I’ve spent this year second-guessing myself. Every decision inspired fear. My emotions were out of control. I despised (yet yearned) for change. My astrology-inclined friends tell me this is my “Saturn return,” which is when Saturn returns to the position it was in during your birth. Saturn return tends to be a period of time rife with change, intensity, and questioning. And, despite being skeptical of cosmic predictions, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the midst of something larger than myself. And, like my thoughts and emotions, my reading has been all over the place.
I kicked off the new year by reading Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State poolside in the Sunshine State. Its willingness to explore the mundane (and maddening) minutiae of motherhood with a thoughtfulness usually reserved for Very Serious Topics™ felt revolutionary. I’ve never read anything like it (in the best possible way). In addition to reading and reviewing for work, I read a few books for fun including Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I listened to the audiobook and I would argue it’s the best (perhaps only?) way to read the book. Without realizing it, I started The Plot Against America (my first Philip Roth book) on a train to Newark. Disturbing in its own right, the alternate history of America post-WWII has far too many parallels to today’s political climate. I also read, and enjoyed, a little book no one’s ever heard of: Normal People by Sally Rooney. Rooney manages to capture the feeling of being young and desperate for belonging with honesty.
Summer was bookmarked by queer novels: Carolina De Robertis’s Cantoras—a luscious and heartbreaking story about revolution in 1970s Uruguay—and Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things—a novel about a grief-stricken family, taxidermy, and obligation. In between those books, I read some incredible books: And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell, which made me cringe, laugh, and cry all at the same time; What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate, which is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in years; Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game, a beautiful memoir about toxic mother-daughter relationships; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, a quiet, deliberate masterpiece; Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, a creepy, queer YA dystopia; and Lauren Groff’s Florida, a short story collection further proving Groff is one of the best. The New Me by Halle Butler was feverishly inhaled over the course of one afternoon. Butler’s office novel hit too close to home and it sent me reeling. I also worked my way through Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which I had been (unknowingly) waiting for since I read The Empathy Exams in 2016. No one writes an essay like Jamison, and I’m already awaiting her next collection.
As a freelancer, I mostly review fiction so I gravitated toward nonfiction in my free time. I read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the late Michelle McNamara’s haunting book about the Golden State Killer (her nickname). What a sadness that she couldn’t finish what she started but, man, what she left behind was incredible. In a move that shocked no one, I tore my way through Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, which was informative and hilarious in equal measure. John Glynn’s Out East warmed my cold Long Island heart with its sun-kissed honesty. Furious Hours by Casey Cep was the perfect combination of true crime and literary history. I was horrified and enthralled by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement. I’ve always loved books and movies about journalism, and this is journalism at its finest. For the aspiring writer in your life: Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal (out January 2020) is an invaluable resource.
And then there were my two favorite books of the year: the ones I sat with the longest, that inspired me to write, and that I’ll revisit over and over again. Read over the course of a weekend, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls left me speechless, devastated, and hopeful. I cannot remember the last time I filled a book with so many annotations, asterisks, and exclamation points. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise totally and completely blew my mind. I said it then and I’ll say it now: I would take a whole course dedicated to studying the structure and form of Choi’s novel. Trust Exercise left me unmoored and it took weeks to find my next book. It’s without a doubt the best novel I read all year.2019 was bad in many ways but the reading was good. If anything, that’s what I’ll take into 2020. More books and writing. Less indecision and trepidation. Stars be damned.
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.
Mary Laura Philpott explores reinvention in her wonderful debut memoir-in-essays, I Miss You When I Blink. “One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind,” she told me. “There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.”
But Philpott’s collection isn’t only a guide for reinvention. It’s the kind of book that shapeshifts into what each reader needs most. Some essays are laugh-out-loud funny; others are affectingly tender. Many are both. Seriously, read “This is Not My Cat” and “I Miss You When I Blink,” and try to explain the reason for your tears. Whether she’s writing about home, work, or family, Philpott’s essays show life as it truly is.
Philpott and I spoke via email about, among other things, cathartic writing, wise words, and literary citizenship.
The Millions: One thing I admire so much about I Miss You When I Blink is how open you are in discussing different parts of your life. Among other topics, you talk about your family, your health, and your insecurities. Did you find being so open about your life and experiences to be cathartic?
Mary Laura Philpott: That’s a great question. I think the cathartic parts of the writing process come early on, at least they did for me, when I was just blabbing things out and getting drafts on paper. But in the stages that came after, when I took those drafts and dug deeper into those personal stories, it became more about finding something bigger than just my own experience, as in Okay, so I hated my first job. What does that say about what it’s like to be that age or the way perfectionists tend to prioritize work in our lives? I wanted to ask and try to answer those questions, so that the experience of reading the book would be somewhat cathartic, too. The challenge was to verbalize those thoughts and observations in such a way that other people would feel like they’d finally gotten the words for something they’d always been thinking.
TM: Were there some essays you hesitated to write because of how open they required you to be?
MLP: There were definitely parts of my life that I hesitated to write about, mainly the parts where my experiences and feelings overlapped with the experiences and feelings of other people. While I don’t feel nervous about being open with the pieces of myself I’ve chosen to share, if there’s a story of mine that’s very much someone else’s story too, I erred on the side of not telling it—or not telling that part of it. In the parts of this book that deal with family, for example, I really tried to keep the focus on my own experience, the adult side of it, not stories about my kids themselves. I mean, they’re hilarious and I could tell you stories about them all day long, but that’s not what this book is. My spouse is a very private person, too, so I initially tried to write this collection without ever mentioning him, which was kind of ridiculous. So, he’s in there now, but as minimally as I could get away with.
That boundary ended up being really useful to the purpose of this book. I wanted to write about the internal conflict, the loneliness, and the absurd private bargains and humor—the inside jokes so “inside” that they happen only in our own heads—of being a person, and how the human experience often feels so solitary, even or especially when we’re surrounded by other people. Staying focused on my own piece of each experience helped me do that, I think.
I’m reminded of something Dani Shapiro wrote in a fantastic essay about the difference between the memoir as a piece of literature and the more private openness of a personal conversation: “My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires.”
TM: Do you have a favorite essay in the collection?
MLP: I don’t know — I’m proud of all of them for making it out of the mess of my mind and into the world. But one of my favorites to read aloud is “A Letter to a Type A Person in Distress.” It’s shorter than the others (which are all pretty short), and it’s a different format from the rest. I wrote the first draft of it in one sitting. It directly addresses the reader, and it was something I needed to hear and suspected a lot of other people needed to hear, too: You’re trying so hard; I see you; you’re doing great.
TM: You pack I Miss You When I Blink with lots of wisdom. Seriously, I feel like I highlighted a quarter of the book. In “Wonder Woman,” you write, “When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you,” and just a few pages over, you add, “Even small events can have a formative effect on our lives. Everything sinks into the soil.” Similarly, in “Everything to Be Happy About,” you have this great line about what it means to be fortunate: “But being fortunate doesn’t mean you won’t reach a certain point in life—many points, actually—and panic. It doesn’t mean you don’t periodically wonder how you got where you are and if there’s any way to get out.”
But it’s “Mermaids and Destiny” that I marked up the most. It discusses the ways in which we, especially as young people, develop and dream and create goals for ourselves. It ends with this paragraph: “The picture you get at the end of a connect-the-dots activity really depends on which dots you decide to use. So try things and go through phases. Put down a lot of dots. Later, you can look back and pick any of those dots to create a picture of how you became who you are. And if you don’t like the picture you end up with, you can always choose different dots, which just goes to show destiny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” That’s so brilliant. I imagine people seek you often when they are in need of advice. Am I right?
MLP: Oh, thank you. I’m so glad those parts resonated with you. People do ask me for advice a lot, which is funny, because I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, much less have enough wisdom to help anyone else know what they should do. But maybe that’s what this book is—the scraped-up bits of any wisdom I do have. Sometimes as I was writing it, I felt like I was trying to go back and give advice to my younger selves.
TM: Your memoir offers proof that we don’t have to ever settle on a previously established identity. Here’s my question: Which do you think is more difficult: settling into someone we don’t want to become or starting over to become who we want to be?
MLP: It’s frighteningly easy to settle into being someone you don’t want to be, because that settling can happen so gradually. Starting over is what’s hard. And I didn’t realize until well into putting this collection together that the theme of reinvention ran through so many of these essays. One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind. There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.
TM: Whether I’m thinking of “Lobsterman,” which tells a funny story about your interpretation of a writing prompt when you were in high school, or “Nora Ephron and the Lives of Trees,” which is about your interest in the characteristics of animals, your memoir displays a sincere appreciation of imagination and what it can do to better our lives. In today’s fast-paced world, how do we adults remember to keep imagination prevalent in our lives?
MLP: I think my imagination is my mental safe-zone. As soon as the real world gets too horrific to witness, my brain just flips an emergency switch and goes, “Nope, let’s imagine a squirrel trying on shoes.” Animals are a big part of my imagination, maybe because while we share so much with animals—we’re all breathing, we all need to eat and sleep—they’re oblivious to most of the bullshit of the human world. They’re not listening to politicians bicker, they don’t care who won the Oscar for what, they don’t know to be terrified of the gun violence epidemic. So being around creatures who aren’t focused on all that inspires me to let go of it for a little while. Also, juxtaposing the animal world with the human world in my imagination—like, okay, what would the deer in my yard say if she had a Twitter account?—makes me laugh, and I definitely need to locate my joy in order to access my imagination. So, I guess that’s my answer. Go outside.
TM: At this past year’s Southern Festival of Books, you brought up a topic that I haven’t been able to get off my mind: literary citizenship. Although it’s a concept I have thought about often, I’d never really heard of that phrasing before. Do you mind talking about what you think makes someone a good literary citizen?
MLP: Ah, yes! I love this subject. I was chatting with someone recently who said, “I don’t have time to read every new book when it comes out—am I a bad literary citizen?” No, no, no…literary citizenship is as simple as valuing the written word and the institutions that support it. Check out books from your library or buy them at an indie store; tell a friend about a book you enjoyed; give books as presents; whatever. Show up and sit in the audience when your favorite authors go on book tour. Join a book club. Subscribe to a literary magazine. Literary citizenship, like just plain citizenship, largely comes down to what we do locally—it’s about supporting the groups and businesses that keep literature alive in our communities. Be a part of the cultural ecosystem in whatever small way you can, so it stays healthy.
TM: You work for one of my most beloved bookstores, Parnassus Books in Nashville. So, I have to ask for recommendations. What’s on the horizon in memoir that you recommend?
MLP: Oh man, you’ll have to cut me off on this topic. Just in the next couple of months, there’s Once More We Saw Stars, which Jayson Greene wrote about the aftermath of a tragic accident that killed his little girl; it’s heartbreaking but also surprisingly life affirming. I’m absolutely in love with Out East by John Glynn, which is one of my favorite new entries in the “we’re still becoming who we are, even as adults” category. I really enjoyed Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, which shares a pub date with my book. Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis is a brilliant and hysterically dry essay collection. If I may go into summer real quick: My writing group friend Margaret Renkl has a poetic, memoir-ish meditation on nature and grief coming out from Milkweed Editions called Late Migrations. I guess I should stop there? But there are more coming in the fall. There’s also so much good literary fiction coming out this spring. Novels are popping up like flowers. Right now is a great time to visit a bookstore.
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)