Letters. The year began with letters. Well, emails. Jokey work emails that turned, somewhere along the line, to letters—getting-to-know-you letters, then, to love letters. I began to consider paragraph breaks. Thrilled to his name in my inbox. In a smoky restaurant in Mexico City I read one letter again and again, then handed my phone to friends and asked them to read it, asked if they heard what I heard.
I had not received such
letters in many years, and was out of practice.
I had recently moved from a single room in San Francisco where the only books I could keep close were those I taught. It was a year of rediscovering books I had known and not seen in a long time. Collections of poetry I had found in the stacks of now-gone Aardvark Books, the still-there Green Apple.
In winter, I sent him poems by Joanna Klink, poems of light and frost and estuary. He checked out books of poems from the library, sent phone pictures of pages to me: Kyle Dargan. Mary Oliver.
Friends sent me other poems, ones by Maria Hummel. Jon Davis. I saved everything. My phone ran out of room.
More emails. I planned a Summit, an endeavor as big and overshadowing as the word suggests. This required many many emails. Books languished, half-read, on my coffee table. (I am reading them now: among them, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, Peter Kline’s Mirrorforms). Too many browser tabs stayed open. Birthday cards and bills lay unsent on my desk. As if there were a different well of hours to draw from, I also worked to finish my own book. Read my own words over and over until sentences arrived to me on training runs and in dreams, and I understood they were complete.
In spring, he sat in my kitchen and read me Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.” Layli Long Soldier visited campus and read to us from Whereas, then a love poem from her phone.
At the beginning of summer, he found his old copy of The Wind in the Willows. (“This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward.”)
Driving over a pass in the Rockies at the end of an August hailstorm, I read him the bewildering music of Anne Carson’s “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men.” (“From the shadows run mysterious ground lines down into my apparent heart.”) A story of image and estrangement, hers, but perhaps my campaign was one of foils. There we were in the same country. Were we not there to disprove her essay’s theorem?
On a stolen afternoon in fall, we packed sandwiches and library books and headed up Bear Jaw trail. Stolen from emails, I mean. High up in the aspens, I read Jane Hirshfield to him. (“If the leaves. If the rise of the fish”).
On the way back from the Chicago Marathon, I bought Susan Steinberg’s Machine in the airport bookshop, Barbara’s, all while holding the largest McDonald’s ice cream cone ever dispensed at O’Hare. Please patronize Barbara’s; they were very forgiving about the ice cream cone.
After he was asleep, I read Sharon Olds to myself.
On nights he wasn’t there, I thumbed through my old books for articulation, clues to this season. I found myself turning to persona poems (like Amy Gerstler’s Ghost Girl), stories of manners, inward-turned, jar-tight stories of being a woman, or an other woman, of the mind casting around in its now ill-fitting loneliness. Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark and Laurie Colwin’s “Animal Behavior.” I let myself be devastated by tenses (here, Adler’s narrator, Kate): “You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.”
On nights he was there, he read to me from The Once and Future King, a book I taught long ago.
Well, so what? In certain houses, certain years of life, reading to someone and being read to is routine. The default even. But I had not lived in such a year, or house, for many. (“Until you brought me, casually, an hour,” Klink writes.)
Then he read to me. Some nights by headlamp, or perched on a rock over Oak Creek, but most in the plain confines of my beige-walled apartment by the light of an oil lamp he’d cleaned up and given me. Year of long return. Year of song, a voice that is not yours telling you a story. Year I was let back in to the original enchantment of reading a book: a shoulder, feeling the words begin in his chest, breath held as the page turns. A light nearby, not much more than a candle, waiting to be blown out.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rion Amilcar Scott, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Juli Zeh, Susan Steinberg, and more—that are publishing this week.
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The World Doesn’t Require You: “In 11 stories and a novella, Scott returns to the setting of his debut collection, Insurrections: fictional Cross River, Md., which, in an alternate history, is the location of the only successful slave revolt in America. Most stories are set in the present day; the prose is energetic and at times humorous—often uncomfortably so—as stories interrogate racist tropes. ‘The Electric Joy of Service’ and ‘Mercury in Retrograde’ recast the history of master, slave, and revolt in stories about intelligent robots designed with the facial features of lawn jockeys that fail to behave as programmed. In ‘David Sherman, the Last Son of God,’ David, the last (and least exalted) son of God, tries to redeem himself by leading a gospel band at his elder brother’s church. And in the concluding novella, ‘Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,’ set at Cross River’s historically black Freedman’s University, the narrator plots the downfall of his departmental colleague, whose course syllabus and writing assignments grow increasingly entangled with his personal life. Throughout, the characters’ experiences contrast the relative safety of Cross River with the more hostile ground of the once-segregated towns that surround it. It’s clear, however, that threats—whether they’re siren-like water-women, academic saboteurs, or brutal family traditions—can arise anywhere. Scott’s bold and often outlandish imagination makes for stories that may be difficult to define, but whose emotional authenticity is never once in doubt.”
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Trojan War Museum: “The 10 stories in Bucak’s beguiling debut play with traditional narrative forms and explore the author’s Turkish roots. In ‘The History of Girls,’ told in the plural ‘we,’ a group of girls trapped in the rubble of a school explosion from a blown gas line are visited by the ghosts of their dead classmates. ‘An Ottoman Arabesque’ tells the story of 19th-century Ottoman ambassador Khalil Bey via observations on his assortment of erotic artwork, while the collection’s title story spans centuries as Apollo wanders the Earth, visiting different Trojan War museums and ruminating on the traumas of battle. In ‘Mysteries of the Mountain South,’ the story of a recent college grad caring for her dying grandmother is enhanced with the epistolary elements of blog posts. ‘A Cautionary Tale’ breaks the fourth wall, telling the story of a Turkish wrestler and then using the story to interrogate an unnamed character on the story’s validity. ‘The Dead,’ about a sponge magnate’s encounter with a survivor of the Armenian genocide, includes birth and death dates for each major character. The author astutely deploys a range of styles and techniques that create a cerebral, multifarious collection. Bucak’s remarkable, inventive, and humane debut marks her as a writer to watch.”
Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Empty Hearts: “In this intriguing near-future dystopian thriller from Zeh (Decompression), Germany, now ruled by populists, has implemented massive budget cuts; France has left the EU; and there’s a global financial crisis. Britta Söldner has come up with an innovative algorithm to capitalize on the increased depression these events have caused: Lassie, which uses data mining to search the internet for people considering suicide. She invites those identified as candidates to her business, the Bridge, which ostensibly provides ‘healing therapy for suicide prevention.’ Most are dissuaded from self-harm, and Britta links the others with organizations looking to deploy them in suicide missions for a fee paid to the Bridge and the participants’ survivors. After a failed terror attack on an airport, carried out by would-be suicide bombers who weren’t identified by the never-wrong Lassie, Britta fears a rival entity might be responsible. Britta’s search for an explanation will keep readers turning the pages. Not every detail rings true, but Zeh makes it easy to suspend disbelief in this cold-blooded and macabre future.”
The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Warlow Experiment: “Nathan’s intriguing yet overlong U.S. debut tracks what happens after an experiment in late-18th-cenutry Wales goes awry. In 1793, the wealthy Herbert Powyss, seeking to ‘contribute something important to the sphere he so admired: natural philosophy, science,’ devises an experiment—to have a man live in total isolation for seven years in chambers deep under Powyss’s Welsh estate. The incentive is £50 per year for life, and only one man applies: the semiliterate, working-class John Warlow. Warlow is given ample comforts—the same food that Powyss eats (delivered via dumbwaiter) and any book he desires. But Warlow has little interest in reading and can barely write in the journal he’s supposed to keep; he’s more interested in the frogs he finds in his chambers. Complications further ensue when Powyss develops an affection for Hannah, Warlow’s wife. Naturally, the experiment doesn’t go as planned, but the novel never picks up a full head of steam, instead remaining largely static narratively and devoting ample page space to the servants on the estate. There are provocative wrinkles—such as whether it’s an inevitability that Powyss was going to hate the man he is experimenting on—but the story takes too long to get where it’s going and doesn’t fully land once it does. Nathan’s novel never fully lives up to its promising premise.”
Machine by Susan Steinberg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Machine: “This singular first novel from Steinberg (Spectacle) has the elements of crime fiction: a seaside setting with a dark underbelly, a family torn apart by infidelity, the tragic death of a beautiful young girl. But Steinberg makes the familiar story new, in part, by deconstructing her elements: “I’ll say the setting is the boathouse; the setting is a washroom; the setting: night and summer.” The book begins with an unnamed narrator, the rebellious young daughter of a successful businessman, standing near the water at the shore: “we all knew of the girl who drowned,” she relates, “she sank like a stone, they said; she was showing off that night, they said; the guys all said.” Though the girl’s death has little direct bearing on the narrator’s main story, it’s emblematic of the uneasy tone Steinberg establishes and becomes a dark motif for the events that follow. With the summer drawing to a close, the narrator recounts her wild vacation: the tenuous connection she had to the dead girl, desires she doesn’t understand, her disturbed brother’s increasingly reckless behavior, her father’s flagrant affair and insistence that she keep it a secret, her rage at the other woman, building finally to her family coming apart. What makes this tale so thrilling is Steinberg’s artistry with form; she fractures narrative into its fundamental parts. Steinberg writes prose with a poet’s sense of meter and line, and a velocity recalling the novels of Joan Didion. The result is a dizzying work that perfectly evokes the feeling of spinning out of control.”
Middle England by Jonathan Coe
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Middle England: “Coe’s excellent novel, the third in a trilogy, picks up his characters’ lives roughly a decade after the events of The Closed Circle and finds them settled into ‘the quiet satisfactions of under-achievement’ in later middle age in England. Benjamin Trotter, the sentimental would-be novelist, has retired to a bucolic converted mill house; his old classmate Doug Anderton, a leftist journalist, lives comfortably off his wife’s fortune; and his sister, Lois, has reached a pleasant, if unexciting, plateau in her career and marriage. Their sense of complacency is lost soon enough; Brexit, and the larger referendum on British identity, looms over the novel, throwing established characters into bewildered frustration and new, younger characters—notably Benjamin’s niece Sophie, an art historian, and Doug’s teenage daughter, Coriander—onto the front lines of the culture war. Doug spars with a flippant young communications staffer for then–prime minister David Cameron, who seems to speak a different language; Sophie’s marriage is upended by conflicting views on Brexit, and she finds herself the target of Coriander’s campus activism; Benjamin’s ailing father clings to life just long enough to vote ‘Leave.’ It’s a neat pastiche of the cultural flash points of the past decade, done with humor and empathy. While Coe’s own politics will be clear to the reader, the novel is a remarkable portrait of a country at an inflection point.”