Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We’ve assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more.
At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year’s past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we’ve carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy!
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Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor
Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris
Decent People by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian
The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley
In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley’s essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith
Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm
Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm’s posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm’s own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart
The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer
In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world’s religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer “one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time” and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS
OK by Michelle McSweeney
In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB
The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday
Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon
Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein
The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu
Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson
I’ve been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article “What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say.” Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books “important”—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We’ve been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS
The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King
When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It’s a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega
Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I’ve been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women’s place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women’s lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era’s subversive trailblazers. —SMS
Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they’re one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls “the status quo’s worst nightmare.” —SMS
A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín
One of Ireland’s greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That’s why I’m so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a “novelist’s” sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn’t Tóibín’s first foray into nonfiction (he’s written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book’s outset, which features one of best opening lines I’ve read in a minute: “It all started with my balls.” —SMS
Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois
I always love reading Dan Kois’s criticism (if you haven’t yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: “poignant without being treacly.” A near-impossible literary feat—I can’t wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS
Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns
A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling
The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker
Abby, a young economist, can’t sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ
After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz’s Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ
Hanging Out by Sheila Liming
We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone
Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng
This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its “sharply observed vignettes,” which together amount to a “beautiful” book full of “deep insight.” —BM
Black Empire by George S. Schuyler
Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM
Where I’m Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft
Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking “Where I’m Coming From,” which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood
Brutes by Dizz Tate
This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher’s daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA
City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson
I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson’s debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš
Couplets by Maggie Millner
Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA
The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris
This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
“A sex therapist’s transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions”—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin’s third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. “Pick it up because you like cheese,” Morgan urges, “stay for the brilliant sentences.” —SMS
Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner
So many books these days are described as being “sweeping histories”; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner’s latest isn’t its scope—it’s its driving question: “What good are the arts?” In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I’m chomping at the bit to hear Puchner’s answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS
Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix
Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB
All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley
A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir’s conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR
The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith
For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL
Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris
I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad’s quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris’s comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region’s economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism.
Users by Colin Winnette
I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or “essential” tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she’s brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It’s also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass.
Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu
Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW
Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova
What lengths would you go to get back someone you’ve loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR
Francisco by Alison Mills Newman
Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman’s autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB
The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia
In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion. —ES
Saving Time by Jenny Odell
I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that’s both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it’s never too late to save the time we have left. —NR
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB
Raving by McKenzie Wark
Wark’s entry into Duke University Press’s Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for “this era of diminishing futures.” An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. “Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor,” she writes. “I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor.” —SMS
Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty
From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA
How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna
In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby
Y/N by Esther Yi
“Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW
How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin
Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study.
Biography of X by Catherine Lacy
With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES
The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde
This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL
The New Earth by Jess Row
A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth. —ES
Chlorine by Jade Song
Song’s debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ
In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin
A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin’s insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK
Affinities by Brian Dillon
When I read Dillon’s previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own “affinity.” It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can’t wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS
Above Ground by Clint Smith
I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR
Ada’s Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi
Otoo’s debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one “thrillingly, astonishingly original.” —SMS
This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB
Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ
Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde
This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL
Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe
The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes “an exquisite text” that “demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW
A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung
Chung’s bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation’s great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS
Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding
A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life’s smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld
I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad’s then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can’t wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS
Sea Change by Gina Chung
Chung’s debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She’s also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML
The One by Julia Argy
Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL
Without Children by Peggy O’Donnell Heffington
As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL
The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong
I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR
Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key
An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell’s Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell’s lyrics. There’s nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key’s hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS
The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher
In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB
Written on Water by Eileen Chang
It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ
Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst
When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she’s encountered in the industry. It’s met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS
Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby
If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL
Dances by Nicole Cuffy
At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018’s Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM
Monsters by Claire Dederer
How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?,” Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I’ve been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS
Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis
In her blurb for Davis’s debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: “Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room,” she writes, “you will inhale Dykette.” Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS
Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak
Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he’s writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book’s first 30 pages, so, yeah, it’s gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS
Thinning Blood by Leah Myers
Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives’ in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations. —LK
King: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, “I Have a Dream,” his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig’s forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King’s life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS
A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs
I’ve recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word “women” in the title. A Life of One’s Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs’s latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered. —Adam O’Fallon Price
The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling
Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling’s Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this “transcendental work of literature” as “striking” and “elegant.” —SMS
On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff
Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I’ll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag’s takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag’s son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women’s lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS
Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza
In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS
Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can’t wait to read Chris Payne’s oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo’s meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS
Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris
Harris, host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she’s got an opinion and she’s excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS
Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva
Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family’s relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore
Moore’s first novel since 2009’s A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: “A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .”) but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS
Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits
My first introduction to Julavits was 2015’s The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I’ve been waiting for her next book ever since. It’s finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls “the end times of childhood.” She writes about her son’s upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it “an absolute stunner.” I predict I’ll feel the same. —SMS
In June, my partner and I moved from Boston back to Brooklyn, where we last lived, separately, almost a decade ago. The cost of moving and the inevitable decline in square footage occasioned a (very) reluctant jettisoning of books, though you wouldn’t know it from visiting our apartment, where almost every inch of wall space is now taken up with self-installed shelves of questionable sturdiness holding “must-haves,” such as galleys of NYRB Classics from the late 2000s, giant undergraduate philosophy anthologies, and that book of Don DeLillo short stories that I swear is climbing out of giveaway boxes and following us, Toy Story-style, across the country.
All of which is to say that it sometimes felt like I spent
as much time lifting, sorting, stacking, shelving, and contemplating the
physical necessity of books as reading them this year. Nevertheless, I did read
a bunch of them.
I started the year reading My Tender Matador by the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, after learning about him in Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. Lemebel, who died in 2015, was a brave and outspoken gay activist, and his novel combines a high camp sensibility with grave political concerns in a way that’s reminiscent of his Argentinian predecessor Manuel Puig. Lemebel dares to enter the perspective of Pinochet, and is blessedly merciless in his depiction of the ugliness and emptiness of what lies within the dictator’s mind. I wish this novel was better known, and that more of Lemebel’s work was available in English, because my Spanish remains terrible.
Though Lemebel’s novel is fast, funny, and relatively short, I thought of it while reading Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, a nearly 900-page, deeply unfunny book. Like Lemebel, Grossman was determined, at all costs, to speak hard—impossible, in his case—truths about the governing ideology of his time. (His novel was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and not published until long after his death, in the 1980s.) After years of people telling me to read it, I was finally convinced to take it on over afternoon beers with an n+1 editor, who made it clear that our continuing friendship was contingent upon my reading it. OK, I haven’t finished it yet. But after a few hundred pages, I can safely affirm that it is one of the most emotionally intense books I’ve ever read—page after page of horror and empathy across the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, including possibly the most devastating letter—from a mother, being sent to a death camp, to her son—in all of literature. I cried while reading this book in an airport, and then on a plane, and then on a bus. So maybe read it at home?
Rounding out the nightmare political portion of the year’s reading, I was totally engrossed by Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the brazen murder of a Guatemalan bishop following his involvement in the compilation of a report detailing the military’s atrocities against civilians, many of them indigenous. It’s a fascinating and horrifying work of investigative journalism—if you liked Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keefe (which I certainly did), you should read this, as well as the scabrously funny Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionally depicts the writing of a report very much like the one Bishop Gerardi was murdered over.
I read Her First American by Lore Segal after reading about it in a great essay on Segal’s work by Madeleine Schwartz. It’s a novel about an Austrian war refugee falling in love with an alcoholic black intellectual in New York in the ’50s. It may well be the perfect novel. It seems criminally under-known, or under-discussed at least. I read it around the same time as I read For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly dark novel about a woman who serves as a field nurse in the Vietnam War, then returns home to a grim and circumscribed existence. I think the title might be holding this one back from becoming the modern classic it should be. That led me associatively, I think, to The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I had pretended to have read for years. It’s really great! And Dorothy just put out a funky collection of her nonfiction, Me, that is well worth reading, too.
I read two and a half books of Proust—part two of The Guermantes Way through The Captive—and decided that he is not overrated. I also read a bunch of Annie Ernaux, and I’m currently reading The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. I wish I knew French. I wish I was French.
I read excellent new books by my friends. Caleb Crain’s novel Overthrow and Andrew Marantz’s nonfiction chronicle Antisocial make a nice holiday pair, covering the surveillance state and the rise of the right-wing Internet with matching red and black covers. Adam Sachs’s The Organs of Sense is the funniest, smartest book about an eyeless astronomer you’ll ever read. And Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is the best novel of next year—I’m so sure of it that I’m not going to bother reading any other new books in 2020.
Finally, I listened to James Atlas’s lovely audiobook reminiscence of his friendship with Philip Roth. It’s a short, sweet New York memoir that captures the character of the great novelist and biographer, both now gone and deeply missed. Let it serve as an elegiac gateway back into their unruly, essential bodies of work.
Most of my 2019 has been spent in a blur of hating words—my own. Editing a 140,000-word transcript that would eventually become a book forced me to confront daily misspellings, grammatical blunders, fact-checks, writing tics. It was enough to make me hate the act of writing more than I usually do.
The book hit shelves in September, so most of 2019 was spent getting it ready for publishing. It was a work of nonfiction in line with my day job at The New York Times; an insider story about a tech company’s culture gone awry at Uber. But since I spent most of my waking hours this year focusing on a story rooted in the real world, I prefer using my downtime getting as far away from it as possible. Reading for pleasure instead of work almost always consisted of fiction.
I picked up The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at the beginning of the year, in part because, honestly, I liked the cover design. But I also find reading short stories manageable, especially when I’m in the middle of a big project. To approach the end of a stressful day and be able to finish a 30-page story in one sitting feels damn good, like something akin to meeting the end of a section in a 500-plus page novel, but tidier. Normally I worry about missing the aesthetics of a native language in a translated work, but Jay Rubin’s translation abated that fear. I’m a sucker for magical realism; Murakami’s introduction set the tone.
My crippling reliance on Amazon for the most innocuous items led me down a comment-reading hole in February. As it turns out, people have very strong views on toilet plungers and sugar-free gummi bears.
I finally picked up Friday Black—another short story collection—after seeing Tommy Orange’s rave review of it. Orange was right. The book whet my appetite for looking at the worst possible versions of the future that aren’t as far-fetched as one would think. (I’m a huge fan of George Saunders, so Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work was right up my alley.)
I stopped at Powell’s in Portland while touring for my book and saw a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad on sale, a book I meant to read years ago but never got around to. I devoured it in two or three plane rides, an excellent cast of characters blended with rock music, angst, and the existentialism that comes with getting older. I’m mad at myself I hadn’t read it sooner.
I have this latent guilt when I read contemporary releases, which I will fully admit makes little sense. There’s a never-ending flood of books being released by talented people, but something inside my brain feels like I can’t allow myself to read new books when there are so many “classics” I’ve yet to read. How can I pick up something from 2019 when I haven’t read the best of 1819? It’s like a permanent backlog of shitty self-nagging; I don’t recommend it.
To deal with that, I try to throw at least one classic in the mix every month. I try to read Melville once a year, because I am the type of person who likes Melville. (I remember someone once saying “Never date guys who love Moby Dick,” a tidbit of self-consciousness I’ve never forgotten.) I picked up Pnin earlier this year; Nabokov is nothing if not controversial, but his mastery of voice and style keeps me coming back to him. I have a Willa Cather on my nightstand (My Antonia), and reread Wharton’s wintry Ethan Frome over the summer.
Some people read one book at a time before moving on to the next, but I’ve found reading a mix of books, genres, and mediums simultaneously is strangely soothing. Short stories, novels, a bit of poetry—it keeps the mind fresh, and I don’t feel stalled when I’m moving through something that is longer than 250 pages.
So after something like Atwood’s new book, I’ll go back and read All You Need Is Kill, an old manga that was the basis for the (underrated!) film Edge of Tomorrow. I’ve got a pile of Venom and Spider-Man anthologies I’m picking through—Maximum Carnage is one of them, focused on a fun psychopathic character. I’m also picking through the old Preacher comics; years ago, I bought the entire bound series of nine or so books off of some guy on Craigslist for a song. Totally worth it.
There’s this piece of advice I once received that I’ve never forgotten: “Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying.” Internalizing that felt liberating, and helped me put a few books down this year. (The first time I stopped reading a book in the middle of it was when I realized I didn’t like Jack Kerouac, and sold my copy of On the Road after about 100 pages.) I love Kazuo Ishiguro and read Remains of the Day, Nocturnes, and Never Let Me Go (again) this year, but decided about 150 pages in that The Unconsoled was just a little too out there for my taste.
I dutifully read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and enjoyed it, then moved to One Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t get into it, stopping halfway through. Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys was predictably great.
Of course, I still read nonfiction. It helps me make my own work feel and sound better, even if it doesn’t always give me that serotonin hit that fiction affords. I read business classics while writing my own book: The Soul of a New Machine, Barbarians at the Gate, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Den of Thieves. They reminded me how beautiful, elegant writing can be just as present in nonfiction as it is in other mediums.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see friends and mentors write wonderful books that have come out to much acclaim. Namwali Serpell, whom I was a research assistant for during my undergrad years as an English major, wrote the great Zambian novel with The Old Drift. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was, of course, as lovely as everyone knew it would be. I’m in the middle of Anna Wiener’s galley of Uncanny Valley, a memoir of her time spent in Silicon Valley.
I’m trying to branch out a bit more into science fiction, something I’m seeing flourish right now by authors of all walks. I have Jeff VanderMeer and Octavia Butler in the queue, and keep meaning to get into Tana French. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is burning a hole in my bookshelf; that’ll be up soon.
Perhaps I’ll make a dent in all of those in 2020—and hopefully not feel too guilty that they weren’t written at least a hundred years ago.
This year for me seemed sure to be defined by the publication, in May, of my first book, which disrupted absolutely everything around it, like a bowling ball dropped onto a spring mattress in one of those 1990s commercials. In this metaphor, the mattress is my life. The bowling ball is a bowling ball. It crashed down. I quit my day job; I lost my mind; I obsessed for months over how to most effectively present as an author; I changed writing and eating and travel habits; I met a thousand people I’d never met before. Reading, too, was altered.
Going on tour gave me hours in transit to spend with books. On airplanes, I read Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which was laser-focused, jaw-dropping, exquisite, and Normal People by Sally Rooney, which was so sexy and engaging I wanted to scream. (Reading Conversations with Friends at home afterward, I felt the exact same way.) On trains, I read The Affairs of the Falcóns, Melissa Rivero’s claustrophobic, pitch-perfect debut novel, and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s deep dive into the IRA. I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden in a hotel room and then had strange, vivid dreams about magicians all night. I finished Women Talking by Miriam Toews on the subway and wept so hard that my face lotion ran into my eyes and made them burn.
I read books to review and books to blurb. I read books I’d avoided while writing my debut (Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which turned out wider, wilder, and more experimental than I’d dreamed) and books I hope might inform future work (The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon). I even read a book about books: Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum, which was the invaluable publishing guide I wish I’d had in 2018 or in 2017, or had been issued to me in the hospital when I was born.
In the midst of real-life challenges—political horrors, personal reckonings—books gave solace. They contained and named our daily pains; they showed how hard it can be to be alive, and how beautiful, too, how precious, how strange. Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shared the most tender and aching truths about family. Sarah DeLappe’s play, The Wolves, captured the raw, vicious experience of girlhood and of growing up. Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, with its vomiting, shitting, and completely captivating narrator, exposed the brutality of the body. Ling Ma’s novel, Severance, shed new light on late capitalism. Two romance series I gobbled up this year, Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals and Melonie Johnson’s Sometimes in Love, advanced visions of a better, fairer, and sexier world, where everyone might find their happily ever after.
Finally, I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet, because I got pregnant in 2019. The year then redefined itself, making a fetus, a heartbeat, and folic acid supplements the most disruptive things in my life by far. A first baby—nothing to stress or obsess about there, right? No bowling-ball-like upheaval? And I can anticipate that 2020, with an infant, will offer plenty of time for more reading? How wonderful.
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.”
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When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Patrick Radden Keefe, Jen Beagin, Irvine Welsh and more—that are publishing this week.
Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Vacuum in the Dark: “Beagin’s sharp and superb novel finds Mona, from previous novel Pretend I’m Dead, now 26, living in Taos, N.Mex., having followed the dying wishes of her ex-boyfriend, a man she met at a needle exchange and called Mr. Disgusting. Mona cleans houses for a living, shares a ranch house with an older married couple she calls Yoko and Yoko, and claims Fresh Air’s Terry Gross as an imaginary friend-slash-therapist. Prone to falling in love with her clients’ furniture and taking advantage of their absences to create a series of photographic portraits in their homes, Mona often breaches the professional distance between her and her clients. There’s the beautiful and blind therapist Rose, who has given Mona leave to conduct an affair with her husband, whom Mona has nicknamed Dark, and there’s Hungarian artists Lena and Paul, who ask Mona to model for them. Deadpan and savage, Mona has a dark and complicated history she is not afraid to weaponize. When Mona’s mother asks Mona to return to the apartment where she grew up in L.A., Mona must come to terms both with her difficult past and where she can go from here. Beagin pulls no punches—this novel is viciously smart and morbidly funny.”
Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dead Men’s Trousers: “More than 25 years after they first appeared in Trainspotting, all four of Welsh’s hard-living Scottish friends reunite in Edinburgh, roped into an appropriately bizarre and macabre organ harvesting caper. Told from the perspectives of the four protagonists, the novel rolls slowly in the first half, updating their individual biographies separately—readers new to Welsh’s world need not be apprehensive—and setting up the brisker, and inevitably bollixed, execution of the theft plot. Two of these former reprobate mates have successfully escaped their pasts. Renton travels the globe as a music manager. Begbie, who runs into Renton on a plane in the opening chapter, is a successful artist living in California. Spud, whose narrative is most steeped in a slangy Scottish dialect, still lives on the edge and instigates the kidney-napping caper. Sick Boy, like Spud, is still in Edinburgh, and crashing with his sister, Carlotta, who screamingly blames him for the degeneration of her son, Ross, and husband, Euan, apparently on a debauched trip to Thailand. When the four finally get together, much comic mileage is wrung in rehashing old grievances. Not surprisingly, the crime unfolds like a Keystone Kops version of Ocean’s 11, but with an irrevocable final result. Welsh’s entire oeuvre crackles with idiomatic energy and brio, and this rollicking novel is no different.”
That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about That Time I Loved You: “Leung (The Wondrous Woo) presents 10 sweet, sad, sympathetic stories set in Scarborough, Ontario, for a group portrait of immigrants, misfits, adults, adolescents, and teenagers, all of whom discover suburban comfort does not ensure happiness. The first story, ‘Grass,’ takes place in 1979, as 11-year-olds June and Josie ponder two suicides: Mr. Finley, the local softball coach, and Mrs. Da Silva, a housewife with an abusive husband. The girls cannot ask their parents for explanations, because death is one of many subjects parents prefer not to discuss with children. ‘Flowers’ shows Mrs. Da Silva’s last day, as she listens to flowers taunt her in her native Portuguese. In ‘Treasure,’ a woman named Marilyn who is admired by her neighbors turns out to be a thief. In ‘Sweets,’ June’s buddy Naveen gets beaten up when he wears his sister’s heart-shaped sunglasses to school. In ‘Things,’ comic book enthusiast Darren confronts a racist schoolteacher. ‘Wheels,’ ‘Kiss,’ and the title story explore June and Josie’s changing perspectives upon their first experiences of womanhood. Linked by recurring characters such as Darren’s Jamaican mother and June’s grandmother from Hong Kong, together the stories track June’s deepening understanding of the place she calls home. Crystalline prose, sharp storytelling, and pitch-perfect narration enhance Leung’s accessible and affecting depiction of how cruelty undermines and kindness fortifies people’s sense of community.”
We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Must Be Brave: “British author and translator Liardet’s moving American debut, set in WWII England, follows a childless woman discovering joy after she begins caring for a young girl. Ellen Parr is married to Selwyn, owner of the local mill in the village of Upton, near Southampton. In 1940, while helping evacuees of a nearby bombing who have arrived at Upton by bus, Ellen meets Pamela Pickering, a young child left alone on the bus. Ellen treats Pamela as the daughter she never had (Selwyn is impotent) for the next few years, until Pamela is eight and a relative of Pamela’s finds her and takes her to live with family members. Though distraught by Pamela’s departure, Ellen survives the devastation around her with the love and support of Selwyn, her childhood friend Lucy Horne, and other villagers who have been a constant presence in Ellen’s life. Over 30 years later, Ellen befriends Penny Lacey, a lonely young boarding school student in Upton. Ellen glimpses similarities between Pamela and Penny, and they form a life-changing friendship. Readers will be captivated by Ellen’s story, which is bolstered by a swift plot and characters who realistically and memorably grow.”
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Say Nothing: “New Yorker staff writer Keefe (Snakehead) incorporates a real-life whodunit into a moving, accessible account of the violence that has afflicted Northern Ireland. The mystery concerns Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, who was snatched from her Belfast home by an IRA gang in 1972. While Keefe touches on historical antecedents, his real starting point is the 1960s, when advocates of a unified Ireland attempted to emulate the nonviolent methods of the American civil rights movement. The path from peaceful protests to terrorist bombings is framed by the story of Dolours Price, who became involved as a teenager and went on to become a central figure in the IRA. While formal charges were never brought against republican leader Gerry Adams in McConville’s murder, Keefe makes a persuasive case that McConville was killed at his order for being an informer to the British—and the author’s dogged detective work enables him to plausibly name those who literally pulled the trigger. Tinged with immense sadness, this work never loses sight of the humanity of even those who committed horrible acts in support of what they believed in.”
Mother Country by Irina Reyn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mother Country: “In Reyn’s excellent exploration of the immigrant experience, a Ukrainian transplant to the United States grapples with the convoluted legacy of her home country. Once head bookkeeper at an important gas pipe factory in east Ukraine, Nadia Andreevna now nannies for a family in Brooklyn, navigating an unfamiliar land of artisanal mayonnaise and American parenting. Nadia had fled the politically destabilized country in 2008, aiming to send for her daughter, Larissa—detained due to a bureaucratic loophole—immediately. But six years have passed, and she spends her days writing pleading letters to senators and obsessively tracking news reports that document mounting violence in her home region. As Nadia resorts to increasingly extreme measures to reunite with her daughter—including scouting American suitors for Larissa at nightclubs—the narrative periodically flips back to Nadia’s raw, affecting life as a single mother in Ukraine, fighting to carve out an existence for herself and her daughter amid a rapidly changing country. When Larissa’s immigration suddenly looms closer, Nadia must reckon with how her memories of Larissa—whom she has not seen for seven years—abut against reality, and learn to forge her way in a culture that poses frequent affronts to her identity. In beautiful and emotionally perceptive prose, Reyn (The Imperial Wife) probes the intimate ways cultures clash within individuals, forcing them to knit together disparate truths to make sense of the world, and provides a tender depiction of how mother-daughter bonds morph over time and space.”
Birthday by César Aira
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Birthday: “In this profound memoir, Aira (The Linden Tree) turns 50 and sees this benchmark as an opportunity to make changes in his life. A casual conversation with his wife leads him to a darker contemplation of youth wasted, a diminishment of artistic authority in his work, and his potentially bleak future. By exploring these fears in a series of loosely organized reflections and anecdotes, Aira comes to terms with his standing as an artist, his achievements, and his future. Immersed in his identity as a writer, he admits to a fetishistic attachment to stationery and pens, and to his struggles with life outside writing. In his early 40s, he began a grand project, a conscious departure from his ‘little novels,’ which he sees as marginal. He calls it the Encyclopedia, envisioning it as a comprehensive book of knowledge. But at 50, all he has is a collection of sketches and plans, with not a single page of manuscript, and it’s unlikely that this ambitious project will be finished. There are thoughtful anecdotes about Ludwig Wittgenstein, a waitress (and budding writer) whom he meets in a café, and Evariste Galois, a brilliant young mathematician killed in a duel in 1832. The reader gradually realizes Aira’s seemingly feigned self-deprecation is actually clear-eyed honesty, and the ostensible simplicity of the volume carries powerful and incisive ideas about life and aging.”