There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”
Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
For the release of her new collection, Orange World, Karen Russell spoke to Brian Gresko at Poets & Writers on supernatural metaphors for motherhood, lonely mutants, and the pleasures of world-building. “With short stories it feels possible to hop across time zones and zip into new skins; also to take risks that I think would prove unsustainable for the length of a novel,” Russell says. “World-building is such a pleasure for me, as a writer and as a reader, and I love story collections because they feel like a miniature universe, with all these interrelated worlds-in-progress.”
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Karen Russell, Xuan Juliana Wang, Mohammed Hanif, Jayson Greene, and more—that are publishing this week.
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Orange World and Other Stories: “The inimitable Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove) returns with a story collection that delights in the uncanny, parlaying the deeply fantastical to reflect the basest and most human of our desires. In ‘The Bad Graft,’ an eloping young couple, Angie and Andy, go hiking at Joshua Tree National Park. They’ve arrived during peak pulse event season, when yucca moths swarm and ‘the Joshua tree sheds a fantastic sum of itself.’ This refers to both pollination and a Joshua tree’s so-called Leap, during which Angie becomes the human vessel for the tree’s spirit. In ‘The Tornado Auction,’ Robert Wurman is a former tornado farmer, retired now after decades of raising tornadoes for ‘weather-assisted demolition.’ His spontaneous decision to purchase a young tornado begins to spiral out of control as the tornado grows larger and more destructive, and he is forced to face the ramifications of his choices on his family. And in the title story, a mother desperate to save her child makes a deal with the devil, allowing the devil to breast feed from her in exchange for protection and peace of mind. Each story is impeccably constructed and stunningly imagined, though not all of them land emotionally. Regardless, this is a wonderfully off-kilter collection.”
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Home Remedies: “Wang’s formidable imagination is on full display in this wide-ranging debut collection about modern Chinese youth. Her characters include artistic and aimless 20-year-olds eking out a living shooting subversive music videos for bands in Beijing (‘Days of Being Mild’); a Chinese-American girl in Paris, who finds her life changed when she begins wearing a dead girl’s clothes (‘Echo of the Moment’); and a struggling writer who receives a mysterious gadget in the mail that ages whatever she puts into it, whether it’s avocadoes, wine, or her cat (‘Future Cat’). Wang plays with form as well, as in ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments,’ written as a catalogue of such ailments as ‘Inappropriate Feelings’ and ‘Bilingual Heartache,’ or ‘Algorithm Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships,’ which allows a computer science–minded Chinese immigrant father to apply his discipline’s techniques to his relationship with his second-generation Chinese-American daughter. One of the best stories in the collection is ‘Vaulting the Sea,’ in which Taoyu, an Olympic hopeful synchronized diver, struggles with complicated feelings for his partner Hai against a greater backdrop of sacrifice, ambition, and tragedy. Though some of the stories’ narrative momentum can’t match the consistently excellent characters, nonetheless Wang proves herself a promising writer with a delightfully playful voice and an uncanny ability to evoke empathy, nostalgia, and wonder.”
Lanny by Max Porter
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lanny: “In his bold second novel, Porter (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers) combines pastoral, satire, and fable in the entrancing tale of a boy who vanishes from an idyllic British village in the present day. Lanny is an elfin, perpetually singing child ‘more obviously made of the same atoms as the earth than most people these days seem to be.’ He is a mystery to his parents, recent transplants to the picturesque, increasingly fashionable (and expensive) town: the mother is a former actress working on a gruesome novel, and the father’s a yuppie commuting to London. Lanny’s somewhat cloying eccentricity (‘Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?’) captivates a reclusive artist, ‘Mad Pete,’ who gives him drawing lessons, and enchants Dead Papa Toothwort, the town’s ancient and resilient presiding spirit: ‘[The villagers] build new homes, cutting into his belt, and he pops up adapted, to scare and define.’ Toothwort is a mischievous, Green Man–esque deity who prowls the village ‘chew[ing] the noise of the place’ and especially enjoys feasting on Lanny’s song. When Lanny goes missing, the suspicion falls on Mad Pete, and the resulting media blitz turns the village into a ‘hideous ecosystem of voyeurism,’ exposing its rifts and class resentments. In the novel’s satisfying conclusion, Toothwort stages a hallucinatory play that reveals Lanny’s fate. This is a dark and thrilling excavation into a community’s legend-packed soil.”
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Tears of the Trufflepig: “A near-future picaresque of genetic manipulation, indigenous legend, and organized crime on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Flores’s delirious debut never quite delivers on its imaginative premise. Bellacosa, a freelance South Texas construction equipment locator, gets drafted by journalist Paco Herbert to attend an ‘underground dinner’ where wealthy invitees eat extinct animals that have been recreated through the process of ‘filtering.’ Among the living amusements is a Trufflepig, a ‘piglike reptile’ central to the mythology of the (fictional) Aranaña tribe. Once home, Bellacosa is greeted by his brother, who has just escaped a Mexican syndicate attempting to shrink his head and sell it as an Aranaña artifact. Bellacosa himself is soon kidnapped by a crooked border patrolman and, in the sequence leading to the story’s conclusion, hooked with electrodes to a Trufflepig that transforms his psyche into ‘the memory of all living things.’ Flores’s novel is jam-packed with excitement, but his inability to prioritize his ideas prevents them from cohering into a credible vision of dystopia. Despite this, Flores’s novel shows he has talent and creativity to spare.”
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red Birds: “Hanif, Booker-longlisted for A Case of Exploding Mangoes, dives headfirst into an unnamed desert in the present day and the disparate characters stuck in it. Ellie, an American bomber pilot who’s crash-landed, struggles through the desert half-hallucinating until he comes upon a dog. The dog, Mutt, is no stray, but rather the beloved and disgruntled pet of Momo, a shrewd and scheming 15-year-old. Momo lives in a nearby refugee camp with his family, who have been devastated by the disappearance of Momo’s older brother, Ali, who left the camp to work at a mysterious American army outpost that was recently nearby. As Ellie recovers in the camp he was intended to bomb, hoping for rescue and suppressing a major trauma he left back at home in the States, Momo develops a plan to use the American soldier as leverage to get his brother back. Narrated in turns by Ellie, Momo, aid workers, Momo’s mother, and rather beautifully by Mutt, Hanif’s portrait of the surrealism and commonplaceness of America’s wars in Muslim countries is nearly impossible to put down. The camp in particular crackles with humanity, bizarreness, and banality—at one point, Ellie thinks, “I was beginning to like this, people talking earnestly about sewage and cheating spouses, about the need for winter shelters and better ways of teaching math.” The novel manages to remain delightful and unpredictable even in its darkest moments, highlighting the hypocrisies and constant confusions of American intervention abroad.”
Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Once More We Saw Stars: “Freelance journalist Greene struggles with the 2015 death of his daughter in this heart-wrenching yet life-affirming memoir. After two-year-old Greta was killed when a brick fell from an eighth-story windowsill in New York City and hit her on the head (also injuring his mother-in-law), Greene and his wife Stacy descended into despair and realized they must pass ‘through some magnificent, terrible threshold together.’ Grasping for solace, the couple attended a retreat at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, for people who have lost loved ones, which featured a medium and daily yoga sessions. Afterwards, back home, Greene, jogging through Central Park suddenly felt the world becoming ‘thin, translucent’ and he sensed Greta’s presence. Then, on what would have been their daughter’s third birthday, they tried a New Age healing ceremony in New Mexico that took them on separate vision quests that allowed them to confront and be at peace with their grief. Their second child was born a year later, and Greene movingly writes of the joy he felt holding his newborn son along with the simultaneous metaphysical connection he experienced with Greta. The result is an amazing and inspirational exploration on the meaning of grief and the interconnectedness of love and loss.”
Out East by John Glynn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Out East: “In this sun-dazed debut memoir about loss, identity, and partying with the preppy set, book editor Glynn turns the magnifying glass on his inner turmoil but never manages to inspire much sympathy for his plight. Raised by happy and loving parents and now working in publishing (currently at Hanover Square), living in TriBeCa, and surrounded by friends, Glynn seems to have it all. Yet, he writes, ‘I was compulsively afraid of dying alone.’ Attempting to escape that torment, Glynn plunked down $2,000 for a summer share in Montauk, on the tip of Long Island in 2013. The weekends of beachy boozing with ‘the girls, the finance guys, and the gays’ are described in detail that will make many readers want to head for Montauk themselves (‘the beaches were sweeping and majestic, and the town had a surfery charm’). As a microcosmic rendition of a lost summer’s drunken rhythms and Glynn’s slowly unfolding realization about his own sexuality, the writing resonates with a shimmery tingle (falling for a man, he felt ‘a kind of giddy, queasy, terrifying downrush’). Glynn’s point of view, however, remains so swaddled in privilege that his emotional distress registers as mere entitlement (‘Not everyone had money, but everyone had access’). Ultimately this is a neatly observed but light story about coming out.”
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Furious Hours by Casey Cep: Did you know Harper Lee wanted to write her own true-crime story à la In Cold Blood? That following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent a year living in the Alabama backwoods to report it, and many more years in research, but ultimately never completed the work? In Furious Hours, Casey Cep completes the work Lee couldn’t, writing a vivid portrayal of a killer, but also exploring the effects of fame and success on one of the most famous writers in U.S. history. (Nick)
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Home Remedies, forthcoming in May 2019, is a debut collection of stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. The characters in the 12 stories vary from an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street who tries very hard to fit in, to a couple of divers at the Beijing Olympics who reach for their success. Wang conveys a promising message through her mind-boggling stories that whoever they are and wherever they are from, they have their rights to live extraordinary lives. (Jianan)
Lanny by Max Porter: The follow-up to Porter’s highly lauded Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. This follow-up gives readers all the experimental typography and poignant insight they might expect—with a twist of gut-wrenching suspense thrown in. Lanny is a mischievous young boy who moves to a small village outside of London, where he attracts the attention of a menacing force. Porter has done it again. (Claire)
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores: Move over, chupacabra—there’s a new mythical Southwestern beast in town: the trufflepig, a creature worshipped by a lost Aranana Indian tribe in this exuberant novel set on a trippier version of the American border. Drugs are legal in this near-future society, but the new (illegal) craze is “filtered animals,” extinct species revived, Jurassic-park style, and sold at great cost. The novel follows Esteban Bellacosa, trying to live the quiet life amid the region’s traffickers, obscenely rich pleasure seekers and legends. This is Flores’s first novel after a short story collection, wonderfully titled Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. (Matt)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: A Taiwanese family of six struggles to make a go of it in far-flung Anchorage, Alaska, but tragedy strikes like a stone in a still pond, rippling out to affect each family member differently. Lin’s debut novel is a raw depiction of grief and resolve set against the terrible beauty of the Alaskan north. (Nick M.)
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman: In a New York penitentiary, a doorman-turned-inmate has barricaded himself inside the computer lab while a prison riot rages like hell. Alone, the inmate confesses, recounting the twists of fate that landed him in this predicament, and pondering the many—often hysterically funny—questions he has about it all. Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch. (Nick M.)
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew): A new novel from the Chinese novelist who lives in exile in the U.K. and whose books have never been allowed to appear in China. A dystopian satire where the dystopia is today, and an exploration of totalitarianism in China. Madeleine Thien writes for The Guardian: “Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives.” (Lydia)
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Ybarra’s critically acclaimed first novel, which won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Her novel makes connections between two losses in her family: her mother’s private death from cancer and her grandfather’s public kidnapping and murder by terrorists in the 1970s. Drawing on research and personal experiences, the book creatively blends nonfiction and fiction. The Irish Times praises her work as a “captivating debut…written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer.” (Zoë)
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Lots of people grow up loving horses; few of them end up competing (and winning) in the “world’s longest, toughest horse race.” Lara Prior-Palmer, the niece of famed British equestrian Lucinda Green, is just the person to attempt that challenge, galloping across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland, competing in a country so adept at riding that they once conquered the world from the backs of horses. In Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer follows in the hoofs of Genghis Khan and becomes the first woman to win the challenge. (Ed)
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell: MacArthur Genius Grant-winner Russell, whose debut Swamplandia was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, returns with a collection of eight short stories. A fearful mother strikes up a bargain with the devil. A young man falls in love with a “bog girl.” A midwestern retiree adopts a young tornado. The stories, through the outlandish and fantastical, explore the minutia and heart of humanity. Kirkus’ starred review called the collection “a momentous feat of storytelling in an already illustrious career.” (Carolyn)
Biloxi by Mary Miller: A “Free Dogs” sign changes Louis McDonald Jr.’s life forever. The 63-year-old retiree—lonely from being left by his wife; grieving his father; and newly retired—adopts Layla, a overweight, black-and-white mixed breed, on a whim. His once solitary and sedentary life gives way, with Layla’s help, to one full of love and adventure. Publishers Weekly wrote the “charming and terrific” novel is “a witty, insightful exploration of masculinity and self-worth.” (Carolyn)
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif: Hanif, whose debut A Case of Exploding Mangoes was long-listed for the Booker, returns with a dark, absurd satire about American midadventures in the Middle East. When an American bomber pilot crash lands in the desert, he is rescued by Momo, a teenager from the camp he was sent to bomb. Publishers Weekly’s starred review writes that the novel “manages to remain delightful and unpredictable even in its darkest moments, highlighting the hypocrisies and constant confusions of American intervention abroad.” (Carolyn)
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grame: A debut, century-spanning novel about the life of Stella Fortuna, a 100-year-old, now-brain damaged woman. Told from the perspective of one of her granddaughters, the novel tells Stella’s—and subsequently the family’s—story through the lens of Stella’s many near-death experiences. A portrait of messy family dynamics, the immigrant experience, and a woman’s place in the world. Publishers Weekly starred review calls the novel “sharp and richly satisfying” and “vivid and moving.” (Carolyn)
Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: Greene, a freelance journalist, opens his memoir with the horrifying, heart-wrenching freak-accident that changed his (and his family’s) life forever: his two-year-old daughter Greta being killed after a brick fell from a windowsill and hit her on the head. The memoir, which is raw and honest and spiritual, follows the Greene family as they journey through their immeasurable grief. Cheryl Strayed writes, “A gripping and beautiful book about the power of love in the face of unimaginable loss.” (Carolyn)
The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs: Following his short story collection Inherited Disorders, Sachs’ debut novel follows philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as he travels to visit a blind (well, eyeless) astronomer, who is predicting an eclipse that will shroud Europe in total darkness for four seconds. In the hours before the eclipse, the astronomer tells Leibniz his life’s story. A meditation on science, faith, and perception, Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls it a “brilliant work of visionary absurdism.” (Carolyn)
Out East by John Glynn: Sun-soaked and brimming with youth, Glynn’s debut memoir chronicles a life-changing summer spent in a Montauk share house. With honesty, heart, and generosity, the memoir explores friendship, first love, and identity. Andre Aciman writes, “An unforgettable story told with feeling and humor and above all with the razor-sharp skill of a delicate and highly gifted writer.” (Carolyn)