Out this week: M Train by Patti Smith; Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell; 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore; The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks; The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra; Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe; and Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview.
The first time I saw Bonnie Jo Campbell, she stood in front of a bank of elevators on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago where I taught. It was late, after 10, but a group of students hemmed her in, laughing, asking questions, reluctant to leave. Her height and physical confidence captured my attention. Then I noticed the students’ faces. They were rapt. Enchanted. It very well could have been the fluorescent lights but — I’m telling you — their faces beamed.
“Great,” I thought, jabbing the elevator button a bit too hard, “another visiting writer.”
Then I read Women and Other Animals and I immediately understood what all the fuss was about.
Born and raised in Michigan, Campbell attended University of Chicago to study philosophy, traveled the world (including scaling the Swiss Alps on her bicycle), and even sold snow cones for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus.
During her time at University of Chicago, she became disillusioned with her major and eventually found her way to Western Michigan University’s writing program where Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon taught.
Since then, Campbell has published two novels, two short story collections, and a book of poetry. The 16 stories in her third and latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissect the tender, sometimes cruel, and often flawed relationships between women. These stories also capture the beauty and blemishes of small town life — its silences, its spaces, its struggles, its poverty. A mother on her deathbed admits to knowing her boyfriend abused her young daughter. A woman realizes she’d been raped while passed out at a party. An abused wife exacts revenge on her dying husband.
I caught up with Campbell electronically and over the phone to pick her brain about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.
The Millions: It’s officially fall in Michigan. Will the colors turn soon?
Bonnie Jo Campbell: Though it’s only September, the leaves are starting to turn. My darling Christopher just hung up the hummingbird feeder full of sugar water and said, “This is the last time I’m going to fill this. They’re heading out.” Autumn is beautiful in my neighborhood, which has a lot of big sugar maples, but I’m going to miss much of it, since I’m heading out on a big book tour for Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.
TM: Your short story collection American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Your body of work includes the short story collection Women and Other Animals, the novels Once Upon a River and Q Road, and the poetry collection Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. This latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissects the richness of women’s relationships. What drew you to write this collection? How did your previous publications inform these stories?
BJC: Well, I never have set out to write a collection of stories. I’ve just written the stories I’ve felt compelled to write, and so far those have lumped themselves nicely into my three packages of stories. The stories of my first book, Women and Other Animals, were mostly about women and girls interacting with the natural world, mostly told from the female point of view. Then I found myself writing about men because I saw some interesting and awful situations occurring and re-occurring in my neck of the woods, and through writing I discovered the ways these individual situations reflected a larger problem in society. Many of these situations involved workplace issues and economic troubles. The stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters involve many struggling women, but the drama is less about economic troubles and more about troubles within the intense relationships these female characters have with other women, and with some men, too. Many of the women are still reeling from some kind of sexual violation. It’s worked kind of like magic each time — I fear my wandering mind has no cohesiveness, but then in all three of these situations, it turns out that I was creating bodies of work that belonged together.
I should mention that it wasn’t immediately clear what the theme or content of the collection was going to be at the time we sold the book, but gradually my agent Bill Clegg, my editor Jill Bialosky, and I sifted through the work I had and found what cohered. After that, I had to write a couple of new stories to bring it all together. Those final stories were the title story “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” and “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom.”
I think people will recognize me as the writer of all three of these works, but in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters I’ve experimented stylistically a little more than in the earlier collections. Many of the stories are traditional narratives, but I’ve included four pieces of flash fiction (250 to 300 words each) and several stories that read like rants by women who are at the end of their ropes.
TM: You write short stories, novels, poetry. You edit. You teach. You raise donkeys. How do all of these roles influence your writing?
BJC: Most writers are doing a lot of teaching, blurbing, contest-judging, reviewing for small presses, etc., but that’s because there’s so much work to be done to create more space and love in the world for reading and writing. The things I do outside the writing world are a great relief. I could spend hours a day in my garden, rather than the 10 minutes I get to spend. I want to hang out more with my donkeys. Sometimes I worry because it is the work outside of the writing world that gives the most life to my writing. Reading feeds it, too, but I need donkeys. And I need long bicycle rides. And I need to laugh my head off with my mom and sister at least once a week. Recently I needed to spend a whole evening with my husband installing red glowing eyes into a ceramic rabbit statue we found at a second hand store.
I’m a person who hates to give up any part of my life, but I have had to give up martial arts. For 10 years I studied Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art, and I earned a second degree black belt. I loved the people at the dojo, and I loved swinging sticks, nunchaku, sai, etc., but I found that I just didn’t have time for the commitment any more. On the bright side, I am able to handle my own security at literary events.
TM: Good to know. I can think of a few times when nunchaku would have come in handy at readings.
Tell me about the adventure tours you led and organized in Russia, the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria.
BJC: The bike tours were great, lots of adventure and fun. I use the past tense because I haven’t run a tour in over a decade. I’ve had to give up that kind of travel in order to have time to write, same as I had to give up martial arts. Our tours were long, like eight weeks or more, and we traversed many countries (e.g., one tour went Poland-Czech Republic-Slovakia-Hungry-Austria-Romania-Bulgaria), and by the end of the summer we were gods of the roads, tanned and muscular, ready for anything. Visiting those other countries was a joy, to find so much new in the world, and to see our own American lives from the eyes of others. Often our fancy bicycles and helmets and cycling clothes made us look like aliens to the rural citizens of those countries, so I got a chance to feel like a real foreigner.
Our tours were self-contained, which meant that every person carried his or her own luggage and tools, and preparing for the trips was an adventure in itself, figuring out just how little stuff we needed to live. Bicycling and keeping our bicycles going was our job. I’m a person who loves to eat and try new foods, so that was one of the highlights, learning about Czech beer and Bulgarian yogurt, and getting to eat all those extra calories I needed for climbing the Carpathian mountains. I’m still in touch with a lot of the folks who took our tours — not surprisingly, the kind of people who would sign up for these crazy tours were really great, easy-going folks — and we often talk about putting together another tour. But then they all go back to work, and I go back to writing.
TM: You captured the essence of one of those trips in “Children of Transylvania, 1983” Any good stories?
BJC: Once, a dozen people accidentally cycled across a Soviet military base located outside Olomouc, in what was then Czechoslovakia. In past years we’d ridden a particular road without incident, but one year there were war games going on, with tanks and armed soldiers. The group was put in jail, and then driven through the dark night to another jail. It was pretty scary, and I wasn’t even in the group that got captured. A few days later, the American tourists were delivered to the Austrian border and kicked out.
TM: Once Upon a River and a number of the stories in American Salvage focus on young women (teens transitioning to womanhood). A number of stories in this latest collection often focus on the minefield that teenage girls and their mothers must navigate. What draws you to these characters? These themes?
BJC: I’m just looking around at the world, seeing where the interesting problems lie. I’ve got no daughters myself, but I’m close with my mom, my sister, and a heap of nieces and great-nieces. (And I miss my grandmother all the time). We all tell stories and watch over one another. The mother-daughter relationship feels particularly deep and profound, and sometimes fraught. I would never argue with anyone else, not even my husband, with the intensity I argue with my mom, and it’s fine. We are two very different people, but we’ve learned so much from one another — of course she has the upper hand, having raised me and all. Oh, and I’m starting to worry my dear mom is not going to live forever. I really hope she does live forever.
TM: Same here. My mom is 93 and she lives with us so she’s such a big part of my life, of my husband’s and daughters’ lives. I can’t imagine not having her here.
BJC: Yup, I worry about my mom. She falls sometimes, and I go to her place and find her with bruises, and I think she isn’t eating enough of the right things. And I’m a worrier anyhow. When it comes to my beautiful little nieces, I worry about them being molested in some way, shape, or form — they seem so vulnerable. In the last few years it seems that the issue of molestation has become more nuanced. Maybe we used to see rape as something rare strangers did to one another. Then we began to accept that rape takes place even within families, even within romantic or marital relationships. Nowadays we are made aware of situations where a girl doesn’t know whether she’s been raped, either because she felt complicit in the molestation, or because she was drunk or drugged. Those situations really press us to explore what rape is all about, in a country where at least a quarter of all women will be raped in their lifetimes. In Detroit alone we’ve learned about more than 11,000 unprocessed rape kits that are now showing that the city had dozens of serial rapists. Camera phones are capturing rapes that the victim is unaware of. And around the world, rape is a weapon of war. There’s lots to think and worry about on the subject, lots to write about.
And my own special challenge is that I want to write about rape without writing about women as victims. Readers will have to decide whether I’ve pulled this off.
TM: That “nuance” of rape is a huge part of this book. Like you said, these stories reflect how rape isn’t only a random event. It also happens in families, between relatives and friends – at parties while a woman is drunk, when a mother is caught in a no-win situation while trying to provide for her children.
Once Upon a River also started with a rape.
BJC: This collection is so new that I’m still figuring out what it is about, but many of these stores are about sexual violation and its after effects.
TM: Short story collections are on the rise. This is your third collection of short stories. What draws you to the short story form?
BJC: That’s just how most of my narratives work themselves out. If I can’t wrap up a story in 20 or 30 pages, then I’ve got a novel, and I’ll go ahead and write a novel, which is to say that my novels are failed short stories. Finishing a story is such a miracle that I’m relieved when I’ve got a short story. The novel is so much greater a commitment. I sometimes say that writing stories is like dating, while writing novels is like getting married. When you’re dating, you don’t have to share every damned thing, but a novel demands you show yourself entirely. Of course, a story sometimes later shows itself to be a part of a larger story, the way “Family Reunion” turned out to be the inspiration for Once Upon a River. One reason I might prefer the short story form is because it allows for experimentation. While a weird point of view or writing style can be delightful in a short story, it might not hold up over a whole novel.
TM: Tell me about your writing day, your routine.
BJC: I guess I haven’t had a solid routine for a while, because so many things in my life have been changing. My husband’s shift at work was changed from evenings to early mornings and back again, and then I was on a book deadline, and then I was teaching full-time-ish for a semester, and now I’m promoting a book. Oh, and my donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, got a terrible hoof fungus that required frequent lengthy soakings in oxyclosine — 90 minutes each hoof. I’m not complaining, but I’m saying these are things that get in a way of a schedule. I do long for a routine, and my perfect one would be: write for a few hours, exercise, lunch with the husband, errands and housekeeping stuff, dinner alone, and some more writing and reading and then a bit of hanging out with the husband. (I’m sounding a little dull here, but that’s what works for me.)
TM: I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that no other author interview includes the words hoof fungus.
It always amazes me that people think writers live glamorous lives. When do they think we write?
BJC: In the movies people seem to do it in cafes and during brief spurts of depression. The hoof fungus is sometimes called “seedy toe.” Isn’t that a great name?
TM: There’s a recurring theme in your work of women being left behind or marginalized. Women in small towns might have it harder than women living in cities or suburbs because there might not be resources for job training, etc. So they start developing survival skills. It seems like women have more opportunities than ever but many of the women in M,TYD have few options. Can you talk about how these changing times make for desperate characters, how opportunities dry up in the face of so many challenges?
BJC: Some of the women in my stories are doing all right jobwise, but struggle in a different realm, but as a rule I am interested in women for whom survival is not guaranteed. Maybe the protagonist of “Play House” is somewhat limited because she hasn’t sought out education and she is drawn to people who are not good for her. Oh, and she drinks too much, and that would be the root of her problems in the eyes of many. The young mother in “To You, As a Woman” has dug her own deep hole, and now she’s in the hole, and there’s nobody to help her — that story is a call for help from her fellow human beings.
In American Salvage, the men were often having difficulty transitioning to the new millennium, which requires workers to be more agile and educated. Many of my women characters are able to make this transition, but they get screwed up in their relationships instead. Some women go through life adjusting when necessary, but never seeing the grand possibilities before them. I think we all know women who make the same bad choices over and over, and I’m interested in why this happens. Maybe I’m even more interested in the cause-and-effect aspect of their situations, how bad decisions (about children, men, drugs, alcohol) lead to bad situations that offer no good options. Sometimes people ask me why I write about these kinds of problems, and I’ll say that the only problems that interest me are the ones that are difficult to solve — if a problem is easy to solve, there’s no point in writing a story about it. If a reader had a little more sympathy for such folks after reading my stories, I would be very happy.
TM: Place plays a major role in your work. In your novel Once Upon a River, place is a character in itself. This latest collection of short stories is set in small towns. But they’re not bucolic small towns. People work at Meijer to hang on to health care. Many deal with addiction. Almost all of them struggle to get by.
You never idealize small towns. They are rife with the problems and pitfalls of big cities (or maybe they are microcosms for the larger world). And, for some reason, they seem even colder than a big city.
BJC: Small town life is the life I’m most familiar with and it’s the place where I’ve been able to observe people most closely. I guess I write about small towns and the countryside because I want to write about the spaces between people. In the city people are piled on top of each other and so loneliness has a different form and feel. In my stories, people are alone both in an emotional sense and in a very practical sense. People in my stories can cry out (and they do sometimes) and nobody will hear them.
TM: Many of your characters have simply been left behind by technology and the global economy. This is particularly true in Michigan (but this collection could have been set anywhere in America). How does place influence your process?
BJC: Michigan is what I know. Michigan people are the people I understand, the people I want to understand better, and so I focus my attention there. I like to write about landscapes with which I am familiar so that I don’t have to do research to learn what is there. To some degree my characters reflect their landscape, and so I need to have that landscape handy, at my fingertips, embedded in my brain. And it turns out that whatever I need from the landscape, it appears, like magic. Just to set the story “Children of Transylvania” in the Romanian countryside, just to show I can write a story that takes place somewhere else. Now I’m back to Michigan. I think all readers and writers are aware of the mystery of place, that we access the universal truths only by focusing intensely on the particular. So I try to get at all of humanity by focusing right here at home.
TM: In an opinion piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Guardian America, Ehrenreich writes about how only the rich can afford to write about poverty in America. She says that she had a hard time convincing editors to let her write stories about people who lived in poverty:
It wasn’t easy to interest glossy magazines in poverty in the 1980s and ’90s. I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch — paid for, of course, by a major publication — trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and Crème brûlée, “OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?” Then there was the editor of a nationwide, and quite liberal, magazine who responded to my pitch for a story involving blue-collar men by asking, “Hmm, but can they talk?”
After reading M,TYD, I thought, “I want every politician, every person who makes policy, every lawyer, every judge, every editor, to read this book because it will give them insight into how hard it is for many people to just get by.” Do you think that, because of this misguided perception about the working poor (and editors’ inability to get a handle on it), it makes it even more important for writers to see the working poor as something other than angelic or slovenly? To see all of the varying shades in between?
BJC: What a great quote. Boy, you’re opening up a can of worms with that! I’m a fiction writer, focusing on interesting characters in tough situations, so I have to be careful about claiming I’m speaking for the working poor, or for anyone other than myself. However, since I grew up as part of that group, it makes sense that I’m interested in their troubles. I was raised by my mom to never put myself above anybody else, and that helps me see the lives of everyone, including those at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to mention drug addicts and drunks, too, without prejudice.
To be honest, I don’t understand why everybody isn’t fascinated with how poor people get by. Every single day working poor people do the impossible. I have a niece with three kids, working for close to minimum wage, and her husband works the same, and every day is a struggle, with work and babysitting, but they find a way to get through it. The car breaks down, kids get sick, things in the house break and need to be replaced. For people with money, these are minor problems, but for poor people they can mean losing a job and having even less. My niece is lucky to have family members who can help — plenty of people don’t have anyone.
Well-off people with lots of resources feel the difficulties of their own lives, so it surprises me that they are willing to discount the profound and essential nature of the problems that others face. People without money have to be very resourceful and clever.
TM: What were some memorable past jobs?
BJC: I have worked a lot of wonderful jobs, as an egg candler, a typist (on a typewriter, before computers), a tour guide, a teacher, a security guard. I’ve sold scrap metal. Maybe the worst job I’ve ever worked was a restaurant called Schensil’s Cafeteria, run by an old woman named Mrs. Schensil, who resembled Homer’s boss on The Simpsons. The food was overcooked and over-breaded and we had to cut the pies into seven pieces. Not six or eight, but seven. There was lots of sour steam. I lied about my age to get the job. I said I was 16, when I was really 14.
TM: Can you tell me about growing up on your mother’s farm?
BJC: Growing up on a farm was great because of all the space and the spaces. I loved being able to be alone and to watch people from a distance. Our place had lots of barns and outbuildings, a wash house, tree houses, attics, grain bins. I loved being with animals of all kinds, smelling their breath, feeling their warmth. I loved milking the cow, something I started doing when I was 10. Fresh garden tomatoes have been part of my summers and falls, as have black cap raspberries and big overgrown zucchini squash. A bigger farm might’ve been very different because of pesticides and factory-farming practices. I didn’t love having to haul buckets of water when the lines froze, having to come home from kid parties to do chores, but it all seems fine in retrospect. I didn’t like it the few times we butchered our own livestock ourselves, but I wanted to eat the meat. When people did that work cleanly and surely and swiftly, it wasn’t bad, but a few times it was done sloppily.
TM: You have two donkeys named Don Quixote and Jack. Do you have other animals?
BJC: In addition to having donkeys, I care for a dozen chickens at my mom’s, and we have a cat who won’t tolerate other cats, unfortunately. I want to have a dog, miss having a dog, but I travel too much right now, and it wouldn’t make sense. Life with animals of all kinds is better than life without them — I think they’ve even done studies that show folks live longer if they live with animals, and so it makes sense that characters in my story can take comfort in animals or see reflections of themselves or others in those animals. I spend a lot of time watching wild animals, birds, and other critters.
TM: I love the way you weave animals into your work. In Q Road, you even have a talking cat. Most of your characters have a very practical approach to animals. What would Don Quixote and Jack say about this collection?
BJC: Jack and Don Quixote are gorgeous and smart, but they are not impressed by my writing career. I try to tell them about my awards and publications, but they just he-haw and chew on my jacket. There’s a funny picture I could share with you. Here’s what happened: a friend was interviewing me in the donkey pasture, and a gal was videotaping us, and while we were talking, Don Quixote was eating page after page of my book manuscript, which was sitting behind me on a bale of hay. We did a close up view of the photo and saw he was chewing the page containing the story “My Sister is in Pain.”
TM: You have this amazing ability to pair beauty with violence, to connect the intimate moments inside public moments. In “The Greatest Show on Earth,” there’s all of this beauty within that tough existence.
There was the long silver whip of the circus train stretched out on a side rail, heating up in the Arizona sun, and inside of a steel cabinet, two people inhaled each other’s breath and sweat.
You’ve said that Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor have influenced your work. In what ways have they influenced your work?
BJC: I know I’ve said this, but truthfully, I don’t know what work has influenced me. I’ll say instead that I feel a kinship with their work, and I hope they’ve influenced me. It’s funny that I’ve mostly chosen Southern writers, the writers who’ve been described as writing “Southern Grotesque.” I guess I see these writers as showing the bumps and bruises and warts of their characters in the most compelling ways. Michigan has a deep connection with the South, since so many Southerners came up to work in the auto plants after the Second World War, and I hung out with transplanted Southerners in my youth.
Nowadays when I get fan mail from somewhere other than Michigan, it’s usually from the south. Steinbeck’s a little different. I guess when I read Steinbeck I fell in love with the way he is a humanitarian, the way he loves his poor and down-and-out characters, especially his male characters — I’m a little conflicted nowadays about his female characters.
TM: I’m originally from Flint. There certainly were a lot of transplanted southerners working at GM…back in the day.
Who have you been reading lately?
BJC: I’m reading and rereading Flannery O’Connor. I can’t get enough of her, and I’ve been invited to talk about her at the Library of Congress in March, so I want to be fully immersed.
TM: I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor the first time I read her, when I was 18.
BJC: Lordy, I wish she’d lived longer. She died at age 39. As for contemporary books, let me give a shout out to Elizabeth McCracken’s latest book of stories, Thunderstruck, which is saturated with death but is bright and uplifting. Now I’m reading a beautiful book, Did You Ever Have a Family, by my agent Bill Clegg.
TM: Family, in all of its iterations, is a major theme in your work. How has your own family influenced your storytelling?
BJC: Yup, we’ve all got ‘em, families! I can’t get rid of mine, wouldn’t if I could. Each new generation of a family turns out to be a reaction against the last generation, and each one redeems the last at the same time. I grew up with hippie-type parents who were reacting to their parents. The set of grandparents I knew best were city folks who dressed and lived conservatively (though politically they were good liberals), and they just couldn’t understand why my mom wanted to milk a cow and butcher hogs, not to mention why she wanted to party all night whenever she got a chance. (My rebelling against my mother is a milder thing, too subtle and boring to get into here.)
I used to love listening to my grandfather and mother as dueling story tellers. My grandfather always wanted to tell a story about some cute little misunderstanding and how the reasonable people involved straightened it all out so everything was fine. My mother always wanted to tell the story of people drinking too much and dancing with lampshades on their heads, with somebody ending up in jail or at least asleep in the bathtub. My grandfather looked away from what was obnoxious and antisocial, while my mother enjoyed the hell out of all that. It was good for me to see how the different sensibilities created such different stories, and I had to come to understand my own sensibility, which is different from both of theirs. I loved hearing everybody argue about what really happened when Emil Wentland built a boat in his basement without having a door big enough for its removal.
TM: That sounds like a good one. I’d like to hear it some time.
You dedicated this book to your mother. In what ways — in writing and in life — has your mother influenced you?
BJC: That’s probably too big a question to get into here. Let’s meet later at the Old Dog Tavern, and I will tell you some stories. I can tell you that my mother knew what she wanted in life, and though she had only one usable arm — the other was badly damaged at birth — she used her body and her mind to create the life she wanted to lead. She had five kids of her own, and she took care of a dozen other kids who lived with us at various times. She reads a lot, and she takes an interest in other people and everything that goes on around her. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, wherever we go. Does she love my writing? No. Does she love me? Yes. In short, she’s just the kind of mother a writer needs.
If you like to read, we’ve got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, “Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year,” you might say, “Wow, it’s going to be a great year for books.” Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we’re highlighting that month). This year, you’ll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive — no book preview could be — but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch — better known to generations of readers as Scout — returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, “We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted.” Publishers Weekly’s review dispensed with any coyness, saying, “This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.” (Anne)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author’s epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom)
Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play ‘World of Warcraft” uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on “No Man’s Sky,” a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in “Diablo III’s” online marketplace than I did from writing in ’12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.)
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne)
Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories — whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill)
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams’s previous book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians — a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams’s tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer’s book deal with Cousin Luther’s Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man’s quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan)
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami’s first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami’s behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories — connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the ’80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser’s notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne)
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess)
Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth)
The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison. Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review — “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” — and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya)
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne)
Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water…Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.)
Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: “I am a Catholic.” So begins Iredell’s book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell’s unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass’s On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell’s range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book’s heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected — a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan)
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, “The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013.” (Claire)
The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called “case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success.” In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation’s Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia)
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire)
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event — as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt)
Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent ’30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill)
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story — Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia — The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into — and back out of — crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael)
The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them. Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss — what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill)
The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie)
This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire)
Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael)
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill)
The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth)
Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff — which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah)
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet)
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah)
The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.)
Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you’ve read before — not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of…America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya)
Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the ’90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne)
Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer — and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics — he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn’t happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in “9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis,” which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Inferno, here. I think we’re in for something special. (Lydia)
Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet)
M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah)
Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working — from the general assembly to the security council — his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet)
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk’s beloved home. (Hannah)
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess)
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess)
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet)
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah)
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan)
Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom)
Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a “melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender.” In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles (“Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées” or “Slouching towards Mecca”). (Lydia)
Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael)
Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess)
The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing…” (Edan)
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet)
The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.)
Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause — “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” — but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya)
The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth)
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry — who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions — follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan — until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent — at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends — is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.” An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya)
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service — but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess)
Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature — open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia)
Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.)
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized — Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie)
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy’s bete noire — Benito Mussolini — in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings — three sisters and their brother — return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well — the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different — but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan)
Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It’s a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan)
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