The year has gotten off to a rocky start worldwide, but we hope this semi-annual Millions tradition will be a bright spot. We seem to say this every year, but at 140-something books, this is truly our most gratuitously enormous Preview to date. And yet there are even more books to be read in the first half of this year! As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Hop into the comments to let us know what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!
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Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener: When the history of what went wrong in the first two decades of the 21st century is written, the rampant fragmentation of our attention, the proliferation of propaganda, the inanities and barbarities of social media, New Yorker staff writer Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, will be instrumental in the forensics. An optimistic millennial who absconded from the moribund publishing industry of New York to the supposedly sunny, utopian environs of Silicon Valley, Wiener quickly learns that the counter-cultural promise once embodied by the tech industry has been abandoned in favor of adopting an ethos that’s as at home with any 19th-century robber baron as any of the more conventionally predatory business that dominate American economic life. “But we see now that we’ve been swimming in the Kool Aid,” Wiener writes, “and we’re coming up for air.” Something to think about when you share a (rightfully glowing) recommendation for Uncanny Valley on social media. (Ed S.)
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: No one writes like Yu: he’s at once sincere and funny, his father-son narratives make me tear up, his work is science-fiction-but-not, and he’s always formally inventive. His new novel isn’t like anything else, either: it’s a novel that’s also a screenplay…or a screenplay that busts out of its form to be a novel. In it, actor Willis Wu longs to play more than “generic Asian man” on various TV shows, but the industry—and the world, the culture—won’t let him. This is a book about race and the roles we play, both among strangers and our family. Emily St. John Mandel calls it “Wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original.” (Edan)
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey: Beginning in Italy and ending in San Joaquin Valley, Popkey’s understated and gorgeous debut follows conversations between an unnamed narrator and other women over two decades. Exploring gender, desire, and violence, the slim novel captures the intimacy of female friendships, and the ways women create narratives for themselves and others. A must-read for fans of Jenny Offill. (Carolyn)
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston: This collection of eight lesser-known stories written during Hurston’s time as a student at Barnard in New York City showcase the author’s range. While many know Hurston best for her fiction depicting rural life, these stories brim with the vibrancy and madcap liveliness of the Harlem Renaissance. (Nick M.)
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Cleanness is the work of a writer so absolutely attuned to the world: our paradoxes of love, bodies, desires, regrets. In the morning, a man looks at his lover: “his face bearded and dark, smoothed out by sleep.” There, and elsewhere in Greenwell’s imagery, the material world joins the metaphysical, the rare ability to give shape and texture to the mystical. I wanted to linger on these sentences, but also to follow the routes of these narratives—Greenwell knows the subtle suspense created by careful syntax. “Harbor,” one section in the second half of the book, is a stirring classic unto itself. (Nick R.)
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred D. Taylor: Readers have grown up with the Logan Family saga, told in the classic young adult novels Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis. The new book, the first since prequel The Land in 2001, follows Cassie across the country to college and law school, and then back to Mississippi in the 1960s to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. A major event in young adult fiction. (Lydia)
Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: I’ll read anything by Yoon. A 2014 Young Lions Award winner, Yoon displays uncanny range, imagination, and originality; every novel is so different and surprising. Run Me to Earth, his fourth novel, is also one of the most beautiful galleys I’ve ever seen (yes, I can be shallow that way). Early reviews suggest it is also exceptional inside the covers, Library Journal in a starred review calls this book set in 1960s Laos “essential reading.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick: A fluid, beautifully written story about professional wrestling, intergenerational trauma, genocide, and history, jumping through Armenia to America and from one generation to another. John Williams of the New York Times said of the book, “With a minimum amount of soapiness, he keeps the pages turning on his love triangles and nostalgic wrestlers and brothers at peace and war. And he allows his larger themes to resonate without pushing them on us too hard.” (Lydia)
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: The author of iconic novels like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna returns with her 20th work of fiction, a novel of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War for Chile. Of the new work Colum McCann says “What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time. She knows that all stories are love stories, and the greatest love stories are told by time.” (Lydia)
Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra (translated by Daniel Hahn): A epistolary thriller from the award-winning Brazilian novelist, Blue Flowers is a case of obsession and mistaken identity told in part through letters sent to the wrong man. Catherine Lacey calls it “an elegant and unnerving meditation on the aftermath of love and the lasting power of desire.” (Lydia)
Little Gods by Meng Jin: Jin’s brilliant debut novel centers on Su Lan, a woman who gives birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of Tiananmen Crackdown. By immersing the readers in various personal narratives, Jin raises difficult questions about history, life, and self. For example, are the young protesters on Tiananmen Square driven by their pursuit of a righteous cause or their desire for expansive attention? What does self-erasure lead to? Cultural assimilation or loss of identity or both? What is the relationship between memory and self? Little Gods is elegantly written, emotionally compelling, and thought provoking on every page. (Jianan Qian)
Track Changes by Sayed Kashua: Track Changes is the fourth novel of internationally lauded author, screenwriter, and journalist Kashua. The book’s protagonist, an Arab-Israeli memoirist, receives a note one day that his father is dying. Immediately, he leaves his wife and children in the United States and boards a plane back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. However, his homecoming is coldly received, and an increasing tension between him and his family suggests a long-standing estrangement. Sitting by his father’s sickbed, the protagonist begins to recall the causes of his isolation. But he has meanwhile found himself fabricating memories. On a broad level, Track Changes traces the process of which stories get told and forgot in Palestine and Israel. On each page, it is also a fierce and intelligent exploration of identity, class, relationship, and truth. (Jianan Qian)
The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg: Blending memoir and true crime, Eisenberg’s book recounts the 1980 murders of two young women in rural West Virginia—known as the “Rainbow Murders”—and her time living and working in Pocahontas County. Exploring the intersection of gender, class, and violence, Eisenberg reveals the way the murders inflicted trauma onto generations of Appalachians. Carmen Maria Machado calls the book “a staggering achievement of reportage, memoir, and sociological reckoning.” (Carolyn)
The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka: Culture critic Chayka’s nonfiction book explores the origins of minimalism and where our current obsession stems from. From architects and philosophers to museums and Zen gardens, he reveals that “less is more” is not just about material goods. Jenny Odell says the book “peels back the commodified husk of minimalism to reveal something surprising and thoroughly alive.” (Carolyn)
We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan: In Zancan’s second novel, a group of students at a low-residence MFA program band together to take revenge on a professor who has wronged one of their own. Zancan does a wonderful job of describing the characters who populate this program, with excellent pacing and a momentum that turns the MFA life into a gripping story of professional and personal revenge. (Lydia)
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala: In this English-language debut by the Cuban novelist Gala and translated by Anna Kushner, a newcomer to the small town of Cienfuegos embarks upon a radical project: to construct “the first cathedral for and by the meek.” But the strange, massive project is also seen as a hubristic shrine for “those with darkness in their hearts.” Told by a series of characters—poets, murderers, hustlers—this is an energetic, soaring novel of Gaudi-esque proportions. (Matt)
Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallet: Hughes-Hallet has written several nonfiction works, including a biography (The Pike) of the priapic daredevil Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. At age 65, Hughes-Hallet published her first novel, Peculiar Ground, which described an English estate in the 16th and 20th centuries; Publishers Weekly called the novel a “sprawling epic debut about an enclosed paradise.” Her second work of fiction is a collection of modern-day retellings of myths. In one, for example, an opera singer’s wife, Eurydice, suffers a fall and descends into a coma. Hughes-Hallet is an erudite chronicler well suited to reviving old tales. (Matt)
Heart of Junk by Luke Geddes: “There were antiques and then there were collectibles,” says Margaret, one of the more pedantic dealers of the Heart of America Antique Mall, the fertile comic setting for Geddes’s first novel. Geddes, who has written a short story collection, taxonomizes the stuff accumulated by a society as well as the peculiar souls for whom collecting that stuff constitutes a kind of religion. The struggling merchants hope that being featured on an American Pickers-like show will reverse their fortunes, if a scandal involving a kidnapped toddler doesn’t torpedo the mall first. (Matt)
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: A memoir from the prize-winning poet about crossing the border with his family and living as an undocumented person in the United States. Of the book, Sandra Cisneros writes, “This moving memoir is the document of a life without documents, of belonging to two countries yet belonging to neither. Hernandez Castillo has created his own papers fashioned from memory and poetry. His motherland is la madre tierra, his life a history lesson for our times.” (Lydia)
The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao: “Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all,” we read early on in Tsao’s The Majesties, whose narrator is the sole survivor when her sister poisons 300 people. (Shark-fin soup is the deadly delivery mechanism.) The sisters are scions of an Indonesian textile clan, one of the nation’s richest 50 families. Tsao, who has written two novels in a fantasy series and translated several books of Indonesian poetry and prose, explores the hidden motives behind the Borgia-fication of this hyper-wealthy family. (Matt)
Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: A collection of witty stories from the Irish writer. Kirkus writes, “Flattery’s prose-absurd, painfully funny, and bracingly original-slingshots the stories forward. These female characters never say what you’re expecting, and their insights are always incisive…Nervy, audacious stories in which women finally get to speak their minds.” (Lydia)
Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi: A woman leaves the United States and her failed marriage to return to Pondicherry, only to discover a relative she never knew she had. The novel documents the new life they start together. Gary Shteyngart writes, “Tishani Doshi brings all her skills as one of the world’s best poets to this lovely, beguiling, brilliant novel.” (Lydia)
The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson: “Hard to explain but easy to enjoy” is one way to attempt to define poet-cum-novelist Robertson’s uncategorizable work (per Stephanie Burt). Robertson’s process is one of collecting, assembling, and collapsing sentences into extended forms, such as with her book-length poem, Cinema of the Present. Consider The Baudelaire Fractal, her first novel, an extension of this—in which poet Hazel Smith awakens to find she’s authored the complete works of Charles Baudelaire. According to Bookforum’s Jennifer Krasinski, part of the book’s delight is “wrestling with how exactly to apprehend and define this Escher-like interiority that Robertson and Hazel Brown cohabit—kind of—with him.” (Anne)
An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado: In Testo Junkie, Preciado’s pivotal memoir/”body essay,” he wrote of his experiments with testosterone, its effects on body and mind, and in doing so described the reproductive and social control imposed by the pharmaceutical and porn industries during late capitalism. Preciado’s newly translated An Apartment on Uranus—with a forward by Virginie Despentes—could be considered its sequel. Within, Preciado recounts his transformation from Beatriz to Paul B., while attempting to define a third space beyond existing power, gender, and racial strictures: “My trans condition is a new form of uranism,” he declares. (Anne)
Creatures by Crissy Van Meter: A family story set on the coast of southern California, this debut garnered a starred review of Kirkus: “Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos…A quietly captivating debut.” (Lydia)
A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary: An anthology of essays about migration and belonging, this collection includes work by writers like Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, Jennifer S. Cheng, Nadia Owusu, and Lauren Alwan. Publishers Weekly writes, “this collection is a vital corrective to discussions of global migration that fail to acknowledge the humanity of migrants themselves.” (Lydia)
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: One Story associate editor Napolitano’s Dear Edward opens with a commercial airline crash, and as Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book Review put it, “Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but the book follows Edward, the sole survivor and “world’s most famous orphan,” and in alternating chapters returns to the final minutes of the crash. Based on a real crash, that of Air France Flight 447, this book should keep readers on the edge of their seats. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus that she was born into the Netted to which she aspires. But that promising future also means betraying from the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen deliberately chooses for the novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)
Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and rightwingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)
Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)
Apeirogon by Colum McCann: Drawing upon real-life details and experiences, McCann’s seventh novel examines how friendship and mutual understanding between Palestinian and Israeli fathers can be stitched around grief’s void. Ambitious in scope and kaleidoscopic in form, the novel at once explodes and atomizes one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Its title is fitting: an apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of sides and angles. (Nick M.)
Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)
Indelicacy by Amina Cain: Inhabiting Cain’s novel Indelicacy “is a bit like standing in a painting, a masterful study of light and dark, inside and out, freedom and desire,” writes Danielle Dutton. I’d concur. As I wrote in my 2019 Year in Reading, I developed a kind of synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing, imagining Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within. Needless to say—like its swift, keen title, Indelicacy is graceful and incisive. (Anne)
trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)
The Lucky Star by William Vollmann: Vollmann takes us back to the San Francisco of his early fiction, to the haunts of those who will live and die on the city’s margins. The story centers on Neva, “a woman everybody loves,” who spends a lot of time at a certain bar in the city’s Tenderloin District. For all the contemporaneity in the telling, there is (as always) a certain moral quality to Vollmann’s work. In this one: there is no one on earth, no one, who would not benefit from a little more love and a lot less contempt. (Il’ja)
Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump: Claude McKay Love starts this fantastic debut with this: “‘If there’s one thing wrong with people,’ Paul always said, ‘it’s that no one remembers the shit that they should, and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.'” And we’re off and running in this spirited novel of a kid just trying to be a kid and how difficult that is in our present moment. “An instant American classic for the post-Ferguson/Trump era,” writes Jeff Parker (Ovenman). Library Journal in a starred review says it’s laugh-out-loud funny and “delivers a singular sense of growing up black that will resonate with readers.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)
And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: A rangy yarn-spinner, Sparks is capable of real surprise and real sentiment. There are ghosts here, and women who have been buried in history. In “Our Mutual (Theater) Friend,” a woman “explodes every now and then in the most embarrassing fashion, usually at children’s birthday parties,” waxing “about the vulgarity of modern pizza parlors, upstaging Elmo and Abby and Cookie Monster—not to mention the pirate-themed face painters.” In lists, fables, dreams, and nightmares, Sparks’s characters make noise. A whimsical collection in the tradition of Donald Barthelme, delivered with Sparks’s unique touch. (Nick R.)
The Cactus League by Emily Nemens: “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else,” says the narrator in this novel’s first chapter, “everything changes.” Nemens delivers an engaging, eccentric cast of players, coaches, families, and others who inhabit the world of baseball—including a wise, witty, and somewhat omniscient sportswriter-narrator. From start to finish, Nemens captures the spirit of the game—both on the field and off, all meanings double-played: “Spring is a sensitive time for the ballplayers, working out the kinks of their winters, proving themselves into pitching rotations or fighting to keep themselves in starting lineups, competing against younger knees, quicker bats, unmarried men.” (Nick R.)
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)
I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert: Kispert’s debut story collection weaves through the lives of people whose deceptions have complicated their lives. In one piece, a man hires an actor to pretend to be his friend, in hopes of seeming less lonely and pathetic to a lover he’s worried will leave him. In another, a man’s lie that he’s an avid hunter makes his life difficult when he runs across a deer carcass. Another story features a theater producer who forces death row inmates to stage New Testament crucifixions. Throughout, the author tackles questions of identity and performance, as well as the difficulties of navigating a queer identity. (Thom)
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Celebrated novelist Erdrich, author of Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House, returns to the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in The Night Watchman. One of the most powerful voices in contemporary Native-American literature, Erdrich provides a fictionalization of her own uncle’s story, when he journeyed from North Dakota to Washington DC in 1953 to testify on a congressional hearing about the Termination Act, which would once again abrogate the United States’ treaties with a Native-American nation. The Night Watchmen, as with all of Erdrich’s writing, reminds us that Native-American culture is not hidden in history books and museums, but an identity that is current, or as she writes in The Plague of Doves, “History works itself out in the living.” (Ed S.)
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Millions’ own Mandel is back with The Glass Hotel, the long-awaited sequel to her much-beloved first novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist. Where Station Eleven explored a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a super-plague, The Glass Hotel explores what Mandel calls “the kingdom of money,” locales as disparate as a South Carolina prison and a container ship in international waters, and the messily intertwined lives of half-siblings Vincent and Paul. In a starred review of The Glass Hotel, Publishers Weekly says, “This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.” (Adam P.)
Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction by Nick Ripatrazone: The Millions’ own Ripatrazone has proven himself over the past decade to be one of our most adept critics at explicating the faith of poetry and the poetics of faith. Now in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, Ripatrazone asks in what sense Roman Catholicism informs the writings of some of our most crucial writers, from Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to more surprising authors like Toni Morrison (who converted) and Cormac McCarthy. For Ripatrazone, there is a fruitful tension between those who joined the Church, those who left it, and those who stayed. “Writers long for God,” Ripatrazone argues, “and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” (Ed S.)
Deacon King Kong by James McBride: The National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water returns with a novel set in 1969 in Brooklyn, addressing a murder through the various members of a bustling neighborhood. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.” (Lydia)
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: THE FINAL VOLUME IS UPON US. Mantel dazzled readers with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and now she completes her stunningly good account of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. One of the literary events of the young millennium. (Lydia)
New Waves by Kevin Nguyen: In this debut novel, friends Margo and Lucas’s plan to get revenge on the start-up where they work is upended when Margo dies in a car accident. Tommy Orange says it’s “a brilliant meditation on death and grief in the age of the Internet,” and in its starred review, Publishers Weekly hailed it as a “stellar debut,” calling it “a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism.” (Edan)
Actress by Anne Enright: The acclaimed Irish writer’s latest novel is a mother-daughter story about an aging theater actress, Katherine O’Dell, and her daughter Norah. For years, Norah admired her mother’s bohemian and unconventional path, but when Katherine commits a bizarre crime late in life, Norah has to reconsider her mother’s legacy and confront some long-buried secrets, including her father’s identity. Norah’s investigations into the past are combined with her own search for meaningful work and a life partner. (Hannah)
Lakewood by Megan Giddings: After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies and her family falls on hard times, she drops out of college and applies to participate in a secretive research project. The pay is good, there’s health insurance, but something’s off. Lena, a black millennial, joins a pool of subjects who are all black, Indian, or Latinx; all the researchers are white. Experimental eye drops change brown eyes blue, subjects are given mysterious medication, and it soon becomes clear that Lena’s participation may require more sacrifices than she’s willing to make. Giddings’s debut novel, Lakewood takes a long and horrified look at the costs levied on people of color in the name of science. (Kaulie)
Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera: This novel is the coming-of-age-while-coming-out story of 15-year-old Francisca, who is dragged against her will from Bogotá to Miami, where she is subjected to feverish religious services in a stinky room at the Hyatt, among other indignities of “Yanquiland.” But Francisca finds herself falling in love with the pastor’s daughter, and the novel becomes a layered portrait of exile, sexual awakening, and family bonds. As wise young Francisca puts it: “Women in my family possessed a sixth sense…from the close policing of our sadness: Your tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective female sadness to which we all contributed.” (Bill)
It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan: As its uplifting title implies, McMillan’s new novel is about women of a certain age refusing to see the late stage of life as a dreary slide toward death. At the center of a reunited group of high school classmates is 68-year-old Loretha Curry, head of a beauty-supply empire, whose world is turned upside down by an unexpected loss. “It’s about living in the here and now,” 68-year-old McMillan tells O magazine, “even being willing to fall in love and live happily ever after in these late chapters of our lives.” Like McMillan’s earlier hits, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, this novel looks destined for the bestseller lists. (Bill)
Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: The prolific cultural critic and author of Men Explain Things to Me returns with a memoir of her development as an artist as a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s and the violence against women that undergirds American life. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Absorbing…A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.” (Lydia)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: At 15, Vanessa Wye enters into an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, Vanessa must reckon with their relationship when Jacob is accused of sexually abusing another student. Author Janet Fitch says: “It’s breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.” Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity. (Carolyn)
Later by Paul Lisicky: In his newest memoir, Lisicky explores his coming-of-age as a gay man living in Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1990s. As the AIDS epidemic rages on, Lisicky searches for love and community in the face of grief, illness, and uncertainty. About the radiant memoir, Rebecca Makkai writes: “Both telescopic and microscopic, this story challenges and illuminates—and, as only the best books do, leaves the reader fundamentally transformed.” (Carolyn)
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn: The author was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island and this is the novel that will help many of us realize we need to read more fiction from Hawai‘i. In 1995, 7-year-old Nainoa Flores falls over the side of a cruise ship, but is rescued by a shark—a divine favor. When fortunes turn, his family are forced to confront their bonds, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. Marlon James calls it, “a ferocious debut.” (Claire)
Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby: A collection of essays on life, love, and work by the piercingly funny and trenchant writer, to follow the best-selling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The new collection documents bad dates with new friends, weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers,” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Read Irby’s latest piece on settling down, for The Cut. (Lydia)
Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos: A thriller of political and familial intrigue set against the public relations campaign for a New Mexico airport by the NBCC board member. Tim O’Brien calls the book “a suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable novel that explores the themes of betrayal, deceit, redemption, and cultural collision in modern-day New Mexico.” (Lydia)
August by Callan Wink: The author’s debut novel follows his 2016 short story collection, Dog, Run, Moon—a set so good that I hoped Wink could distract himself from fly-fishing long enough to range further and give us a novel. And now he has: this testament of the obstacles encountered by a Michigan boy battling his way toward manhood. Told with all the economy, clarity of character, and lively prose that mark Wink’s short stories, this is writing that would tell just as well around the campfire as it does on the page. (Il’ja)
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang: In what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has described as an “immaculate debut novel” and “a wholly engaging joy to read,” Chang follows a 24-year-old Asian-American woman as she leaves a prestigious tech reporting job in Silicon Valley to move with her boyfriend to upstate New York. The move, precipitated by her boyfriend’s entrance into graduate school, is more of an excuse than a reason. The narrator has been searching for a way out. But once there, she finds herself captivated by stories of Asian Americans in history, and forced to think more deeply than she ever has about her role in an interracial relationship. In this tender, funny coming-of-adulthood story, Chang asks what it means to live in a society that does not notice or understand you. (Jacqueline)
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: In a starred review, Kirkus called the latest novel from science fiction luminary Jemisin “fierce, poetic, uncompromising.” Set in Jemisin’s hometown of New York City, this work of speculative fiction features five New Yorkers who must come together to defend their city against the Enemy, which Jemisin described, in an interview with EW, as “a dangerous otherwordly tourist…trying to supernaturally gentrify the city to death.” Toilet stalls attack, backyard pools become portals, and FDR traffic “becomes a literal, tentacled killer.” So, your standard work of social realism. I can’t wait for this one. (Jacqueline)
So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith: Forty-two stories, some short, some not, some in email and one in the form of a recipe, make up Cross-Smith’s So We Can Glow. Different as they are, all the stories focus on the strange hearts of women and girls—brave and broken, longing and loving—and weave together to create this structurally playful and lyrically rich second collection. (Kaulie)
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: A collection of razor-sharp stories on technology, pathology, and humanity from a hugely talented writer. (Lydia)
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth: The author’s sixth book has a nigh-unforgettable premise: Two auditors for the American egg industry hatch an improbable plot to steal a thousand chickens from a farm in the dead of night. They assemble a team, gather their supplies, and head to the farm in question, where (predictably) a chain of disasters ensues. The author employs a wide range of voices—including, at one point, a chicken explaining what she thinks will happen when she dies—to furnish a heist story that’s unlike anything else. (Thom)
We Ride upon Sticks by Quan Barry: From the author of the acclaimed novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, We Ride upon Sticks is a wickedly funny and moving story that is set in the 1980s in Danvers, Mass., where the 1692 witch trials took place. The novel focuses on members of the Danvers High School girls’ field hockey team who will do anything to win—even witchcraft. A Kirkus starred review says “readers will cheer them on because what they’re really doing is learning to be fully and authentically themselves.” Maris Kreizman says the novel is “A perfect blend of aesthetic and narrative pleasure…It’s very funny and a little angry and a lot of fun.” (Zoë)
Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita: Yamashita blends Jane Austen’s characters with stories of Japanese Americans in this dynamic collection. In merging these characters, she reconsiders canonical works, questions cultural inheritance, and experiments with genre and form. Julie Otsuka says “whether she is riffing on Jane Austen, channeling Jorge Luis Borges, or meditating on Marie Kondo, Yamashita is a brilliant and often subversive storyteller in superb command of her craft.” (Zoë)
Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian: Arian’s first English novel follows Iranian bus driver Yunus Turabi who leads a simple life until he’s arrested during a strike. Kirkus’s starred review says calls the novel “a distressing, smartly interior tale of the horrors sown by oppressive politics.” (Carolyn)
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman: Zigman (Piece of Work) chronicles the downward spiral of a once-successful children’s book author whose life in midlife starts to erode—and so she does what? Inexplicably starts wearing the family dog in a BabyBjörn. Kirkus calls it “adept at Where’d You Go Bernadette–style snarkery.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: Following the success of Hua’s wonderful novel A River of Stars, Counterpoint is reissuing her debut collection of stories with new, never-published work. (Lydia)
Ordinary Insanity by Sarah Menkedick: A work of nonfiction and reportage on the crisis of maternal anxiety that is still treated as a taboo in American society. (Lydia)
I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux: A new collection of essays by the New York Times-bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus. In his new collection, Arceneaux explores how debt and a fear of personal economic collapse affect his decisions from dating to seeking medical care. (Lydia)
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)
Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixoticism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)
Mothers Before by Edan Lepucki, ed.: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)
Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)
The House of Deep Water by Jeni McFarland: River Bend, Mich., is a small town much like any other, except that it’s the hometown the three women at the core of McFarland’s debut novel couldn’t wait to leave. Years later, Linda, Paula, and Beth reluctantly return and soon find themselves living together at Beth’s father’s house. A May-December relationship, the arrest of one woman’s abuser, a confrontation over the town’s quiet racism, and all a small town’s secrets and scandals confront the women, who find it difficult to keep as quiet as they used to do. Recommended for readers who loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. (Kaulie)
Passage West by Rishi Reddi: It’s 1913 in California and Ram Singh has just arrived, anxious to make his fortune so he can return to his wife and infant son in India. He takes work on a friend’s cantaloupe farm, forcing fruit out of the desert of the Imperial Valley, while many others from the world over work farms up and down the valley. But anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in both support and violence, and a rift between friends threatens to finally uproot everything Singh has built. (Kaulie)
The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of (Gary) Lutz and (Diane) Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the later (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)
The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who are able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)
What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Haruki Murakami has called Kawakami his favorite new writer—which was enough to pique my interest! Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, this two-part novel tells the story of two sisters, one unmarried and childless, the other married with a daughter. In the first part of the book, the daughter is 12 and nervous about growing up; meanwhile her mother is looking into breast enhancement surgery. The second part of the novel takes place 10 years later, when the younger sister is contemplating artificial insemination. (Hannah)
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: When it comes to evoking the jagged edge of contemporary anxiety there might not be a more insightful writer working today than Moshfegh. That is, if the boundless dark potential of the human psyche is your thing. If it’s not, this atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat might not be for you. But, sophisticated reader that you are, you’re not afraid of the dark. Right? (Il’ja)
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)
Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)
A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman): In his Year in Reading, Omar El Akkad wrote called this “The book I’ve thought about the most this year.” In this novel by the Spanish writer, 32 seemingly feral children arrive unannounced in an Argentine town. Edmund White, in his introduction, called it “One of the best books I’ve ever read.” (Lydia)
Kept Animals by Kate Milliken: Milliken, who won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, explores the fissures that undergird a ranch, a stable, and a community in Topanga Canyon, Calif., just before a catastrophic fire. With themes of class, race, migration, work, land, and ownership, this is a beautifully written novel. (Lydia)
Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar: It’s rare to find a gripping archival mystery, which is unfortunate because archival mysteries are some of the best ones. In this novel of the gorgeous California coast, Sligar invents a troubled, tragic artist whose fate is pieced together through the clues in her archive, which a young journalist at loose ends is hired to put in order. A literary thriller that is also an exploration of art, women’s ambition, violence, and mental health. (Lydia)
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.”” (Lydia)
The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah: A novel that explores the aftermath of a school shooting told from the perspective of a Palestinian-American girl living in Chicago. Rebecca Makkai calls this “a striking and stirring debut, one that reaches its hands straight into the fire. Sahar Mustafah writes with wisdom and grace about the unthinkable, the unspeakable, and the unspoken.” (Lydia)
St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)
Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud: Trinidad-born Persaud hit the scene with a splash in 2017-2018 when she won both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and BBC National Story Award. Love after Love, her second novel, is a story of complicated, messy families and uncovered secrets, set primarily in Trinidad and New York City. André Aciman describes the novel as “Restless, heartbreaking, and intensely spellbinding.” (Sonya)
American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Novelist Mockett turns to nonfiction with this terribly relevant memoir about the time she spent with the conservative evangelicals who work the harvest on her paternal family’s 7,000-acre Nebraska wheat farm. Mockett, who grew up in northern California with her Japanese mother and a Nebraskan father who put the Midwest and farming behind him, gives herself over for a time to a way of life and ingrained beliefs that others in her milieu might never know from the inside out. Writes Susan Cheever: “Mockett’s account of the harvest is riveting, and the way she navigates her own plural identity as she travels with the combines is brilliant.” Fans of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota may especially want to check this one out. (Sonya)
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)
Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer: An Iranian man who has spent his life as a government interrogator travels to New York on a diplomatic mission and agrees to fulfill his deceased father’s wish of being buried in Iran, carrying his ashes back and reflecting on his own life on the way. (Lydia)
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: A story of four women in Seoul and the way that economic and social realities determine the paths available to them. Helen Oyeyemi writes, “Each voice in this quartet cuts through the pages so cleanly and clearly that the overall effect is one of dangerously glittering harmony. The tale told here is as engrossing as a war chant, or a mosaic formed with blades, every piece a memento sharpened on those unyielding barriers between us and our ideal lives.” (Lydia)
Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro: Forget eyes as the window to the soul: It’s really one’s pets who animate one’s intimate desires and projections. Case in point: Both my brother and partner’s brother recently have been transformed into baby-talking, cat-and-dog toting men (respectively) because of their fierce attachments. Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro, is a collection of original writing and art by fiction writers, poets, and academics, including Christine Schutt, Blake Butler, Scott McLanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, and Sarah Manguso. The menagerie accounted for includes a killer chihuahua, a catatonic toy poodle, and a backyard full of endangered desert tortoises. (Anne)
The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi: A story of tales told through generations, and the odd twists and turns of a man’s life, culminating in the Iranian Revolution. (Lydia)
Pew by Catherine Lacey: To some degree all of Lacey’s fiction focuses on ontology and states of being, conveying the intimacy of relationships, as well as their built-in claustrophobia and desire to flee. Lacey has a way of articulating this in a way that’s both beautiful and delightfully jarring. It seems this counterbalance of delightful and jarring will also hold true in her third novel, Pew (what a name, even), which depicts the itinerancy of a person shuffled between homes during a Forgiveness Festival, and who is nicknamed such for having been found sleeping in a church pew. (Anne)
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Little Eyes is her second novel to be translated into English (her first was the frenzied Fever Dream). In Spanish the novel’s title is Kentukis, which is also the name for the cutesy device, described as a “creepier Furby,” that acts as a portal between lives of the owner and the person who has purchased essentially a voyeur’s right to its camera feed. Embedded within this novel of international interconnectivity are questions of the exhibitionism and voyeurism tied up in our use of technology. Expect echoes of the Wachowskis’ Sense8, except told with what has been characterized as Schweblin’s “neurotic unease.” (Anne)
Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour: A collection of linked essays reflecting on Khakpour’s experience growing up in a family who fled Iran for Los Angeles and finding her way through intersecting communities during the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States. (Lydia)
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride: A woman walks into a hotel room. Then another, and another. Hotels in Austin, Avignon, Auckland, others, and each room reflects back something of herself. Sometimes she meets a man, sometimes she fights with her memories, and sometimes she thinks about what it would mean to go home. An avid McBride fan ever since A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I eagerly await the arrival of what’s sure to be a darkly brilliant work. (Kaulie)
These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card: A family story that travels from Jamaica to Harlem unveiling its secrets along the way. Victor LaValle says of the novel, “This book is painful and shocking but it can be funny as hell, too. What a talented writer. Maisy Card has written one of the best debut novels I’ve read in many years.” (Lydia)
Drifts by Kate Zambreno: Drifts is Zambreno’s first novel since Green Girl, and is first in a series that continues to explore and reify her obsessions with artistic ambition and the possibilities and failures of literature. Her narrator spends long days alone, corresponding with writers, and taking photos of residents and strays in her neighborhood alike—with nods to the likes of Rilke, Dürer, and Chantal Ackerman, among others. “Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin,” writes Paris Review staffer Rhian Sasseen, as does “her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty.” (Anne)
The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian: Set in his native Detroit in the grim year of 2009, Zadoorian’s new novel, The Narcissism of Small Differences, is a comedy of the compromises Joe Keen, a failed fiction writer, and Ana Urbanek, an advertising copy writer, have made over the course of their long relationship. Their compromises come in many flavors—financial, moral, professional—and as these two creative types near their dreaded 40s, they’re forced to confront the people they have become because of those compromises. Like Zadoorian’s earlier novels—The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, The Leisure Seeker and Beautiful Music—this new novel brims with wit, passion and soul. (Bill)
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon: This novel intertwines the lives of three women across centuries: Lily, a mother in Brooklyn in 2016 who is grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires; Vivian, a political wife in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., who refuses to obey her ambitious husband; and Esther, an independent young woman in ancient Persia who is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king. Solomon, the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride, explores how things have both changed and stayed the same. Mary Beth Keane says it’s “searingly inventive, humane, and honest.” (Claire)
Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: The capstone of Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy, this latest novel returns to the life of the boy David, the protagonist of the first two books in the series. But this time it’s David—in perhaps the story’s sole clear analogy to the life of Christ—dying too young. And was his life, stripped of every cursory marker of identity, worth anything? Is everything, as the sages have told us, meaningless? Coetzee, via David, leaves us with better template by which to ask—if never answer—these questions. (Il’ja)
All Adults Here by Emma Straub: I keep hearing online chatter that this is Straub’s best novel yet. When Astrid Strick witnesses an accident, a suppressed memory causes her to question the legacy of her parenting to her now-grown children. Elizabeth Strout says it’s, “totally engaging and smart book about the absolutely marvelous messiness of what makes up family.” Ann Patchett says it’s “brimming with kindness, forgiveness, humor.” Straub is a New York Times-bestselling author and co-owner of the vibrant Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic. (Claire)
Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford: Pulitzer-Prize winner Ford’s latest is a short story collection that explores themes of love and loss, taking readers to his native Mississippi, as well as New Orleans and Canada. The volume includes a novella, The Run of Yourself, which depicts a New Orleans widower learning to cope without his Irish wife. (Hannah)
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet: A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one takes place at a family vacation, where 12 children break off from their parents’ revelries and find themselves in apocalyptic circumstances. Karen Russell calls Millet “A writer without limits.” (Lydia)
Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron: A memoir on love and addiction in the early days of motherhood. (Lydia)
Shiner by Amy Jo Burns: Burns’s memoir, Cinderland, powerfully evoked the post-industrial ruins, both physical and psychic, of her childhood home in Mercury, Penn. In Shiner, she returns with a book similarly rooted in geography, the story of 15-year-old Wren Bird, who lives in isolation on a West Virginia mountain with her mother and father, an itinerant preacher and snake-handler. When tragedy strikes at one of her father’s sermons, Wren is forced to discover the truth about her family and imagine a life outside of her cloistered West Virginia existence. The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State, calls Shiner “a lush, gripping novel that explores love, grief, rage, and regeneration in a small Appalachian community,” and says, “I won’t forget the haunting mood, place, and characters that Burns brings to life.” (Adam P.)
Beauty by Christina Chiu: Amy Wong is an up-and-coming designer in New York, navigating a largely chauvinistic and cutthroat world and trying to see just where her ambition takes her. Novelist Michael Cunningham calls it “beautiful in the way of a scalpel blade.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Quotients by Tracy O’Neill: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree O’Neill’s (The Hopeful) sophomore effort follows a young couple attempting to make a seemingly conventional home together—but this story turns into a heady brew of fractured identities, aliases, big data, and what it means to live in this age of terrorism and global surveillance. Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human) describes it as “a love story rendered in galloping prose that takes you all over the map.” Looking forward to this timely and intriguing work. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)
Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha: Beha’s novel begins in 2009, with two prophets: a street preacher who promises an apocalyptic “Great Unveiling,” and Sam Waxworth, a religious skeptic and software engineer whose “political projection system” predicted every result of the 2008 election. Now a writer, Waxworth has been assigned a piece on Frank Doyle, a legendary, infamous commentator of baseball and politics. The assignment turns out to be more than Waxworth expected, widening and revealing his own faults. Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction—even down to the probing dialogue of his characters. (Nick R.)
Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak: Evelyn is in her late 30s struggling with an existential crisis, driving Californian freeways and avoiding her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband. As the novel unfolds, she decides to work with terminally ill patients, and the work allows her to grapple with her grief and pushes her to confront her past. Lydia Kiesling says, “Life Events is a hypnotic novel that beautifully grapples with fundamental questions about how to die and how to live. Karolina Waclawiak transports the reader into the streets of Los Angeles, the deserts of the southwest, the apartments of the dying, and a woman’s life at a moment of profound change.” (Zoë)
This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah: A collection of linked essays explores her experience of Americanness as the child of Gujarati immigrants in western New York and elsewhere. Kiran Desai says of the book, “While this memoir is frequently heartbreaking, it also dazzles with incandescent humor. One of the most nuanced, wise, and tender portraits of immigration I have ever read.” (Lydia)
Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma: Francis-Sharma’s prose shines in this epic and propulsive historical novel that is set in Trinidad and the American West, and follows the life of Rosa Rendón, who is talented, bright, and fierce. Laila Lalami writes that the novel “recreates the hybrid history of Native and African peoples during the era of American exploration and expansion,” and Peter Ho Davies says that it “adds (or better say restores) another strand to our national narrative. We’re all the richer for Book of the Little Axe.” (Zoë)
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: A personal account of her own immigration story and a probing assessment of how nationality is conceived of in America by the author of The Other Americans and The Moor’s Account. Viet Thanh Nguyen says of the book “Laila Lalami has given us a clear-eyed, even-handed assessment of this country’s potential—and its limits—through her insightful notion of conditional citizenship. Her book is a gift to all Americans—if they are willing to receive it.” (Lydia)
A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: From the author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of stories that go from Regency England to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (Lydia)
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: Critic and fiction writer Masad’s debut novel follows 27-year-old Maggie Krause, whose mother has just died in a car crash. On her return home, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes from her mother, each addressed to a man Maggie doesn’t know. Maggie sets out on a road trip to discover the truth about her mother’s hidden life, and her own difficulties with intimacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as a “queer tour de force.” (Jacqueline)
F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton: A debut collection of stories taking place in post-coal Appalachia, featuring dead humans, dead honeybees, told with humor and heart. Rachel Heng writes, “These stories take you apart slowly, piece by piece, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late. The stories are in your blood now. They live in you, with all their strangeness and decay, isolation and comfort, hellscapes and moments of grace.” (Lydia)
Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more— in a woman named Phoebe. (Carolyn)
Latitudes of Longing by Shubangi Shwarup: Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020, this novel brings together characters as disparate as a geologist and a yeti. Nilanjana S. Roy writes, “Astonishing and completely original, Shubhangi Swarup’s magical novel will change the way you see people—and landscapes, forests, the oceans, snow deserts. She stirs your curiosity about the earth, takes you from sadness and heartbreak to rich, unexpected surprises, and finds hope in the cracks of broken lives.” (Lydia)
My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir: A Haitian family who settles in New York and falls on hard times has the house itself to contend with in this literary thriller that Carolina De Robertis says “is poised to blow the roof off.” (Lydia)
Fairest by Meredith Talusan: A memoir about migration, transition, difference, and growing up by an award-winning journalist and editor of them. Garrard Conley calls this “a truly brilliant memoir with sparkling sentences, navigating incredibly complex questions of privilege with ease and candor.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s bestselling first novel, so I can’t wait for her second, about identical twin sisters who run away from their small Southern town at age 16. Ten years later, one of the sisters is passing as white, and not even her white husband knows the truth. The book moves back and forth in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and, according to the jacket copy, “considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations.” (Edan)
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): A long-awaited novel from elusive genius Ferrante, another work set in Naples. According to Il Libraio, “As you read, a vast panorama of characters slowly unfolds…a diverse and dynamic tableau of humanity. Once again, Elena Ferrante has not created a mere story but an entire world.” (Lydia)
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: By the author of Behold the Dreamers, Mbue’s new novel describes the struggle of a fictional village in Africa to combat a rapacious American oil company. Sigrid Nunez says “Mbue has given us a book with the richness and power of a great contemporary fable, and a heroine for our time.” (Lydia)
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg: You might be tempted to race through all 11 stories in Van Den Berg’s new collection, her first since Isle of Youth in 2013. This would be unwise, because haste and haunting are incompatible, and you really need to live with these ghosts, to slow your eyes over their uncanny weirdness until you’re both unsettled and seen—the hallmark quality of van den Berg’s writing. (Nick M.)
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: A new novel from the literary superstar follows the career of a fictional British psychedelic rock band. Mitchell described the book in the Guardian: “Songs (mostly) use language, but music plugs directly into something below or above language. Can a novel made of words (and not fitted with built-in speakers or Bluetooth) explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Mitchell asked. “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? Utopia Avenue is my rather hefty stab at an answer.” (Lydia)
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: The hotly anticipated debut novel from the editor of Catapult, A Burning takes place in contemporary India and follows three characters from different circumstances as they are thrown together after a bombing. Colum McCann says “This is a novel of now: a beautifully constructed literary thriller from a rare and powerful new voice.” (Lydia)
The Last Great Road Bum by Héctor Tobar: In the 1960s, Joe Sanderson left the Midwest to globe-trot and live a life worth writing about. By 1979, he had joined a leftist band of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, fighting against the U.S.-backed military junta. Not long after, Sanderson was dead, becoming one of only two known Americans to have fought and died for this cause. In the late aughts, Tobar acquired a trove of Sanderson’s writings, and has since used them as an outline for this fictionalized account of Sanderson’s life—which turned out to be worth writing about, after all. (Nick M.)
Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino: The week of her wedding, a woman known only as The Bride is visited by the spirit of her dead grandmother, who appears in the form of a parakeet. Her grandmother tells her: Don’t get married. Seek out your brother. As the novel follows The Bride in the increasingly hectic few days between this encounter and her wedding, Bertino tells a complex story about family, responsibility and the need to become our best selves. (Thom)
Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall: From the author of Our Kind of Cruelty, a book the Washington Post called “strange, sexy,” comes a new mystery about death, grief, and secrets. The book opens with the murder of Nancy Hennessy, a woman whose life looks perfect from the outside (money, loving family, etc.). But wait! This may surprise you, but Nancy’s life is not perfect. When the investigators fail to come up with answers, Nancy’s two best friends must take it upon themselves to learn what really happened to her. Out come secrets galore, plus a nuanced depiction of complex female friendships. For fans of Patricia Highsmith and Paula Hawkins. (Jacqueline)
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoun Frazier: A kind of sibling/cousin to Convenience Store Woman, Frazier’s Pizza Girl follows the picaresque adventures of an 18-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl in suburban L.A. Her life becomes further complicated when she befriends and becomes obsessed with a single mother on her route. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry: Spanning decades, Castleberry’s mysterious debut novel follows The Seekers, a group who wants to create a utopia, and the violence that rises to meet—and squash—them. Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan calls the novel “sharply-tuned, funny, satisfyingly strange, and preternaturally poised.” (Carolyn)
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: A novel of self-discovery following a Palestinian-American girl as she navigates queerness, love addiction, and a series of tumultuous relationships. Tony Tulathimutte says of the book, “Zaina Arafat speaks for the persistently hungry.” (Lydia)
Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman: Wendy Doe, found on a bus to Philadelphia, has no money, ID, or memory. Suffering from dissociative fugue, she becomes a body to be experimented on to some, a source of fascination and wonder for others. But who is Wendy Doe, really? Untethered from obligations and history, who can she become? The novel follows on the success of Wasserman’s first book, Girls on Fire. Leslie Jamison praises it as “not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightness by Emily Temple: The first novel from LitHub senior editor Temple, The Lightness is “psychologically wise and totally wise-assed, all while being both cynical and spiritual,” according to one Mary Karr. After Olivia runs away to a place known as the Levitation Center, she joins the camp’s summer program for troubled teens and falls into a close-knit group of girls determined to learn to levitate. Of course, it’s not that easy, could even be dangerous, but Olivia’s search for true lightness pushes her towards the edge of what’s possible in this novel that blends religious belief, fairy tales and physics. (Kaulie)
A Short Move by Katherine Hill: By the author of the novel The Violet Hour and co-author of The Ferrante Letters, this novel follows a young man from Virginia through his rise to the NFL, and takes the microscope to the disintegration of his life as an adult. (Lydia)
My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital.
Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo.
As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism.
Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”
Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it.
William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019.
So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes’s is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the “Warren Commission,” the “9/11 Commission Report”, and the “Mueller Report,” Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone.
Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day.
If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder.
“Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement.
Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.”
Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age.
Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax.
Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her.
Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism.
Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders.
Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them.
“He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory.
Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power.
In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen.
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial.
The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece.
Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism.
Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief.
Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia.
“My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules.
No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.”
Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter.
For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times.
Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food. What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris.
Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic.
A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first.
Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Peter Orner, Marcy Dermansky, Charles Simic, James Tate, and more—that are publishing this week.
Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Maggie Brown & Others: “‘I’m always interested in the way people edit the details of their lives, the way they compress all the years into sentences,’ says the narrator of one of this collection’s 44 powerful tales, expressing Orner’s talent for crafting captivating character sketches that read like memoirs. Loosely linked by their shared settings (Chicago; Fall River, Mass.) and characters, the stories comprise a mosaic of lives remarkable primarily for an ordinariness—one character reflects that ‘his friends, his family, considered him a failure, he knew, not a spectacular failure, a mundane, run-of-the-mill failure’—that occasionally is thrown into sharp relief by a dramatic incident, such as a near car crash that reveals the narrator’s true nature in ‘My Dead,’ or a young man’s taunting, in the title story, of a disaffected roommate whom he doesn’t know is carrying a gun. The final story, ‘Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella,’ crystallizes the concerns of the stories that precede it in its account of a middle-aged Jewish businessman struggling to stay on top of what characters in another story think of as ‘a world with so little sense of order.’ Readers will sympathize with Orner’s characters and identify with their all-too-human frailties.”
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Very Nice: “The sly, deceptively simple and thoroughly seductive fourth novel by the author of The Red Car keeps a small cast of weirdly interrelated characters in constant motion. In the first few pages, as the academic year ends, clueless, dreamy college student Rachel seduces her passively willing creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, whose stint at her liberal arts college has just ended. He proceeds to hand off his standard poodle, Princess, to Rachel while he returns to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother, and Rachel takes Princess to her childhood home in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, where her mom, Becca—adrift after her own poodle has died and her husband, Jonathan, has left her for airline pilot Mandy—falls in love with the dog. When Zahid returns to pick up Princess, he falls for Becca and her poolside lifestyle, and drifts through the summer with her, while Rachel, ignorant of the affair, keeps trying to lure him into her bed. Intersecting their lives are twins Khloe, who works with Jonathan, and Kristi, a writer who offers a job at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the reluctant Zahid. When conflict between mother and daughter reaches a head, Zahid is caught in the middle and faces an eviction from the edenic existence he has been savoring. Bouncing between points of view, Dermansky confines herself to snappy, brisk paragraphs and short sentences, with much of the psychic action between the lines. Her sharp satire spares none of the characters and teeters brilliantly on the edge of comedy and tragedy.”
Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Come Closer and Listen: “Pulitzer-winner Simic (The Lunatic) has mastered a deceptively simple and straightforward lyric style that has served him well over two dozen books of poetry. His latest is no different in this regard, noting (and plucking) ‘the cunning threads/ By which our lives are rigged.’ Simic’s world is a quiet one, though its quietness is haunted with echoes of wars, scams, loves had and lost, and a wry smile that seems to know the score no matter how dark the world gets. ‘They say Death/ Hid his face in his hood/ So he could smile too,’ Simic writes, ‘I like the black keys better/ I like the lights turned down low/ I like women who drink alone/ While I hunch over the piano/ Looking for all the pretty notes.’ These poems are often slyly funny, emotionally generous, and wrapped up in the lives of the people they depict—children at play, men and women in private moments, mythical figures and deities outside their myths. Some of the new poems, such as ‘The American Dream,’ arrive as premade classics, evoking times past in a stilted, twilit present and reminding readers of Simic’s keen eye for the restless, the absurd, and the enduringly human.”
The Government Lake by James Tate
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Government Lake: “In this imaginative second posthumous volume after Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, Tate (1943–2015) offers his last absurdist fables, including one discovered in the writer’s typewriter after his death. If the poems of Tate’s career—which included winning the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize—have frequently invoked death as one among several transformations, its presence in these poems is particularly striking: a fox eats a house full of chickens, a snake kills and replaces a pet dog, and a nun spontaneously combusts and reappears at the edge of a crowd. The rest of the book investigates impermanence with Tate’s signature combination of sly humor and poignant sincerity. But the pivots of this collection are the workings of memory or language: ‘Not quite. Oliver sat in his chair like a man in a mudhole. Oliver sat in his chair like a pixie on a rosebud. I think that might be it.’ When Tate brings these linguistic shifts to the voices of his speakers, the poems are among his best, as in the title poem: ‘‘What about that man out there?’ I said, pointing to the tire. ‘He’s dead,’ he said. ‘No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,’ I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. ‘Now he’s dead,’ he said.’ These prose poems offer a familiar reentry into the humor and unexpectedness of Tate’s world.”
Semicolon by Cecelia Watson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Semicolon: “In this impressive debut, Watson, a historian and philosopher of science, takes readers through a lively and varied ‘biography’ of the semicolon. She covers the punctuation mark’s history (which began in 1494 Venice, in a travel narrative about scaling Mount Etna) and changing grammatical function, from creating rhythm to separating two independent clauses, along with the love/hate relationship writers have long had with it. Watson argues, with growing passion as the book progresses, that the semicolon, and punctuation in general, must be deployed with flexibility, not rigid adherence to precedent, and even finds court cases to prove her point, including a controversy in 1900 Massachusetts over whether the semicolon in an onerously restrictive state liquor statute was meant to be read as a comma instead, thus making the law far more liberal. Watson lands an especially strong point with her takedown of the inflexibility and ‘rule mongering of the David Foster Wallace types’ and especially of Wallace himself, for a ‘speech he liked to give to black students whose writing he perceived to be… ‘non-standard.’’ The stress on compassionate punctuation lifts this work from an entertaining romp to a volume worth serious consideration.”
The Snakes by Sadie Jones
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Snakes: “Jones’s propulsive yet thoughtful fifth novel (after Fallout) grips readers from the first page. Bea Adamson is a 30-year-old psychotherapist living in a modest one-bedroom in London with her real estate agent husband, Dan Durrant, despite her moneyed background. Dan, who is of a much humbler background, dreams of becoming an artist. When Bea and Dan take three months off to travel, their first stop is France, where Bea’s older brother, Alex, runs a hotel. When they arrive, they’re greeted by a hotel devoid of guests other than the snake infestation in the attic and an erratic, newly sober Alex. When Alex and Bea’s extremely wealthy parents, Griff and Liv, unexpectedly arrive at the hotel, Bea, who has long cut financial and personal ties with her severe father and cloying mother, resigns herself to making nice. And with Griff and Liv’s arrival, Dan begins to understand just how well-off Bea is, no matter how much she wants to forsake her upbringing. However, when Alex goes out one night and doesn’t return, the Adamson family is upturned, and their secrets and twisted relationships with each other are brought to light. The campy ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book—but what precedes is a tightly crafted, deeply moving, and thrilling story about how money corrupts and all the myriad ways members of a family can ruin each other.”
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lightest Object in the Universe: “A near-future apocalypse forms the backdrop for an intense, moving romance in Eisele’s smart debut. After the U.S. suffers runaway inflation, natural disasters, a flu epidemic, massive protests, and, finally, a nationwide cyberattack on the power grid, society breaks down. Somewhere on the East Coast, high school principal Carson Waller begins a cross-country trek in hopes of finding Beatrix, a woman he’d fallen in love with over email. Biking, walking, and hitchhiking, he slowly makes his way with the help of strangers who often talk about Jonathan Blue and the Center he leads, where food and amenities are provided for all who come. In alternating chapters, the story explores how Beatrix sows the seeds of a community through trade of goods and services with her West Coast neighbors. With no modern means of communication, Beatrix turns to the airwaves to share information, starting a radio show that becomes the center of a new group—and a beacon for Carson—that offers an alternative to the promises of Blue. Fans of Station Eleven will particularly enjoy this hopeful vision of a postapocalyptic world where there is danger, but also the possibility for ideas to spread, community to blossom, and people to not just survive, but thrive.”
The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Golden Hour: “The stories of two remarkable women a generation apart are cleverly intertwined in Williams’s sweeping family saga. In 1941, Lulu Randolph, a 25-year-old widowed American journalist, is in Nassau, Bahamas, to write society articles about the duke and duchess of Windsor, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. The duke—as governor of this island paradise with a dark side—and the duchess are portrayed as sometimes helping, but often contributing to, its problems of social inequality, racial tension, and corruption; they could also be complicit in the murder of gold mine owner Harry Oakes, and there are whispers of their Nazi sympathies. As Lulu’s royal access leads her deeper into Nassau’s shady political world and into a murky letter-passing operation with the duke and duchess, she falls in love with Benedict Thorpe, an English botanist with a mysterious background, who is captured by the Nazis in Europe. In the second story line, set in 1900, young German baroness Elfriede von Kleist suffers from postpartum depression; her sister-in-law banishes her to a Swiss clinic. She falls in love with an English patient, Wilfred Thorpe; their relationship takes many twists and turns as a result of Wilfred’s military career, Elfriede’s husband’s betrayal, and two tragic deaths. Past and present come together when a complicated family history becomes known to all. Williams (The Summer Wives) illuminates the story with exotic locales and bygone ambience, and seduces with the irresistible Windsors. Readers will appreciate the wartime espionage that keeps the suspense high.”
Inhabitation by Teru Miyamoto
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inhabitation: “The latest from Miyamoto (Kinshu: Autumn Brocade) has a surreal, promising conceit but never manages to wriggle free from banality. In the 1970s, college student Tetsuyuki moves to a dingy apartment on the outskirts of Daito in Osaka Prefecture, partly to avoid the underworld creditors hounding him and his mother. In a home improvement project gone wrong, Tetsuyuki inadvertently nails a lizard to the wall. Remorseful, he keeps the lizard alive, feeding it weevil larvae and other delicacies after his long shifts as a hotel bellboy. The lizard demonstrates a ‘tenacious vitality’ that the formerly shiftless Tetsuyuki begins to exhibit more in his own life. He asserts himself at work, confronts a rival for his girlfriend Yoko’s affection, and faces down his dangerous creditors. Moreover, he begins having fleeting visions of enlightenment, dreams in which ‘dying and being reborn, he continually passed through the cycle of life and death as a lizard.’ Throughout, the diction is overly stiff, whether it’s depicting Tetsuyuki challenging his girlfriend’s suitor (‘Can your intellectuality trump my baseness?’), violent gangsters administering a beating (‘Hey, hurry up and kick the bucket!’), or young men discussing the afterlife (‘I wonder why people die’). This tale of a young man seeking enlightenment fails to illuminate.”
Climate change is here. Trees are dead and dying, insects and songbirds are disappearing, wildlife has declined by 60 percent, glaciers worldwide are melting and ice sheets are collapsing, and weather patterns are shifting.
What will our future look like? How fast and for how long will things change? Are we mentally and physically prepared to deal with the impacts of these changes on our communities and socioeconomic structures?
In 2017, David Wallace-Wells wrote an article for New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He outlined the absolute worst-case scenario for climate change problems across the globe, including forest loss, sea level rise, changes in ocean currents, species loss, and more. At the time, he was vilified for overstating his case and misrepresenting the science—which he didn’t—though others argued that he had started an important conversation needed to avoid climate disaster.
Since Wallace-Wells was writing for a public audience, many people—readers unlikely to pick up a scientific journal—got his message, and they took it to heart.
Scientists themselves are also addressing the “what will happen” and “are we prepared” questions from a different angle: scenario development. They have teamed up with social scientists to derive plausible future scenarios based on both predictions of physical earth parameters (e.g., temperature, precipitation, biodiversity, wildlife, human populations), and how social scientists and humanities researchers think society will respond to those changes (e.g., economic, migration, political). In an interview with the LA Review of Books, seismologist Lucy Jones notes that the key question facing a post-disaster society is whether humans band together in communities to help each other or look out for themselves at the expense of others.
We don’t need more data to prove that climate change is a problem. Instead, we need to show people what life will look like under current and future climate-change conditions, and to share ideas about how to mitigate those conditions. We know that people are more likely to absorb information from stories than from data and lectures. Thus, like scientists collaborating with social scientists, authors of post-apocalyptic literature also apply scenarios to create analogues for our potential future, in the same way that George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are used as analogues for the current political climate.
Post-apocalyptic novels such as Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Eric Barnes’s The City Where We Once Lived, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, and Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans could potentially prepare us for a future following either ecological and social collapse and/or a global pandemic. But how well do these books portray that future, and is that future realistic enough to engage readers after they’ve finished reading, to persuade them do something about adapting to and reducing the severity of climate change?
1. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
This 2000 classic depicts California in the mid-2020s, where rain occurs only once every six years, and the country is falling apart both economically and socially. Residents live in walled and gated communities to protect themselves from the outside world, but protagonist Lauren knows they won’t be safe forever. As she teaches herself survival skills and caches an emergency bag, she is also pulling together her thoughts on a new philosophy of life called Earthseed. When her neighborhood is breached and her family is killed, she escapes with two of her neighbors to join the hundreds of people walking north on the main highways. Despite the dangers (drug addicts, thieves, slavers, etc.), Lauren gathers a group of trusted people with her as she walks, and shares Earthseed with them.
While the dangers of the post-apocalyptic world are clear, this is ultimately a hopeful book. Lauren has hope in humanity, which is why she connects with people on the road, helping them instead of isolating herself from them. However, Lauren is also a realist, and she and her group protect their own as necessary. The key is in deciding who is a threat and who might be an asset. Their group represents a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, giving them strength in numbers. The ideas of Earthseed also bring these travelers together and help them build a community they might not have otherwise.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This allegorical tale doesn’t necessarily give us a practical understanding of how to exist in a future world, but instead provides multiple thought experiments for readers to consider how they might behave in a similar situation.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, The Road follows a man and his son on their travels. Except they’re not traveling by ship, but by foot towards the coast, across a devastated, dead landscape that is permanently cold and either raining or snowing ash. It isn’t clear if theirs is a world stripped by nuclear winter, volcanic eruptions, or constant wildfires.
The world of The Road wasn’t made for children. In their travels, the child and his father meet characters who challenge their pre-apocalypse morals and values, and graphically illustrate to the boy what is required to survive. He finds it difficult to make sense of a world in which his father says there are good people out there, while also ignoring or killing the people they meet.
The father often returns to his memories, which is how readers learn his wife killed herself because she couldn’t bear this life anymore. This memory—plus other events—make the reader reconsider what makes life worth living. “[The father] thought about his life but there was no life to think about…”
Why do they keep walking in such a dead world? How do you raise a child in such a world? What lessons is the father teaching his son—not just with his words, but by his very actions? What morals and values will you have to change or set aside to survive in such a world?
3. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hig is a small-engine pilot and Bangley is a munitions expert. They live in an abandoned airport that they’ve set up to defend from marauders. The world has been emptied of people by a flu pandemic, followed by a blood disease that kills most people and leaves those who survive in quarantine. Climate change is also a problem, with minimal winter snow pack, low summer streamflows, hot summers, and animal extinctions.
Hig and Bangley represent opposite sides of a community: Hig is more likely to talk to a stranger and try to build a relationship, while Bangley is more likely to shoot first, as he believes it’s every man for himself. As Higs says, “Follow Bangley’s belief to its end and you get a ringing solitude. Everybody out for themselves, even to dealing death, and you come to complete aloneness.”
Following the death of his dog, Hig finds himself increasingly lonely and decides to fly to the last airport from which he heard a transmission several years ago. On his way there, he discovers a woman, Cima, and her father living off the land in a box canyon far from the main roads. Here the book takes on an Edenic tone: the one man on earth finds the one woman on earth and they get together.
Like The Road, The Dog Stars asks hard questions about what you need to do to stay alive, and about what is enough to keep a person content and happy. How do you justify killing people who had planned to attack you first? How do you engage with a community of people under quarantine instead of avoiding them as most people would? How do you reconcile the memories of your previous life with this entirely different, unexpected and unplanned life? It suggests that in a post-apocalyptic world, you take what you can get or go without.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is rich in the connections it makes between far-flung people and their past and present lives. The narrative switches between the present—20 years after the Georgia flu has wiped most of the population off the Earth—and the past, in the years prior to the flu outbreak. It centers on a group called The Symphony, a travelling caravan that brings music and Shakespearean theatre to the many communities that have sprung up around the Great Lakes in the wake of the pandemic.
In the present, the world has largely returned to a peaceful state. There are small settlements in places where people decided to stop walking and make homes. People hunt, grow gardens, and make their own bread. Life has not returned to what it was, but to something that most people can manage. In this case, community rather than individuality is the key for survival.
Station Eleven offers tips for dealing with the aftermath of an apocalypse. Stay put for some time before you start moving, to allow for some of the violence to die down. Move out of urban areas and into rural areas where it’s easier to hunt and grow food. Connect with like-minded people and settle in groups. Parse out work so everyone has a task and things get done. Most of all, have compassion for other people. Remember that everyone has their own set of haunting memories. As one of the characters says, “…doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this—this current era…the world after the Georgia Flu—doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?…The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”
5. The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes
This book is somewhat allegorical—the characters have no names, and are instead defined by their occupation: the writer, the gardener, the minister, the scavengers, the pressman, etc. They live in the North end of a city that has been largely cut off from the South—it was the southerners who decided to separate from the North, which they saw as dangerous and broken. Rather than see the value in the community the North has created, a political commissioner says “it is places like this and people like you that distract us from the work we should really be doing. The support of good people and good places, that’s what we should be providing.”
This narrative represents an example of community over individuality: For the several hundred people living in the North, there is no violence, looting, or stealing. The North has a sense of calm, quiet order. People take what they need where they can find it and leave the rest in its place. The irony is that people in the South imagine the North is a lawless place where violence is rampant and survival difficult. But readers are still faced with tough questions. What is your “capacity for violence?” How do you keep living in a city where all your family has died? How do you motivate yourself to get up every day and have a purpose?
6. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In Gold Fame Citrus, climate change has reduced western water supplies to a few small reservoirs that are guarded around the clock. The landscape west of the 100th meridian is completely arid, and a massive dune complex called the Amargosa Dune Sea has formed in the interior of the continent.
The main characters leave the California coast for a community they’ve heard exists at the southern edge of the Amargosa. Ultimately, the female protagonist ends up in this community, which is a cult run by a charismatic, polygamous leader to whom all community members must submit. He claims to find water in the desert via dowsing, when he’s really raiding Red Cross caravans to steal water and food. As Watkins writes, “It seemed possible, as he spoke, that his words might summon thunderheads, that his voice might bring rain.” This novel reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road, where the keeper of the water is also a keeper of women, and where the leader chases away undesirables by forcing them into an arid and deadly landscape.
This book also asks hard questions: How do you trust people after the apocalypse? How do you decide whether to stay or to go? How does a country manage climate migrants? Is looting ever justifiable? How do you reconcile the person you were before the apocalypse with the person you are now? How do you build up mental fortitude to survive these new times?
7. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
Smith’s novel is set in a southern United States that was hammered by seven major hurricanes—beginning with Katrina in 2005 and ending with Jesus in 2019. In the aftermath of the hurricanes, death and disease—particularly Delta Fever—are widespread. In 2025, the U.S. government withdraws from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, and builds a wall to keep southerners and Delta Fever out.
The people (mostly of color) left in the south organize into tribal units based on blood type, as Delta Fever affects people of each blood type differently. It is 2056 when protagonist Fen de la Guerre delivers her tribal chief’s newborn daughter during an unexpected raid on their camp. After the Chief dies in childbirth, Fen must decide what to do with the baby. Dodging blood harvesters, members of other tribes, and an old friend who has betrayed her, she finds an unlikely ally in a northerner named Daniel Weaver, who has crossed the Wall illegally in an attempt to cure the Delta Fever. He is ultimately the last hope for the baby girl, and she sells her intricately braided hair to help save him.
Smith’s book explores the lengths that people will go to survive in a hostile environment, and the importance of building communities to support and protect each other. It portrays peoples’ adaptability in the face both of natural and man-made disasters and it shows how government misinformation spreads.
Ultimately, post-apocalyptic fiction pushes us to the extreme, to the worst-case scenario, just like Wallace-Wells’s New York magazine piece. It forces us to consider how far we’ll go to stay alive, how much we’ll sacrifice, and what we’ll do. Are you willing to steal or to fight if necessary? To kill if necessary? This type of fiction shows us how society might organize itself—from every person for themselves (The Road, The Dog Stars), to small self-contained and interconnected communities (The Parable of the Sower, Station Eleven, The City Where We Once Lived, Orleans), to cult-like communities run by charismatic would-be prophets (Gold, Fame, Citrus; Station Eleven). But post-apocalyptic fiction also gets us off the hook when it comes to climate change and social breakdown. In these books, the apocalypse has already happened and there’s nothing we can do about it. The flu pandemic has wiped out the population, climate change has completely altered the earth, the city has been abandoned, society has fallen into ruin, the nuclear winter is upon us. We are tasked only with surviving these conditions—not with preventing them.
If we focus only on the apocalypse, aren’t we, in effect, accepting that climate change can’t be stopped? That millions of people worldwide are doomed to climate injustice? As Kathleen Dean Moore writes in Great Tide Rising, “The burdens of climate change—hunger and thirst, poisoned air and water, inundation, disruption, and wars—are imposed disproportionately on the world’s poorest communities and those that are the least responsible for its effects.”
In October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special climate change report. Their tone was uncharacteristically urgent, giving us only 10 to 12 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, the global temperature is already 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, and we’ve already seen the impacts: hurricanes, wildfires, flooding. To prevent significant future change, we’ll have to maintain a temperature increase of only 1.5°C. Unfortunately, there is only a small likelihood we’ll meet that goal—instead we’ll likely end up with a temperature that is 2.0°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. The difference between 1.5 C and 2°C might seem small, but it has major impacts on global climate—particularly because it sets off feedback loops built into the climate system due to the reflectivity of sea ice and snow cover, the impacts of forests and wildfire on the carbon cycle, and the increasing acidity of warming oceans and their impacts on corals/shelled organisms.
We need literature that bridges the space between the present and the apocalypse. That considers the immediate future and the hard decisions that must be made to avert, or at least minimize, disaster. This is where a new genre called climate fiction—aka cli-fi—comes in. By writing novels about ongoing climate change and other environmental disasters, cli-fi allows us to explore what the near future might hold.
Books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (about climate change), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (about rising sea levels), and Omar El Akkad’s American War (about civil war, race relations, and climate) paint a picture of what our not-so-distant future may hold.
The apocalypse may be coming—and authors have envisioned it for us in many different ways—but its actual shape depends on the actions we take in the here and now, before the end of days.
This is the 14th year that the Year in Reading series has run at The Millions. It’s the third year that I’ve blearily written the introduction to kick off the series the night before it’s set to begin, and I’m running out of ways to say it: this is the best thing we do here at the site. There are so many things competing for our attention, and most of them are bad. So at a time of year when people are recovering from family drama or girding their loins for more, when election results are being processed or contested, when writers are licking their wounds or thanking their stars about the year-end lists, Year in Reading feels like a place for enthusiasts to gather and compare notes about the things that brought meaning to life as we hurtle into the future. 2018 was the year of solastalgia; Year in Reading is a place of solace. The series is a record of love and this year, as ever, I am grateful for it.
The names of our 2018 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ling Ma, author of Severance.
Bryan Washington, author of Lot.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of Bowlaway.
Shobha Rao, author of Girls Burn Brighter.
Brandon Hobson, author of Where the Dead Sit Talking.
Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
M.C. Mah is a writer in Brooklyn.
Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Splitfoot.
Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me.
Colin Winnette, author of The Job of the Wasp.
Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans.
Brian Phillips, author of Impossible Owls.
Lauren Wilkinson, author of American Spy.
Jianan Qian, The Millions staff writer and author of Say No to Eggs.
Hannah Gersen, The Millions staff writer and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, The Millions staff writer.
Edan Lepucki, The Millions staff writer and author of Woman No. 17.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, The Millions staff writer.
Nick Moran, The Millions special projects editor.
Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox.
Angela Garbes, author of Like a Mother.
Neel Patel, author of If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.
Hernán Diaz, author of In the Distance.
Adrienne Celt, author of Invitation to a Bonfire.
Donald Quist, author of For Other Ghosts.
Lisa Halliday, author of Asymmetry.
Ayşegül Savaş, author of Walking on the Ceiling.
Octavio Solis, author of Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.
Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift.
Chelsey Johnson, author of Stray City.
Daniel Torday, author of The Last Flight of Poxl West.
May-lee Chai, author of Useful Phrases for Immigrants.
Casey Gerald, author of There Will Be No Miracles Here.
Etaf Rum, author of A Woman Is No Man.
Lucy Tan, author of What We Were Promised.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs, author of Small Fry.
Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions contributing editor and author of City on Fire.
Carolyn Quimby, The Millions associate editor.
Thomas Beckwith, The Millions staff writer.
Sonya Chung, The Millions contributing editor and author of The Loved Ones.
Lydia Kiesling, The Millions editor and author of The Golden State.
Adam O’Fallon Price, The Millions staff writer and author of The Grand Tour.
Jacqueline Krass, The Millions intern.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of A Kind of Freedom.
Steph Opitz, founding director of the Loft’s Wordplay.
Katie Kitamura, author of A Separation.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
Hisham Matar, author of The Return.
Anna Wiener, a writer in San Francisco.
Dave Cullen, author of Parkland.
Jen Gann, editor, New York Magazine.
Tommy Orange, author of There There.
Anisse Gross, a writer in San Francisco.
Tara Marsden, co-founding editor of Wolfman New Life Quarterly.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants.
Emma Hager, a writer in California.
Chris Power, author of Mothers.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black.
Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers, a writer.
Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin.
Kamil Ahsan, reviews editor at Barrelhouse.
Marta Bausells, a writer and journalist in London.
Anne Yoder, The Millions staff writer.
Michael Bourne, The Millions staff writer.
Ismail Muhammad, The Millions staff writer and reviews editor at The Believer.
Matt Seidel, The Millions staff writer.
Ed Simon, The Millions staff writer.
Kaulie Lewis, The Millions staff writer.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions staff writer and author of Station Eleven.
Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions contributing editor and author of Ember Days.
Kirstin Butler, The Millions social media editor.
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It’s been 18 years since Alyson Hagy and I both won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nested within the list of grantees was a scattering of addresses. I wrote to Alyson. She answered.
We’ve seen each other just twice in all these years. Our correspondence is legion. “I’m buried in a fat, loosely written Minette Walter crime novel just now,” she’ll write. “But Alice Munro and Madison Bell are next.” Or “I’m going to have to tweak the dramatic arc of the book in a significant way, but I think it’s the right way to go.” Or, “We have had a little cold rain here, and the skies have been huge and glowering—enough to tinge the aspens in town just a little.”
Her notes are like miniature novellas. Her gifts—shells, cards, carved stones—populate my windowsills. Her emoji choices can be quite hysterical, and once the sound of her voice on the phone insta-cured a migraine. When an Alyson Hagy book makes its way into the world (Ghosts of Wyoming; Snow, Ashes; Keeneland; Graveyard of the Atlantic; others), I try not to read too fast, for I know that with all the other things Alyson does in the world—her teaching and leadership at the University of Wyoming, her hiking and fishing, her tennis and travel—it will be too long before the next new Alyson Hagy comes my way.
A few weeks ago, Alyson’s new book, Scribe (Graywolf Press, October), arrived. I read this slender novel while storms pummeled the lily lake near a vacation cottage and before Kirkus, in its starred review, called it an “affecting powerhouse.” Rooted in Alyson’s Appalachia and yet otherworldly, bound by symbols and held just slightly out of time, Scribe is a storyteller’s book about the radical power and responsibility of words. It’s about a woman who believes she has nothing to offer but the words she can put on a page, and about those who ask for the favor. It’s about dogs, too, and tribal politics in a bartering culture. It’s about power and who wields it and who loses it, too.
I asked her questions.
The Millions: In a leaking red pen that has left my fingers looking bloody I began to circle all the places smell becomes story in your book: “the peppery scent of her best ink,” “the torched scent of sugar,” “the air-burned hints of lightning.” Why does that sense become so crucial in Scribe? I guess I can’t help but think about how dogs come to understand and navigate the world, and how large a role they play in your book. Is it the same for these characters? That they smell their way toward knowing?
Alyson Hagy: I suspect smell is vivid in Scribe because the story is set on the farm where I grew up, and I experienced that world as smell and sound as much as sight when I was a child. My parents and neighbors were extremely attentive to the natural world and how it expressed itself. They marked the arrival and departure of birds. They read their gardens and their fruit trees as if they were books. They knew what the neighbors were up to—harvesting, burning, fertilizing—based on smoke or stink or sweetness. I’m lucky I grew up around such attentiveness.
I’ve also lived with dogs my whole life. There is nothing like watching animals navigate the world to remind you what you’re missing. Being with animals makes real how many layers there are to the world—layers that aren’t visible but are true and essential. Dogs do smell stories. And they hear them, too. I am probably more obsessed with that kind of “story radar” than I realize.
TM: There are circles of evil in this book and circles of redemption. A rise and fall and meshing. Did you map these deliberately as you wrote? And does redemption always necessarily win in story?
AH: I didn’t map much of anything when I was writing Scribe, not until I tried to balance a few things out in later edits. The idea for the novel came to me in a flash as I was driving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to my home in Franklin County on the back roads. That country is beautiful and verdant and littered with the remnants of small family farms. People could live there sustainably again if they had to. So I began to wonder what the post-Civil War barter culture must have been like—and what might happen to women who didn’t have a practical skill or trade in an economy like that. I immediately imagined a woman who had nothing to trade but her literacy. I saw her as both mysterious, because of her power with words, and vulnerable.
Redemption does not always win out in stories. And it shouldn’t. I’ve tried to write about the costs of belief in books like Boleto and Snow, Ashes. I wanted Scribe to be a tale right from the get-go, something that reflects the inventiveness and mystery of the stories I grew up hearing, those Appalachian remnants. A lot of the strangest tales I absorbed as a child come from the Christian Bible. Evil and redemption are big things in rural brands of Christianity. So I probably plugged directly into those rhythms without even thinking about it much. I didn’t know what the scribe would find at the end of her journey until late in the first draft of the novel.
The work of other tale-tellers definitely hovers behind Scribe, too, books like The Long Home by William Gay and almost anything by Louise Erdrich.
TM: The sections are brilliantly labeled as the parts of a letter. Did the section titles come first or the story? In other words, did the titles bind you, shape your imagination, or did you discover that superstructure only in the wake of early drafting?
AH: The first working title for the book was The Letter Writer, and the word “Salutations” came to me almost right away. It was a blast from the past, from the days when girls at my high school took Typing (I kid you not) and boys took Shop Class. Anyhow, as I recalled the parts of a letter, I thought I might be able to use them. I tried not to let them dictate too much. I wanted the “Alphabet” section to contain only 26 segments, for instance. But it wasn’t working. So I drafted as many segments as I thought I needed and kept the title. It was definitely fun to mess around with concept of enclosures.
TM: The dangers of authoritarian rule are made abundantly clear in Scribe. Did current political fever shape the tale? Is compassion the only fix for now?
AH: Believe it or not, Graywolf accepted Scribe in December 2015 before the political fever spiked, at least in this country. But certain anxieties and evils made their way into the book, probably because they have been stewing in my home culture (and elsewhere) for a very long time. Appalachians are tribal, and tribes often take comfort in authoritarian rule. It makes defining who is “in” and who is “out” simpler. Christianity, as defined by some folks, can exacerbate the tribal, too. Also, the evils of slavery still haven’t faded from that land—and instinctive distrust of outsiders or migrants of any kind remains very high. I want Scribe to be universal in the way tales are. I hope it translates beyond the Blue Ridge. Billy Kingery is the kind of leader who appears to make life easier. He’s an eloquent populist. And he will take all the power you are willing to cede, just like any devil will.
Compassion? If we cannot find it, we will see those who aren’t like us as “other,” as enemy. Literature—all art—is essential to human empathy.
TM: How and when did you discover the Jack tales that rustle to the surface in this tale? Certainly we all know “Jack and the Beanstalk” as children. But I did not realize there were so many of those Jack tales, and that they had arrived to the Appalachian region in the ways that they did. Can you talk about them?
AH: First, may I mention how cool it is to get that question from someone related to the incredible Horace Kephart, a man who pioneered the preservation of Appalachian landscape and culture?
I grew up near the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, one of the region’s first centers for all things Appalachian. The inventive Roddy Moore made sure school children, and adults, were exposed to productions based on the Jack tales. I loved seeing the past brought alive. I was never able to hear the tales told by an old-timey storyteller. They were all gone by the time I was born. Yet vestiges of the stories were embedded in anecdotes told by my father and superstitions relayed by neighbors. When I saw a play or eventually read the collected texts, I recognized eroded tropes and fears and wonders—and that fascinated me. I love how stories fall apart and morph and arise again. When I was a kid, folks would tell strange stories about certain crossroads. And every once in a while, an older person would remind you not to play cards with the devil, literally or figuratively. I have twisted and mashed up Jack tale fragments for my own use in Scribe. Yet I hope I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable a good story can be. And how fluid stories are even while they, sorry for the pun, inscribe our culture.
TM: Thank you for mentioning Horace Kephart, who left his gilded library life in St. Louis so that he might spend the rest of his time learning and then advocating for the culture, geography, and future of the Appalachians. You and I are perpetually unburying family. Speaking of which: Your family lore is mentioned in the acknowledgements. I have to know which lore found its way to Scribe.
AH: The “Enclosure” story, the myth about the soldier with the coin, is based on a family story from the Civil War. As my grandfather told it, a solider fleeing the Battle of Antietam sought food and shelter near the Potomac River where my great-great-grandmother had been left alone on the shambles of a tenant farm that had been plundered by troops on both sides. She fed him. He gave her a gold coin he earned when he saved the life of Colonel Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate raider. He didn’t believe he would live very long, and the coin was all he had save his firearm and his horse. The coin was etched with Stuart’s name and Latin motto. It’s still in the family, although there is no evidence Stuart ever truly handed out such things.
I also borrowed some names and other incidents. My kinfolk will recognize them.
TM: Sisters. You render the complexity of the relationship beautifully. How have you come to understand that relationship and its tugs on the soul?
AH: I have a sister, and she is a remarkable woman and was one of the very first readers of Scribe. I needed her eyes on the story because she’s an avid reader but also possesses a more intuitive heart than I. My mother had two sisters—grand souls who were, nonetheless, very different from her. I’ve been watching sisters all of my life. Yet parsing the relationship between the scribe and her sister was the hardest part of the book for me. The scribe possesses many of my own weaknesses. She misses important opportunities for connection in the world. So how do you get a character like that to make the right leap when she needs to?
TM: “All a writer can do is lay out the consequences of a person’s choices,” you write. I love that. It shifts, for me, something I have been trying to name myself. How did you come to this knowing?
AH: That line came to me late in the writing of the novel. It took me a while to figure out what Scribe was really all about. That’s usually the case for me. I get going with a character and a situation and events begin to spool out in front of me if the writing is going well. But in the end, the how and why of storytelling is at the heart of Scribe just as the how and why of art is at the heart of a great novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I didn’t read that book until I had grappled through the second draft of Scribe, but it affirmed for me my hope that art can, and must, survive any disaster we bring upon ourselves as humans. No matter how digital the world becomes or how far we fall into our most brutal, tribal instincts, stories matter. Story makers are pivotal in all cultures. The consequences of human choices as we lay them out are important to building and maintaining societies.
TM: You will never write the same story twice. What released you to write this dystopian fable? When did you know that you could not not write it? Where lay the struggle?
AH: It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t think of Scribe as dystopian until I began to share it with early readers. The Appalachia I grew up in was beautiful and deprived, although I occupied a privileged place in it. Folks still spoke of polio and measles quarantines as if they were recent. Tragic tales are the coin of the realm in the South. Relaying death and destruction is second nature. I thought I was writing a slightly altered post-Civil War history of the hills where I grew up. I ended up with something different. I felt like I had to write it once I envisioned that besieged and lonely woman standing next to that faltering brick house with her dogs. The struggle was in trying to maintain its strangeness, to not explain too much, to trust that readers can and will shape some of the tale on their own.
Imagine organizing a small get-together, a few friends and acquaintances at a neighborhood bar. It’s all very low-key. The day comes; friends arrive. You order cocktails. You chit-chat. In walks the President of the United States, with secret service, trailed by a herd of photographers. Suddenly, you are at a very different sort of party.
So it was with my journey into the world of nuclear weapons. I started researching and writing my book in 2008; we were not, then, living under threat of nuclear temper tantrum. The possibility that someone might actually use an atomic weapon again was a comfortably remote risk. I wasn’t dealing with current events; I was just interested in the people who made nuclear war a possibility—people who ended up with immense power not because they craved it but because of particular skills and talents they had. With this distance, I could do the research necessary to write about them without having nightmares.
A lot has been written about nuclear war. I have a shelf of history, biography, and popular science books about the weapons, their creators, and their evolution. From the newly re-popular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Cat’s Cradle, Red Alert (inspiration for Dr. Strangelove) to Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a rich fiction of the arms race and the post-apocalyptic landscape, heavily steeped in satire and speculation. Through all this, one can come to know an awful lot about the types of explosions humankind has learned to set off, and just how destructive they might be.
It is one thing to have that kind of knowledge when it’s all a thought experiment. It’s something else entirely when leading experts agree the chances are, once again, non-trivial. Now that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have arrived, I am at a very different sort of party.
This decade has seen some wonderful literary novels set after apocalyptic events. Think of Station Eleven (pandemic), and of Gold Fame Citrus (catastrophic drought). If we stretch the decade a little, we get the unspecified but possibly nuclear apocalypse of The Road. These books deal intimately with the aftermath of a dreaded event. There is very little room for comfort, and they don’t traffic in the will-it-or-won’t-it anxiety that we live with in the real world; in these books, it will. It did. And it’s every bit as bad as we thought. I can only imagine that writing that kind of book is like staring into the sun.
I don’t have the stomach for that. Instead, I wrote around the edges of disaster. My book is pre-apocalyptic; it is set in this world, not in the one that may come. The central question is not what it will be like when it arrives, but rather what does the mere possibility, the capability, do to us? It’s still a novel about the possible end of the world as we know it, but its approach to that topic is oblique. And my disaster of choice was one that seemed, unlike drought or pandemic, remote and unlikely. It was behind us, not ahead. It was a safe choice.
Now the world has taken that safety away. It has catapulted my comfortably distant topic into startling relevance. It has left me with more information than I really want, in this environment, about exactly what a nuclear war would entail. Those details I spent so long collecting are fodder for the nightmares I thought I was avoiding, triggered every couple of weeks by some fresh story on the news.
The first book I read, before this project was really underway, was Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. In it, Dyson recalls time spent with the great physicist Richard Feynman, who had originally refused to work on the bomb and acquiesced only so Adolf Hitler wouldn’t get it first. He remembered Feynman sitting on the hood of his jeep in the desert, joyfully banging on a set of bongo drums to celebrate the success of the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb ever exploded. Not long after, Feynman turned his back on military work, realizing that, in Dyson’s words, “he was too good at it and enjoyed it too much.”
Next, I dove into American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had downloaded the audiobook; I listened to it walking around in bright sunshine on the campus of the University of Arizona, where I was getting a master’s degree. As his life went on, Oppenheimer was clearly haunted, and he, in turn, haunted me. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head when I walk up the mall in the middle of the campus, among the palm trees and the oblivious undergraduates.
These were men who were responsible, in a startlingly direct way, for the fate of our world. They knew just exactly how much trouble we were in—because they helped put us there. They felt, evidently, that they had to. But did they? Clearly, both came to doubt that as their lives went on and they had to live with it. This is something, at least. My head might be full of kilotons, of radiation burns, of calculations about radius and wind speed, but at least I don’t have choices to make about any of this. Whether we survive this has nothing to do with me.
A few years later, deep into the writing process, I was living in Helena, Mont., where there wasn’t much to do in the winter if you don’t ski. One snowy Saturday I went to an estate sale, for something to do. It was largely picked over by the time I arrived, but I found, in a back room—it must have once been the study, though there was no furniture—a treasure trove. There was a whole wall of books with titles like Explaining the Atom (published 1947), Early Tales of the Atomic Age (1948) and The New Force (1953). I took home a paper grocery bag full for $5. Going through them that night, I noticed that inside the cover flap of Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards (1974), someone had underlined the following: “The design and manufacture of a crude weapon is no longer a difficult task,” and “The authors evaluate current methods of guarding materials and find them inadequate.”
The house had belonged to one of Helena’s wealthy old families, and the matriarch had lived there until the end. I have no way to know the nature of her obsession, if it was even hers, or if the collection had belonged to her husband who—you know these things when you live in a city of 40,000—had died a few years earlier. Maybe it had once been his; maybe she, in her last lonely years, had gone through each chilling volume, reading the passages he’d marked, to take some small comfort in the fear of something that, unlike the condition of the grand old house whose floors had started to rot, or her famously strained relationship with her daughter, or the idiots taking over the local city council, she couldn’t do a damn thing about.
Here, I found anxiety not just of the scientists, but of a fellow reader who had amassed this collection a generation before I was born, when the threat had also been real. A reader who must have found some comfort in this area of study, some pleasure. A reader who, given the context in which I had acquired her books, had lived and died in a world that, without regard to her worry, had survived every threat to its existence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I read Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland in a hotel room in Saint Paul. This was a couple of months back, 13 months into a book tour that seemed by then like it might not ever end. (Not a complaint — I love my job, and am immensely grateful for it — but perhaps we can all agree that being away from home and loved ones for long periods can wear on a person, and leave it at that.) By the time I reached Saint Paul, I’d been feeling badly for awhile about how few books I was reading. Even the most grueling days usually contained a small amount of downtime. There were days where I spent an awful lot of time just sitting there in airplane seats and waiting around in airports and idling alone in hotel rooms, all places that should theoretically lend themselves to getting some reading done.
Then I had an irritating couple of days on Twitter, which sparked the somewhat obvious realization that if I took a week off from Twitter I’d have more time in which to read, so I logged off in the Saint Paul hotel room and haven’t been back since. I wouldn’t have said that I’d been spending much time on Twitter, but in its absence, there seemed suddenly to be an immense amount of space around me. I picked up two novels at the bookstore down the street and read them in two days. Wonderland was one of them. It’s an exceptionally well-written novel. The plot concerns an aging musician on what may or may not turn out to be her last tour.
“What made you want to write about actors?” people kept asking me that month, in audience Q&As.
“Well,” I kept saying, “I’m interested in film and theatre, and I wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that…” and then I read Wonderland and saw that D’Erasmo wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art too, but she kept that the focus of the entire novel, and it makes for a razor-sharp, unsparing book. She captures both the joys and the terror, the grind and the exaltation.
Others: I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on a brief interlude between tours. It moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved by a book in a while. There was a sense of having encountered a rare masterpiece, also a sense of having been burnt to the ground. I expect it will live on my shelves forever, but I don’t think I could bear to read it again. Earlier in the year, on airplanes and in other hotel rooms, I read Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. It’s a love story set in a marginal New York City, involving an undocumented immigrant and an ex-soldier with PTSD. It’s harrowing, extremely violent, and extraordinary. What all three of these novels have in common is that they remind me of nothing else I’ve ever read.
Sometimes you encounter the perfect book for a given moment, and so I felt when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. When he isn’t writing, Vanhoenacker flies 747s in and out of London. I’d come across his work in the form of a gorgeous essay about flight that ran in The New York Times, and was delighted to realize that the essay was an excerpt from a longer work. Part of why I picked up the book was that I used to love flying, and by autumn of this year I dreaded it, and I wanted very much to love it again.
I’ve never been a nervous flyer — I feel far safer on airplanes than I’ve ever felt in a car — but the thing with airplanes is that there are too many other people on them, extended business travel is exhausting, being herded like a sheep is exhausting too, and, well, let’s be honest here, exhaustion can spark a certain low-level misanthropy when one’s crammed in with others at close quarters. When I was lucky enough to get a window seat I still found unspeakable beauty in the sight of the world from 30,000 feet, but by October, which is to say sometime around my 100th event for Station Eleven, the inevitable small tics and inconsequential bad habits of others were becoming all but unbearable to me: the woman sitting across the aisle, loudly smacking her lips while she ate a cookie and then slurpily licking each of her fingers in turn, for example; the guy in the row in front of me who apparently never learned how to blow his nose and thus found it necessary to sniffle every three seconds, for five hours, at a decibel level too high to drown out with my headphones; the business travelers competing to see who could tell the most boring flight stories. (“So then by the time we get to Atlanta, the heat’s not working at all and it’s 50 degrees on the plane.”) Etc. I turned up the music and tried to disappear.
But Skyfaring is a love letter to flight, to a profession, and reading it was a balm. Vanhoenacker slips easily between poetic meditation into the nature of travel and technical explanations of the mechanisms of the 747, and I found all of it fascinating. It is a delight to encounter someone so unabashedly enamored of the romance of his profession. On a flight bound for southern Africa, he gives a position report to the controller:
‘Roger,’ says the controller. ‘Next report the equator.’
I feel a shiver of surprise; I still can’t quite believe it’s part of my job to announce that we’ve crossed into the skies of the other half of the world. I try to imagine the old days of the ocean liners, when crossing the equator, the first of our grand marks on the sphere, was still understood as momentous, how on deck, sparkling glasses would be raised.
The book’s meditative pacing isn’t dissimilar to the rhythms of flight itself, to the way landscapes gradually unspool far below. There’s tremendous pleasure in coming across the explanations for aspects of flight I’d never quite understood – the gorgeous phenomenon I’ve seen a couple of times on long flights over the Pacific, for instance, where a strip of night hangs suspended on the horizon between sections of daylight — and equally fascinating to catch a glimpse into the closed world of the cockpit. It was easier, after reading it, to forget my exhaustion and the small annoyances of the world and lose myself again in the beauty of the flight.
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My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not.
My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically.
At some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic.
Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened — and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free.
The ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay.
But the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there.
And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in — and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage.
I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.”
But I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time.
As the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube — essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened — the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a “Nice tits, babydoll” kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games.
The world has changed — and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier.
In the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell’s newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will.
I decide to spend October with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works — more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon — that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all.
After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase.
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Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
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In a few short years, post-apocalyptic literary fiction has passed from bracing novelty to marketing cliché. It has gotten so that when I see the words “pandemic flu” or “environmental cataclysm” on the back of a novel by a literary author, I have to resist the impulse to roll my eyes and move on. How many more ways, really, can writers of the Gen X and Millenial generations, expiating their guilt over having been born at the crest of a waning empire, game out the baroque means of their own destruction?
Part of my frustration with post-apocalyptic literary fiction is that its authors too often elect not to explore the nature of the calamity that has befallen the world they are writing about. Even in Station Eleven by my Millions colleague Emily St. John Mandel, which is a marvelous novel, the pandemic flu that culls all but a few of our planet’s billions of inhabitants strikes out of nowhere, leaving the characters survivors of an act of an angry, but essentially unknowable God. God has spoken and he isn’t pleased, these novels seem to say, but it wasn’t us who brought about Judgement Day.
So I was gratified to see, midway into Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, an entire chapter devoted to the environmental cataclysm at the heart of the novel. More gratifying still is Watkins’s willingness to place the blame for the drought that has turned the western United States into a gigantic desert not on God, nor on some government conspiracy or faceless corporate cabal, but squarely on the shoulders of her readers — ordinary, middle-class residents of the American West. Who else, Watkins asks, has for so long blithely drained the aquifers, built sprawling cities atop deserts, and dammed and diverted the mighty Colorado River to the point that most years it dries up miles before it reaches the Gulf of California?
“If this was God,” she writes,
he went by new names: Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of San Diego, City of Phoenix, Arizona Water and Power, New Mexico Water Commission, Las Vegas Housing and Water Authority, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.
Gold Fame Citrus, then, takes an important step away from the moral convenience of cataclysm-as-metaphor — or, in lesser novels, cataclysm-as-plot-starter — toward an angrier, more urgent form that insists its reader do more than wallow in free-floating anxiety about the future. It is telling that it is hard to reckon exactly when Gold Fame Citrus is set. Clearly, the events of the novel haven’t happened yet, but one of its central characters is a deserter from “the forever war” and the book’s cultural referrents are relentlessly contemporary. This apocalypse isn’t coming in some safely distant future. In Gold Fame Citrus, the apocalypse is now, and maybe, Watkins seems to be saying, we ought to give some thought to how to head it off.
All of which makes one wish that Gold Fame Citrus were a more consistently engaging read. At its best, the novel is a propulsively readable love triangle pitting Ray, a laconic army deserter turned California surfer dude, against Levi Zabriskie, the visionary leader of a colony of misfits living in the shadow of the great, shifting desert called the Amargosa Dune Sea. Both men vie for the affections of Luz, an ex-model left behind when the water dried up, and an orphaned child called Ig whom Ray and Luz adopt as their own in a harrowing scene at a “raindance” party in post-evacuation Los Angeles.
When this story is front and center, Gold Fame Citrus is riveting. Watkins is a sharp-eyed portraitist with the instincts of a master storyteller, and when she is on, even her minor characters leap off the page. In one slyly hilarious scene, Ray and Luz, fearing Ig’s family, whomever they may be, will come after them for stealing the child, visit a hipster couple, Lonnie and Rita, looking for help escaping the official quarantine that encircles the drought-stricken West. Lonnie and Rita, heavily pierced and tattooed, have commandeered an abandoned apartment complex in Santa Monica where they throw the I Ching and riff on how to escape the quarantine. Maybe Ray and Luz could try one of the tunnels being dug under the Oregon border? Or perhaps it would be easier to drive to Crescent City, in northern California, and swim to freedom? “Indeed, there were endless other ways, [Lonnie] said, each illegal and treacherous,” Watkins writes. “He got a visible charge as he listed them all, a little danger boner.”
Too often, though, Gold Fame Citrus suffers from The Slows. Sometimes, this is because the characters just aren’t doing very much. People wait in this novel. At one point, after she and Ray run out of gas attempting to escape the Amargosa, Luz spends a chapter sitting and sweating with Ig in the baking hot car. “Day, night, another day,” runs a typical passage. “Day. Day. Day. Why was there so much more day?” Later, Ray is locked up in an improvised prison deep in a talc mine where his cellmate has a working television, and Watkins spends several pages naming every show they watch.
More often, though, the narrative doldrums seem a by-product of Watkins’s literary and ideological ambitions. In her acknowledgments, Watkins cites a list of classic environmental texts, from Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, that helped shape her thinking on the West and its relationship to its dwindling water resources. Watkins seems eager to get all this in, make her reader see the multi-generational folly of building golf courses and orange groves in what was once trackless desert. But this is a very long, complex story involving decades of land-use decisions, much of which gets crammed into a single 14-page chapter of Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins’s gift for turning an elegant sentence never leaves her, but exposition is exposition, dress it as you will.
Then, too, Watkins is a child of the desert Southwest, the daughter of Paul Watkins, a follower of Charlie Manson who testified at the trials that put Manson behind bars for life. The Sharon Tate-Leno and Rosemary LaBianca murders were committed 15 years before Claire Vaye Watkins was born, but Manson and his mad Helter Skelter prophecies are clearly a model for Levi Zabriskie, who claims for himself mystical powers as a “dowser” for water and keeps his followers hooked on a heady diet of sex and a mysterious tranquilizing drug they call “brute root.”
Watkins puts her family history to mesmerizing use in passages when Luz falls under Levi’s proselytizing spell, seducing the reader into half-believing the desert prophet’s cockeyed visions. But ultimately visionary Levi and the dynamics of his sexual-mystical hold he has on his followers becomes too much for the novel, which already has so much else on its mind, to contain, and we are left with a hazy, montage-style portrait of the colony that makes it sound like a slightly more hardcore Burning Man Festival where no one ever goes home.
One sets down Gold Fame Citrus with two thoughts, first that Claire Vaye Watkins is a powerful new voice in American fiction who, thanks in part to where she was raised and by whom, can map out a largely uncharted corner of American life; and second that she has not yet written the book that will show us what she can do. Her first book, the story collection Battleborn, is excellent, but also all over the place, as first collections of stories often are. Gold Fame Citrus is more mature and unified in its vision, but also overly ambitious, as if a painter had sat down to create her masterpiece and ran out of canvas.
Then again, this may prove to be an illusion. Claire Vaye Watkins is only 31, just getting started. Who can say how many canvases she has lined up in her studio waiting to be filled?