,000 people. Rabe was also a dedicated member of the Nazi Party. The only thing more mysterious than human beings is grace, whatever the origin of that grace might be. Separate from historical scholarship, intelligence reports, and national security briefings, war literature exists to comprehend the arbitrary nature of grace and damnation. If war literature is written to impart meaning, then all war literature is failure. Nothing is so incomprehensible as war; not logistics, or strategy, battles for land, glory, riches, or liberation, all of which can be perfectly logical, but the actual act of war, of waking up knowing that your life could be taken or that you must take a life. We're told this is our animal nature, but the organized barbarity at Andersonville, or Dachau, or Nanjing has no corollary in the natural world. War literature exists not to impart meaning, but the appearance of it, so to gesture at something beyond this veil of shadows. Something unutterable, and ineffable, and silent, and strange. War literature, at its best, exists not as scripture but as liturgy, not to explain but to remember. Chang writes that "to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice," and such writing ensures that we don't become complicit. Literature replaces the aridness of numbers with the texture of humanity, while somehow grappling with the full scope of an atrocity. When Joseph Stalin was Commissar of Munitions during the enforced famine known as the Holodomor, which killed almost four million Ukrainians in the mid-30s, he told a group of his colleagues that "If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that's only statistics." What is grotesque is that this ruthless theorist of the human abyss was correct. When death tolls mount from the hundreds, to the thousands, to the millions, the brain is only capable of processing so much. But the person that is forgotten is Myshko Cherkasy, who when he died and was to be buried his mother discovered that his grave was already occupied by another child; Michael Kovrak who starved to death in front of his young brother; Olya Sturko forced to give birth upon the wheat fields at a collective farm, who died from after a small amount of food eaten after weeks of starving. Journalist Petro Shovkovytsia wrote in 1933 how for the Soviets, "These were not people, but rather shadows of people. Cut them with the dullest of knives, and you will not get blood to flow from them: beaten, tortured, exhausted." The task of war literature is to transform shadows into pictures, to put flesh upon the bones of mere statistics. To square individual tragedy with the horror of mass atrocity, to mathematically transform the number one into an infinity. Ethically, the writer and their reader must attempt to comprehend that each singular murder is but one of four million. With one or two or three deaths in mind we must try and imagine all of the deaths. Holding to particularity, we must mourn for the multiplicity. That this is by definition impossible does not occlude our responsibility; if anything, it's all the more imperative. What is asked of us is something theological, to grasp towards the enormity of all that which we are incapable of understanding. Every human is a universe; each individual in victory and defeat, love and hatred, desire and revulsion, is more complicated than all great literature, more beautiful than every painting, more true than all of the axioms of philosophy. The human soul is inviolate, and in its own flawed way, a species of perfection. Which is why murder is a sin, and to take millions of lives is a crime against humanity. Arguing that every human is valuable, that we're all equal, that all deserve dignity, security, safety, happiness, love. Rank schmaltz, right? Sentimental affectation, correct? Cliché. Ah, but here's the thing with genuine war literature—the ethical imperative is to understand that cliché is not the antithesis of truth. Another cliché—it might be hackneyed to say that it's impossible to explain war to a child, but that's only because it's impossible to explain war. "The violence of war is random," writes journalist Chris Hedges in War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. "It does not make sense. And many of those who struggle with loss also struggle with the knowledge that the loss was futile and unnecessary." War literature which does something as sacrilegious as to make sense scarcely deserves to be called literature. Reduced to its basest formulation, war is the practice of resolving disagreements, or acquiring land, or erasing humans whom you hate by organizing men with weapons who then kill people until everyone is tired of all the killing, or everyone's dead. That is irrational, stupid, inexplicable, there is no making sense of that and so any honest war literature doesn't concern itself with such theodicies. "When meaning is drawn from killing," notes historian Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, "the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning." A risk in reducing gun and wound to axiom and postulate, bullet to arid argument. You can't summarize a null point of meaning with anything as quotidian as a syllogism. That shining and polished black-jack-booted Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz claimed in On War that war is “a continuation of politics by other means." Perhaps, though often the opposite is just as true. I wouldn't deign to impugn von Clausewitz's instilling of bravery, loyalty, and respect within his troops, of inspecting ammunition, and armories, of evaluating the Cannae model of troop formation in imitation of Hannibal's victory during the Second Punic War, but give me rather that grizzled frontiersman General William Tecumseh Sherman's opinion as he marched all the way to Savannah that "War is hell." Those three words seem at least truthful. War isn't just hell, of course. War is also strategy, war is distraction, war is horror, war is entertainment, war is propaganda, war is spontaneous, war is planned, war is boring, war is exciting, war is oppressive, war is liberatory, war is wasteful, war is necessary, but most of all war is meaningless. At least the actual pulling of the trigger is. Being able to kill a man, the unawareness of if you'll return, the knowledge you may never see your family again, the reality that somebody else might never see theirs again because of you—all of that can't quite be circumscribed by logic or poetry. All war literature must be failed literature because it gestures to where words themselves fail. Such writing tries to express the inexpressible, for the moment that a human takes the life of another language has already broken down. I'm not saying that historians shouldn't investigate the causes of wars, of course not, for the better to prevent them. But the actual act of taking a rifle and from a distance shooting a stranger in the head—that is madness. If logic comes out of war, then war itself is built upon a million illogical acts. All honest war literature is fundamentally anti-war. That's not the same as saying that all war literature must be pacifistic. Kurt Vonnegut's autofiction/science fiction account of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, Norman Mailer's indulgent but trenchant The Naked and the Dead, Joseph Heller's hilarious and terrifying Catch-22, Dalton Trumbo's disturbing account of being caged within one's own destroyed body in Johnny Got His Gun, the German writer Erich Maria Remarque's exquisite account of World War I trench fighting in All Quiet on the Western Front, each and everyone exemplars, each and every one anti-war, each and every one pacifistic, and tellingly each and every one by a veteran. Remarque explained that his book was to be "neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it." But great war literature need not be pacifistic, only anti-war, which is to say that it comprehends barbarity. Two of the most poignant, brutal, and under heralded war novels of mid-century are Martin Booth's horrific Hiroshima Joe and John Horne Burns's The Gallery. Both books concern the ostensible "Good War" against the Axis Powers, with Booth focusing on the war against Japan, and Burns's writing about the occupation of Naples by the Americans. And both, while not arguing against the reasons for the war, focus on brutality enacted against "enemy" civilians, how innocence is never a quality of those who fight, regardless of their side's righteousness. The titular character of Hiroshima Joe is Captain John Sandingham, a British POW captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and witness to the unspeakable horror of the atom bomb. Sandingham observes the incineration of whole city blocks, women and men turned to ash, shadows burnt into sidewalks, and children with skin hanging from their bodies. He sees "what no man should be made to see; he died fearing what we all must fear," a world where there is no distinction between soldier and civilian, where peace itself is conquered. The Gallery also disavows Manichean platitudes in fictionalized vignettes based on the American occupation of his beloved Naples, where the ostensible good guys were involved in extortion, racketeering, rape, murder. Burns's novel is a warning at the dawn of the true American century, that "unless we made some attempt to realize that everyone in the world isn't American, and that not everything American is good, we'll all perish together." It is ironic that  some of the greatest anti-war literature comes from the Second World War, arguably the most morally unassailable battle in human history. A generation after the Great War, and the "combatants were unillusioned from the start," writes editor Sebastian Faulks in the introduction to The Vintage Book of War Fiction. "They knew how gruesome war would be, they knew that they had been dropped into it by inept politicians, but in place of innocent patriotism of their fathers they had a proper moral cause to fight for." If war is necessary, there's still nothing glorious about it. Between country or what's right, at the very least there's something to be said for fighting on behalf of the latter. As for myself, having never been anywhere near a frontline, a trench, or an active battlefield, I'm not a pacifist—merely a coward. There's a difference there as well. In a war of defense or liberation there can be many things—loyalty and courage, honor and fraternity. Glory, however, is invented by poets. War is blood congealing on the dead grass at Flanders Field and brains sprayed across Omaha Beach, it's a gangrenous foot being sawed off at Manassas and bits of flesh dotting Hill 488. "I sing of arms," as Virgil begins The Aeneid, a topic of utmost seriousness since a man first struck another man, our story of creation not in Eden but when Cain slew Abel. Triumph of kings and victory of the nation, glory of soldiers and the shame of the vanquished. Virgil's epic is great poetry, but it's also propaganda, albeit with its own anti-war moments studded like land mines within. The most antique of war literature, even when written to valorize, still has within it the seeds of truth. The Iliad of Homer, whether or not he had experienced war himself, is the great martial epic of valor, and yet within its opening lines there is the honesty which compels him to describe war as "Black and murderous… Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls… bodies to rot as feasts/For dogs and birds." Achilles and Jason, Aeneas and Pallas, may fight with shields and spears, swords and helmets, while today soldiers wear Flak Jacket and brandish M4s, but the same absurd goal is at play—kill the other guy before you get killed. Despite the social Darwinian fallacy that understands people as living in a barely contained state of nature, just three days' worth of good meals away from total anarchy, and to kill a man is a supremely unnatural thing, especially a stranger, particularly one who's done nothing to you. When humanists extol the canon's universalism, they reduce and flatten our differences with the past, and the reality is that we neither love, pray, live, or work like our ancestors in Rome, or Greece, or Babylon, but the score of being made to kill a man—and the resulting wounds —remains similar. That's the principle behind artistic director Bryan Doerries's Theater of War Productions, which stages readings of Greek tragedies like Sophocles's Ajax and Philoctetes for audiences of veterans as a way of coping with trauma. According to Doerries in The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, he has discovered that "people who have come into contact with death, who have faced the darkest aspects of our humanity, who have loved and lost, and who know the meaning of sacrifice, seem to have little trouble relating to these ancient plays. These tragedies are their stories." English professor Elizabeth D. Samet has explored something similar in her teaching U.S. Army cadets among the bucolic red, orange, and brown trees of autumnal West Point. Reading Homer and Virgil, not to mention Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, in a graduate seminar is one thing; teaching it to young women and men who are destined to one day experience such violence requires a different perspective. In her memoir Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Samet writes that "We surrendered rather easily to yet another romantic notion: that meaning is to be found only in misery." Surprisingly neither Doerries nor Samet read or teach war literature as involving spangled glory; the former emphasizes that playwrights such as Sophocles were not authors of morale-boosting propaganda, while the former's contention makes the radical claim that suffering isn't about meaning, that to the contrary it can often be about nothing. And yet suffering must still be endured, and so literature acts not to explain the inexplicable but rather to soothe, to say "You are not alone, this has happened before, this will happen again, not everybody survives but some people do."  "'Forward, the Light Brigade! /Charge for the guns!' he said: /Into the valley of Death /Rode the six hundred," wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1854, mere days after the routing of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and 8th and 11th Hussars during the Crimean War. Few poets seem stuffier than Tennyson; patriotic, formal, traditional, and conservative, his verse ponderously Victorian while across the Atlantic Walt Whitman was breaking meter and Emily Dickinson was reinventing metaphor. All of those exclamation points, that equestrian rhythm, that sickly celebration of valor. Yet even Tennyson drew a distinction between the incompetent men who sent boys to their death, and the boys themselves who "Storm'd at with shot and shell, /Boldly they rode and well, /Into the jaws of Death, /Into the mouth of Hell." This, it could be observed, is still mythological language, Tennyson describing the campaign in the language of harrowing. He chose the wrong genre, for war literature isn't myth, it's horror. What's lacking in Tennyson is the physical experience of war; he describes "Cannon to right of them, /Cannon to left of them, /Cannon behind them… While horse and hero fell, /They that had fought so well." This is basically a boy's fantasy of war. Tennyson might as well be describing soccer. The Poet Laureate wasn't a veteran, and it shows; it's what allows him to ask "When can their glory fade? /O the wild charge they made! /All the world wonder'd. /Honor the charge they made! /Honor the Light Brigade!" Now all that's remembered is a poem more pablum than Parnassus, each of those dead soldiers now forgotten other than for some cenotaphs and memorials in England. What's missing is blood—gouged eyes—protruding bones—first-degree burns—festering bullet wounds—severed hands and crushed bodies. What's missing is the sense that death isn't metaphor or simile or allegory, but that death is just death, a violent one all the more so. Compare Tennyson's verse to Whitman's "The Wound-dresser" from his collection of Civil War lyrics Drum-Taps. Of Quaker pacifist stock, though a vociferous supporter of the Union, Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington DC after hearing of his brother's wounding at Antietam, deciding to stay in the capital where he worked as a nurse in war hospitals. The good, grey poet would tenderly minister to the beautiful boys of American death, wrapping their burns and cuts, setting their broken legs, distributing sweets and occasionally reading his verse to men who undoubtedly had no idea that he was the greatest of American poets. "Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, /Straight and swift to my wounded I go, /Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, /Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground." Whitman is an abolitionist who comprehends that the Confederacy is defeated at Gettysburg and Antietam and nowhere else, but he is not delusional about the cost. Tennyson's Dragoons, Lancets, and Hussars are heroes, whereas Whitman asks in a parenthetical "(was one side so brave? the other was equally brave)." The British poem lacks blood, it lacks corpses, it lacks bodies, replacing them with abstractions. In "The Wound-dresser," Whitman describes "stump of the arm, the amputated hand… the clotted lint… the matter and blood." Whether or not a war is just, or justified, or righteous, or right, Whitman understands that it results in men like the soldier whose "eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, /And has not yet look'd on it." The difference between the poems is that Tennyson described war in terms of glory, and Whitman knows that it's about "clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again." One poem works because it tells the truth and the other one doesn't work because it lies. As Remarque writes in the following century, "A hospital alone shows what war is." Besides, meter, rhythm, and rhyme can be useful, for what war lyrics are more successful than that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose accounts of trench warfare written in the midst of the Great War itself? Owen was a working-class Shropshire lad tutored on Keats, Shelley, and Yeats; Sassoon was from a wealthy Baghdadi Jewish family and was educated at Cambridge. The two read and admired each other, and served at the same time along the crooked, burning gash of the Western Front. As inheritors of a classical English education, both men wrote in a cadence that owes more to the measured traditionalism of Tennyson than the barbaric yawp of Whitman, and yet when war's madness can be barely constrained by formalism, its horrors are all the more pronounced. "Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land," wrote Sassoon in Counter-Attack and Other Poems, "Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows." Almost oracular, but the eloquence of Sassoon's rhetoric belies the horror it describes. From Owen's most famous poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," written in the trenches themselves, he describes watching the burning, disintegrating, acrid death that results when a soldier is hit with mustard gas, for "someone still was yelling out and stumbling, /And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime…/Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, /As under a green sea, I saw him drowning." The Great War surprised the great powers, doddering men who'd amassed massive armies and let their technology outstrip their empathy. A war fought between the first cousins who ruled Britain, Germany, and Russia, offering up as sacrifice millions of young men cooked in mustard and shot at by gatling gun on the barbed wire of broken Europe. Critic Paul Fussell, himself a veteran of World War II, notes in The Great War and Modern Memory that "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected," and the impact of Sassoon and especially Owen's verse is that it exists between the grandiosity of Victorian youth trained on myths of the Light Brigade when compared to the reality of Verdun, Somme, and Gallipoli. When Owen describes the dying man's "every jolt, the blood… gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud /Of vile, incurable soles on innocent tongues," he writes in an idiom where at the literal level of sounds is beautiful. Go ahead, read that bit out loud to yourself, listen to the cadence, the relationship of syllables to each other, the meter, the unforced rhyming, and admit that Owen has used beautiful language to describe an atrocity. And in that ironic gap, valor is erased by degradation. Owen expresses more about battle than propagandists ever could. He would die in 1918 while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. His mother received the telegram on Armistice Day, when bells were ringing in celebration throughout Shrewsbury. "The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est/Pro Patria mori." Who knows what poems have been interrupted by a bullet, what novels disrupted by mortar attack? Some of the surviving lyrics are assembled in Lorrie Goldensohn's remarkable American War Poetry, the first collection of its kind, including verse from colonial wars through Afghanistan, with sections dedicated to overlooked conflicts including the Spanish American War, the Indian Wars, and even the Spanish Civil War. Goldensohn writes that poetry is a way of conveying "battlefield advance and retreat, the daring and courage of leaders and men, as well as the despoliation of territory, the experience of prison camp and the making of refugees, the annihilation and wounding of human flesh, the grieving aftermath." Every emotion is expressed in such verse, from cruel jingoism to fear, from patriotic loyalty to absurdity. Sarah Teasdale considers not the artillery of the Great War, but the silence which follows, for "There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground… And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, /Would scarcely know that we were gone." James Dickey, American Poet Laureate and a veteran of World War II, meditates in incendiary and gasoline, writing of how "All families lie together, though some are burned alive." Rolando Hinojosa recalls American atrocities during the Korean War, how "I don't want to look at the Chinese dead. /There are hundreds of them out there. They died in the city, /They died in the fields and in the hillsides. /They died everywhere." Yusef Komunyakaa presents the haunting experience of searching for the names of dead friends on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where "My black face fades, /hiding inside the black granite."  For sheer, methodical, scientific accuracy, however, and Iraq War veteran Brian Turner's masterpiece from Here, Bullet provides both autopsy report and psychological evaluation. "If a body is what you want, /then here is bone and gristle and flesh." That is what war poetry must be about, "where the world ends, every time." If war requires any genre, it's not drama, or novel, or poetry, but journalism, the bearing witness as to what actually happens when troops cross a border or bullet pierces flesh. Studs Terkel's interviews in The Good War, Philip Gourevitch's harrowing We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families about Rwanda, Aleksander Hemon's evocation of a Sarajevo youth before the wars in The Book of My Lives. Anthony Swofford expresses dark truths in Jarhead, his account of the Marine Corp during the Persian Gulf Invasion, and the fact that "as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers." Waiting for the invasion to begin, and the bored Marines sit in the Kuwaiti desert and watch movies about an earlier confrontation. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone's Platoon, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Swofford is blunt—all of those movies might ostensibly be anti-war, but for the grunts trying to psyche themselves up listening to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries as U.S. helicopters drop napalm doesn't engender pacifism so much as adrenaline. Which is the corollary to all war literature being anti-war, and that's that war literature can't help but be prurient, exploitative, exhibitionistic, pornographic. The moment editing and revision happen, then you've made literature, a polite way of saying something with an agenda, and anything with an agenda is incapable of examining the unvarnished totality of something, especially a black hole like war. A true literature of war has never been written. It might not even be possible. There's been some elision between violence and war in this essay. A sloppiness in that, because all war might be murder, but not all murder is war. Cain killed Abel, by himself. No general directed him. Violence might be natural (though so is cholera), but war is strange. "If wars were fought only by the men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly," notes Swofford. "Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don't want to die so simply for so little." Often war is presented as a bestial return to a state of nature, but it's the exact opposite. With few exceptions, animals don't engage in war, though they kill each other all the time. War is not the daughter of nature, but rather the son of civilization. War is fought by men, but it's demanded by chiefs and priests, Caesars and kings, czars and dictators, generals and presidents. Like many of you, the last few months have had me thinking about W.H. Auden, but not the poem which you're thinking of, but a lesser known verse. Only six short lines constitute "Epitaph from a Tyrant" published in 1940, a year after the invasion of Poland, appearing in Auden's Another Time:  Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;He knew human folly like the back of his hand,And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,And when he cried the little children died in the streets. No human has ever been so physically powerful as to exert the authority which even the smallest war demands, so that the history of war is the history of tyrants somehow compelling men to violence. The Hitlers and Stalins, the Napoleons and Khans. Pharaoh Thutmose III. The earliest written record of war, when the Egyptians crushed the Canaanites 1,457 years before the Common Era. Recorded on a stele are the details of this supposed "campaign of victory which his majesty made to extend the frontiers of Egypt, in valor, in victory, in power, and in justification." We are given laborious, self-satisfied, and grandiose detailing about Thutmose's forces, so that "everything which his majesty did to this town and to that wretched enemy and his wretched army is set down by the individual day and by the individual expedition and by the individual troop commanders." Over eight thousand Canaanites killed, half that many enslaved in the first recorded war. When shall be the last, and under what circumstances? Shall swords be beaten into plowshares or melted into radioactive dust? By a coincidence, Thutmose's army laid siege to the Canaanite garrison at Megiddo, which for separate reasons is today far more known by its Greek name: Armageddon. [millions_email]