When I was young, I had two types of reading: public reading and private reading. Public reading was reading I accomplished mostly to have something to talk about with other kids at school, while private reading was only for myself. These two lives of mine sat in tension. Why was I reading one thing to talk about, to be part of society, and another thing to experience privately? Unknown. But as Maud Casey writes in The Art of Mystery, “The privacy of the singular mind, the privacy of consciousness, is one of fiction’s exceptional gifts to us,” and it was always the private reading, the deep one-to-one communion with another mind, that I valued more. This year I read certain books to stay tethered to the world—Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ian Haney Lopez’s Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America—but I also devoted myself with greater intensity to books I read only for the sustenance of my inner life.
Back in March, a friend gave me a copy of her father’s favorite book, John Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am, as part of a book exchange, and it was one of the best discoveries of the whole year. The Man Who Cried I Am is a provocative, civil rights era novel, a bestseller in 1967. It recounts the story of a Black American journalist Max Reddick and his fraught marriage to a Dutch woman, as well the King Alfred Plan, which is a CIA plot to intern and eliminate America’s Black population. There’s a brutal pain and anguish and thematic complexity and edge to this novel that’s so completely honest, never made easily digestible, never seeking to placate the reader, and I loved it.
After Toni Morrison passed away over the summer, I visited and revisited a few of her novels. I was astonished to find that in my 40s Jazz read as a much more powerful novel than it did when I was a college student. I didn’t grasp in my early 20s the depth of Joe’s betrayal of his wife for a younger woman, or the ways that the younger woman’s people respond to the circumstances, and I struggled with its experimental qualities. This time around, I appreciated the genius of Morrison’s orchestration of so many characters, the boldness of a vision that knows it is worthy of being followed without any hand-holding, the way it reveals to us the ways imperfect characters miss understanding each other, just as we often miss each other in real life.
I’ve been a fan of the novelist Yoko Ogawa for years. I don’t know if she can write a book I wouldn’t be interested in. I was excited to read her masterful fable The Memory Police, which is set on a totalitarian island where everything is disappearing and memory police ensure what’s disappeared remains forgotten. The book lived up to my anticipation. Its resonance arises not from its relevance in a time of creeping fascism, but from the timelessness of its consideration of memory and how much a self is made up of the memory of things, and its question of what is left in us if we lose all those things.
Another writer I returned to this year as a fan was the brilliant Percival Everett. There was Erasure, a bleak, subversive, experimental novel reacting to the pigeonholing of Black writers and the commodification of “urban” experiences. In Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, a man visits his aging father in a nursing home and they tell each other stories, with father and son blending into the other. Everett’s So Much Blue was my favorite of these three: a beautiful novel made of three interwoven threads of time. As with Everett’s other novels, the narrator’s observations in So Much Blue are astute, often so sharp you feel you’ve been sliced open.
I delighted in the ambiguity and skepticism of Zadie Smith’s short story collection Grand Union. Every writer could learn from her almost compulsive willingness to consider she’s wrong about what she’s imagined, about everything she thinks she knows—her talent for questioning—and that tension of not-knowing drives the collection.
I loved The Atlas of Reds and Blues, a powerful debut novel by Devi Laskar, whose poetry I’d read before through the Tupelo 30/30 Project. In its fragments and linguistic intensity, it reads like the best poet’s novels do—with equal attention to language and story. It’s extremely rare to see the effects of years of racism and xenophobia against South Asian Americans laid out in such forceful and lyrical terms. Atlas insists—rightly—on its status as an American novel, blowing open the door for other acutely honest novels about the realities of South Asian American lives.
I also loved Mathangi Subramanian’s heartfelt, compassionate novel A People’s History of Heaven. It is the story of a band of girls in a slum in Bangalore in India, and their bonds to each other and resistance to their grim reality. There’s so much truth resonating through this novel: “It is one thing to write stories to save others. It is another to write a story to save yourself.
I also discovered for the first time several wonderful authors whose fiction had been on my radar for some time. Among these was Carolina de Robertis’s Cantoras, a beautiful novel about five queer women who take a bold trip to the beach together while living under the Uruguayan dictatorship. The tender, moving intimacies between these different women, the fierce resolve within their private lives, provide the novel’s powerful enchantments.
I reviewed a number of the most inventive, original books I read this year, but I felt lucky at the sheer number of memorable debuts that drifted onto my radar. In the stark novel The Unpassing, Chia Chia Lin writes about a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska that is struggling to survive the loss of a daughter. The novel expresses a certain kind of dilemma so gorgeously, I physically ached in the recognition of reading it: “He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.”
In Kali Fajardo Anstine’s tender, and fearless short story collection Sabrina and Corina working-class Latina women survive poverty and loss. There are descriptions of living in here that are so true they hurt: “That’s when I knew she was forever caught in her own undercurrent, bouncing from one deep swell to the next. She would never lift me out of that sea.” I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
In Mimi Lok’s elegant short story collection Last of Her Name, characters try to connect with each other in strange ways across a range of settings. In Lok’s story “The Wrong Dave,” an architect who is getting married receives an email, and strikes up a correspondence in which he’s unsure whether she knows with whom she’s emailing. The collection closes on a can’t-miss, suspenseful novella “The Woman in the Closet” about a homeless woman.
A galley of Lydia Davis’s Essays One was one of the books I most needed to read this fall. Its focus on precise observation from different angles served as a balm against the sloppy, blunt, ideologically rigid thinking found in so many places. There’s an essay about what to read, and I’ve been thinking about its advice for purposes of my reading next year: “Read the best writers from all different periods; keep your reading of contemporaries in proportion —you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time.”
I anticipate my private reading life for 2020 to heed this advice, in spite of the dozen half-read books and galleys on my nightstand left unfinished for no apparent reason. The news is so essential to the development of a public self, a citizen, yet books are, for me, an urgently necessary bulwark, fortification for the deeper private self.
The best years are the ones where I read
as much as I write, so I am wrapped in a delicious swirl of story. Like most
writers I think the secret to good writing is good reading—and this was a
banner year. Here are just a few of the good books I read:
Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus by Gayle Brandeis. This comes out February 2020 and wow what a dazzler: a story told in prose about the 650 girls and women murdered by the Countess Bathory of Hungary between the years 1585 and 1609. As with all great stories it is about even more.
As a River by Sion Dayson. A lovely, sweet and hopeful debut novel.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi Laskar. One of many books I read this year that deserved more attention than it got. I think that is true for 99.9 percent of books published nowadays. Instead of the same handful of books getting all the praise, wouldn’t it be nice to see more range and diversity on the lists?
Strung Out by Erin Khar. As a novelist I love memoir. Good memoir is someone peeling back their own lies to reveal the aching truth underneath, and Erin Khar does a brilliant job of that here.
A Grip of Time by Lauren Kessler. Lauren teaches writing I the same prison where I do my death row work. But that’s not why people should read this book. It is an award-worthy account of lives we have vanished, disappeared and erased through mass incarceration.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. A story inside a dream inside a miracle.
Lastly, Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson. This is one of the rare novels that doesn’t depict foster kids as either evil seed demons or hopeless throwaways. As a former homeless street child and longtime foster parent I am thankful.
Happy reading, everyone!
Earlier this year I started writing an essay that includes references to Maman, the towering spider sculptures by Louise Bourgeois that I’d seen in Tokyo and Ottawa and that were at the time being exhibited at SFMoMA. I discovered that my Writers Grotto colleague Bridget Quinn had a chapter on Bourgeois in her book Broad Strokes so I pulled it out of my TBR. In her introduction, Quinn describes falling in love with art history as an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Barbara while having a nagging feeling that something was missing: Where were the women artists? In the massive textbook by H.W. Janson that we all used in college, the first female artist (Artemisia Gentileschi) didn’t appear until page 500, and only 16 made the cut in 800+ pages.
Broad Strokes is an engaging and necessary step toward correcting this imbalance, with 15 essays on artists ranging from famous to obscure, and from the 17th century to today. While not a focus of her book, Quinn also addresses the erasure of nonwhite artists by including chapters on Ana Mendieta, Ruth Asawa and Kara Walker. Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.
I went to AWP for the first time this year and it was exciting, enriching and… so overwhelming. It’s essentially two months’ worth of readings and socializing (and book shopping!) packed into three days. One of highlights was the chance to reconnect with Grace Talusan and to pick up her utterly incredible memoir-in-essays The Body Papers.
Like AWP, The Body Papers fits a lot into a small space, but the result is much more satisfying. Talusan takes us on a journey from her suburban childhood as the daughter of Filipino immigrants to the trials of adulthood as a wife, breast cancer survivor, and Fulbright scholar in the country of her birth. She writes humorously about family vacations in her parents’ battered green car, and how the love of a dog transformed her father’s attitude toward animals. But the dark beating heart of the memoir is her resilience in response to bodily trauma: her childhood abuse by a family member, and her decision to have a double mastectomy because of a genetic predisposition to cancer. Talusan’s writing is unflinchingly honest and demonstrates the healing power of telling one’s truth.
I don’t read that many novels (compared to how many I buy… cough cough) because I need generous stretches of time to immerse myself. So I mostly read them when I travel long distances. This summer we took a trip to Norway and I brought along Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin and Devi S. Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues.
Ruth, the quirky heroine of Goodbye, Vitamin, moves back home with her parents after a shattering breakup and witnesses the strain that dementia is putting on their marriage and home life. Seeing her father’s depression after he is forced to take a leave of absence from his university teaching job, she participates in an elaborate ruse to stage a series of classes with fake students to allow her father to regain a sense of normalcy and purpose. I was immediately drawn to this book because I could relate to the premise: My mom (also a professor) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years ago and it was wrenching to see how her illness tested my parents’ long and mostly harmonious marriage.
Ruth is an appealing narrator who perfectly captures the awkwardness of being an unmarried 30-something daughter who’s living at home and hasn’t yet found her direction in life. What Goodbye, Vitamin gets right is the fascinating triangulation between Ruth, her father and his students; for the first time she is privy to the intimacy of the bonds between them, both admirable (his trusted teaching assistant) and illicit (a female grad student). She uncovers troubling evidence of betrayal while contending with his mood swings and irrational behavior, but ultimately summons deep compassion for a parent in decline. Khong offers a riveting, generous portrait of a family in crisis.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues starts with a close-up of a woman, identified only as “Mother,” bleeding from a gunshot wound in her driveway while her home is raided by police for unclear reasons. In this cinematic opening, the reader is suspended in this long moment as Mother stares at the sky and asks herself: How did I get here? Laskar’s slender novel punches above its weight, delivering a searing indictment of American racism in short, lyrical vignettes that are devastating in their collective impact. I’m reminded of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in the way each remembered micro-aggression accretes into a smoldering undercurrent of rage. Laskar’s book was recently recognized as one of 2019’s “Books All Georgians Should Read.” What a difference it would make if all Americans could imagine what it’s like to be a woman of color.
Mira Jacob’s terrific graphic memoir Good Talk touches on some of the same themes but in a completely different, unique way. I first fell in love with Jacob’s writing when I read her viral Buzzfeed piece about her son’s obsession with Michael Jackson. I had never seen anything like it: It was hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, and brutally honest about what it means to grow up brown in America.
Good Talk moves back in forth in time, from Jacob’s awkward childhood to early romantic relationships to motherhood and her development as a writer in post-9/11 New York. Told mostly in dialogue, the book tackles serious issues with grace and humor. The most impactful moments are when Jacob catches herself trying to downplay the racism she encounters when she least expects it—at a party hosted by her in-laws, or in her correspondence with an NPR station during her first book tour. She doesn’t shy away from loss either—I cried reading about her attempts to buy weed to ease her father’s pain during his cancer treatment. Through it all, her son Z steals the show with his constant chorus of “why?” Although she refuses to sugarcoat the realities of the Trump era, she wants to instill in him a sense of hope that with our hearts in the right place, we can find a way forward.
Peg Alford Pursell’s A Girl Goes into the Forest is unlike anything I’ve read before. While a few of the stories are longer, the majority are flash and micro fiction, in some cases a single paragraph. Pursell is a master at building layered, complex characters and distinctive moods in a compact space. A motif that is repeated throughout the collection is mothers and daughters that are trapped and trying to break free, literally or figuratively. For example, in “The Magician’s Assistant,” a girl feels the heat of her mother’s submerged anger and resentment towards her father, and imagines a way to make herself disappear. The writing is precise yet enigmatic; it feels like looking at family snapshots in a stranger’s photo album. We see a series of moments in time, and can only imagine the drama that takes place off the page.
Later in the year, a different art exhibit led me to a book. At the De Young Museum I stumbled upon in Pursuit of Venus [infected] by Lisa Reihana, a stunning, monumental video installation that shows scenes of life in the Pacific Islands before and after the arrival of Captain James Cook in the 18th century. It begins with what you’d expect: palm-fringed vistas, women with flowers in their hair and tranquil domestic tableaus. With the arrival of ships and colonizers, the vignettes become more tense and confrontational, ultimately ending in violence. Afterward I reflected on how little I knew about this history and the ramifications of colonization that are still felt throughout the Pacific Islands today. So I went home and reached for my copy of The Charm Buyers by Lillian Howan.
Set in Tahiti in the 1990s during the last years of French nuclear testing, The Charm Buyers follows the adventures of Marc, the son of Hakka pearl cultivators who is unmoored when his childhood sweetheart goes abroad to study in France. He drifts from one moneymaking scheme to another, and begins a relationship with a beautiful older French woman that is passionate but unsustainable. When his sweetheart returns years later from France with a mysterious, debilitating illness, Marc acquires a magical bead and calls on the shamanic powers of his ancestors to help ease her suffering. While this is the major arc, the novel is packed with colorful characters from all walks of life, painting a vivid portrait of a multicultural society in transition and the collision of different races, cultures and generations. Like Reihana, Howan explodes the myth of the postcard-perfect South Pacific and gives us a more nuanced and dimensional view of the islands that reckons with their colonial past.
By the time this column comes out, I will have finished reading one more book: Leland Cheuk’s wonderful No Good Very Bad Asian. I’m about 50 pages into this epistolary novel about Chinese-American standup comic Sirius Lee, and so far it’s a riot.
This year has been a blur of landscape from the window of a bullet train. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, came out in February to critical acclaim and it’s been a whirlwind. Even before the novel’s official entrance, from August 2018 I was one of five debut authors managing the Debutante Ball blog until this fall. I’ve met people all over the country and heard from readers all over the world—it’s been a waking dream. I feel part of a vibrant writing community. Reading is not just a guilty pleasure, but an essential part of being a writer; I’m delighted to have had a chance to read so many books that have thrilled me and inspired me this year.
One of my favorites has been Mira Jacob’s memoir, Good Talk. This funny yet poignant comic-book is brilliant in its scope of tackling racism and identity in America. I’ve reread this one a few times. I loved Soniah Kamal’s debut novel, Unmarriageable, which is Pride and Prejudice retold and set in Pakistan, Jean Kwok’s literary thriller Searching for Sylvie Lee, Grace Talusan’s memoir of being an immigrant in America, The Body Papers, Chelene Knight’s hybrid memoir about all of the places she lived in Vancouver as a child, Dear Current Occupant, Yangsze Choo’s historical novel The Night Tiger, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s speculative and satirical We Cast A Shadow, and Julia Phillips’s debut sparked by the disappearance of two girls, Disappearing Earth.
I’ve loved having the opportunity to support other authors’ works, through debut authors blog and by serving as a contest judge and writing endorsements for books that will be out in the next year, including: Carole Stivers’s sci-fi thriller The Mother Code in the not-too-distant-future America and Jayant Kaikini’s invaluable stories of Mumbai in No Presents Please and of course, Zeyn Joukhadar’s big second novel that combines history, art, mystery and the life of a trans Syrian-American, The Thirty Names of Night.
It was a pleasure to read Anita Felicelli’s surreal legal thriller Chimerica and be in conversation with her this year. I marveled at my colleague Debutante Ball bloggers’ novels—K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, Layne Fargo’s Temper, Martine Fournier Watson’s The Dream Peddler, and Stephanie Jimenez’s They Could Have Named Her Anything—and had a fun evening recently interviewing Stephanie in California. I was honored be a co-editor for a mixed-genre anthology Graffiti that was wholly produced by writers of color.
It was wonderful to read Cinelle Barnes’s second book, a collection of essays, Malaya, and Amanda Goldblatt’s beautiful debut Hard Mouth and Ma Jian’s China Dream. Though each book was vastly different, what drew me in, in each case, was the beautiful use of language.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tope Folarin’s debut novel of immigration and being other in America, A Particular Kind of Black Man, and Mitchell S. Jackson’s memoir Survival Math. I could not put down Jeanine Capo Crucet’s book of essays, My Time Among the Whites, Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novels The Evolution of Love and Running Wild, Casey Cep’s nonfiction book of Harper Lee and the story the Pulitzer Prize winner ultimately didn’t tell, Furious Hours.
I’m slowly reading (so it won’t be over!) Colson Whitehead’s heart-thumping story of reform school in Nickel Boys and Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, a stunning immigration story told in a hybrid epistolary form, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
2019 has been a fantastic year for poetry: loved, loved, loved Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Tina Chang’s Hybrida, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón and Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster. And I loved Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, which casts new light into her seminal long-ago book of poetry, The Country Between Us.
By the time you read this I will have finished reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s POV, The Forest of Enchantments, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s page-turner The Revisioners, Rene Denfeld’s The Butterfly Girl, and Meg Waite Clayton’s novel about the World War II Kindertransport, The Last Train to London.
Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile.
The names of our 2019 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 for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Marlon James, Yiyun Li, Esmé Weijun Wang, Elizabeth McCracken, Roberto Bolaño, and more—that are publishing this week.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Leopard, Red Wolf: “Booker winner James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) kicks off a planned trilogy with a trek across a fantastical Africa that is equal parts stimulating and enervating. Centering on the search for a lost boy, the plot is relatively straightforward, though the narrator, Tracker, moves his story obliquely ‘as crabs do, from one side to the next.’ Tracker is a ‘hunter of lost folk,’ an ornery loner with an extraordinary nose that lets him pick up the scent of his quarry from miles away. Along with several other mercenary hunters, he is hired by a slave trader to find a kidnapped boy, though who the boy is and why he is so valuable are mysteries to Tracker. Storytelling is a kind of currency in this world, as people measure themselves not only by their violent feats but also by their skill in recounting them, and they have plenty of material: giants, necromancers, witches, shape-shifters, warring tribes, and unspeakable atrocities. Indeed, there is a narrative glut, which barely lets readers acclimate to a new, wondrous civilization or grotesque creation before another is introduced. It’s altogether overwhelming, but on the periphery of the novel are intriguing ideas about the performance of masculinity, cultural relativism, kinship and the slipperiness of truth. Though marred by its lack of subtlety, this is nonetheless a work of prodigious imagination capable of entrancing readers.”
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Where Reasons End: “This heart-wrenching experimental novel from Li (The Vagrants) is framed as a dialogue between a writer and Nikolai, the teenage son she lost to suicide. The novel’s title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, and poetry is very much on the narrator’s mind, along with Alice in Wonderland and Wallace Stevens, as the freewheeling conversation turns toward such subjects as semantics, memory, the mechanics of grief, and a love that is ‘made not to last.’ Notably absent is a full reconstruction of her son’s suicide (this isn’t that kind of book), though readers do get to hear the voice of Nikolai—a precocious poet, painter, and oboist. During a conversation with her son, the mother wonders, ‘What if we accept suffering as we do our hair or eye colors?’ Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Li’s novel tries to find a language to reckon with the unspeakable reality of death. The novel succeeds in Li’s approach of skirting the subject in favor of something between the dead’s nostalgia for life and regular small talk. This is a unique, poignant, and tender evocation of life as touched irrevocably by death.”
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Collected Schizophrenias: “In this penetrating and revelatory exploration, novelist Wang (The Border of Paradise) shows how having a bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder has permeated her life. Stating that ‘my brain has been one of my most valuable assets since childhood,’ she writes with blunt honesty about striving to be seen as ‘high functioning,’ aware that ‘the brilliant facade of a good face and a good outfit’ drastically affects how she is perceived. She explains her decision not to have children, while recalling time spent working at a camp for bipolar children, and muses about viewing her condition as a manifestation of ‘supernatural ability’ rather than a hindrance. Wang invariably describes her symptoms and experiences with remarkable candor and clarity, as when she narrates a soul-crushing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the alarming onset of a delusion in which ‘the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead.’ She also tackles societal biases and misconceptions about mental health issues, criticizing involuntary commitment laws as cruel. Throughout these essays, Wang trains a dispassionate eye onto her personal narrative, creating a clinical remove that allows for the neurotypical reader’s greater comprehension of a thorny and oft-misunderstood topic.”
Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Spirit of Science Fiction: “This striking, meandering novel from Bolaño (2666), written toward the beginning of his career, follows the coming-of-age of two young writers in Mexico City. Aspiring writers Jan and Remo get an apartment together. Jan spends his days holed up in the apartment, reading books and penning letters to sci-fi authors he admires, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Fritz Leiber. Jan’s solitude is contrasted by Remo’s social jaunts around the city: he joins a poetry workshop, falls in love with a young woman named Laura, and rides a motorcycle. Remo’s involvement in the city’s literary scene exposes the reader to a number of digressive stories (one particularly memorable aside features Georges Perec unwittingly defusing a duel between poets Isidore Isou and André Vernier in Paris). Meanwhile, the reader also sees Jan’s searching letters, scattered throughout: ‘Oh, Ursula, it’s actually a relief to send out messages and have all the time in the world,’ he writes. Though more a collection of scenes and impressions and thinner than his other novels, this is an intriguing and dreamy portrait of two writers taking different paths in their pursuit of their love of literature, hoping to discover their voices.”
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bowlaway: “McCracken’s stellar novel (after Thunderstruck) opens at the turn of the 20th century with Bertha Truitt being discovered unconscious in a cemetery in little Salford, Mass., seemingly having fallen from the sky. Bertha is middle-aged, plump, and enjoys the absence of a corset, but in spite of her unprepossessing appearance, she initiates a love affair with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revives her at the cemetery. The two marry and have a daughter, Minna. Townspeople, meanwhile, find Bertha charismatic; they begin to dream about her and to credit her with magical powers. With fierce determination, she establishes a bowling alley that uses newfangled candlepins, a game that she (falsely) claims to have invented. Bertha’s loving family completes her happiness before a freak accident (McCracken is a pro at inventing such surprises) derails her plans. Almost everyone—Joe Wear and Virgil, LuEtta and Jeptha, Nahum and Margaret—with whom Bertha has come in contact mystically finds himself or herself in love; often the catalyst is the bowling alley, where they meet. Loss is as prevalent as love, however, and the whims of fate cast a melancholy tinge on characters’ lives. The bowling alley itself is almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determine prosperity or its opposite. McCracken writes with a natural lyricism that sports vivid imagery and delightful turns of phrase. Her distinct humor enlivens the many plot twists that propel the narrative, making for a novel readers will sink into and savor.”
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All My Goodbyes: “Argentina’s Dimópulos debuts in English with this impressionistic account of a young woman’s ‘pilgrim years’ of itinerancy. The narrator leaves Buenos Aires at 23, proclaiming, ‘being useful is no use to me.’ For the next 10 years, she drifts through Spain and Germany, repeatedly falling in love but always finding a reason to keep moving. In Heidelberg, she charms a student with her knowledge of the Latin names of plants, and in Berlin, she rooms with a trauma therapist before abandoning her, broken-hearted, to run off with a globe-trotting businessman whom she’d first met roaming the beach in Málaga. Once back in Argentina, the narrator moves to a farm in the shadow of the Andes and begins a passionate affair with Marco, its proprietor. With him she begins ‘predicting a life for myself; for real this time, this time forever.’ That is, until he is brutally murdered. As more scandalous details surrounding Marco’s death emerge, however, the appeal of avoiding commitment, no matter how immature, becomes harder to ignore. ‘We know from our hydrogen and our oxygen that we are water as well as dust,’ Dimópulos writes. ‘And water runs.’ Dimópulos boldly abandons chronology in this novel, offering instead brief, interweaving glimpses of her narrator’s relationships to create a fascinating kaleidoscope of regret.”
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hundred Wells of Salaga: “A Gonja king’s daughter and her slave pursue love, power, and freedom amid the dawning of colonialism in late-19th-century West Africa in Attah’s illuminating if overstuffed debut. Wurche, the daughter of Etuto, ruler of Salaga, accepts a political marriage to solidify Etuto’s power in advance of a war with two rival kingdoms. Etuto is victorious, but when he refuses Wurche’s advice about the encroaching Germans and British, she spitefully seeks out an affair with a reluctant slave trader named Moro. Meanwhile, Aminah, a commoner, is enslaved by raiders and sold to a sexually abusive farmer who in turn sells her to Wurche at a Salaga market. Attah’s attention to historical detail, extending from her characters’ diets to the wide diversity of cultures she captures, is impressive, though it’s too often swept aside by the torrent of events she describes. Wurche flees her suddenly abusive husband for Moro, but his growing attraction to Aminah complicates matters, as does Aminah’s desire to buy her freedom. Once Wurche learns that the Germans intend to capture Salaga and resolves to warn Etuto, the reader wonders if this fusion of romantic entanglement and geopolitics needs more pages than this slim volume has. Still, Attah’s exceptional research of the era shines through, making for a convincing historical novel.”
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Age of Light: “Scharer’s stellar debut chronicles the tumultuous working and romantic relationships of photographer Man Ray and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller in early 1930s Paris. As as an older woman living on a farm in East Sussex, Lee contemplates an assignment to write about her time with Man. Scharer intersperses her memories of that era with the grim but satisfying later years of being a WWII photographer. The years during and after the fall of Hitler led to her most important work, but also to a drinking problem. These scenes are juxtaposed against her hope-and-love-filled initial years in Paris, where she meets the older Man at a party and later convinces him to take her on as an apprentice. Man nurtures her talent as a photographer but also proves himself possessive and controlling, both as a lover and as a mentor. It becomes clear that he and his circle of famous artists ultimately don’t take women’s work seriously, prompting Lee to betray him. When Man guts her by submitting her photography under his name for a prize, she exacts revenge via another project he wanted to take from her and brings matters to a head. Scharer’s brilliant portrayal of the complicated couple features a page-turning story and thrillingly depicts the artistic process.”
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hard to Love: “Hopper debuts with a smart group of essays on contemporary relationships. A literature scholar, Hopper cultivates a voice that is sophisticated and analytical, but also earnest and eager, and her strongest essays balance these qualities. In ‘Spinsters,’ her treatise on female friendship, she shares fond memories from her life, such as of falling asleep to a friend’s voice on the phone, while decrying how the ‘arbitrary conflation of marriage with the commitments and responsibilities of adult life sometimes turns unmarried people into second-class citizens, while devaluing many necessary kinds of love.’ Hopper also skillfully uses personal anecdote in a piece on how caring for a friend with cancer is both ‘the most adult thing… and the most adolescent thing,’ because it requires negotiating health insurance policies, but also ‘willful wish-fulfillment’ in the periods between treatments. Only rarely is she less successful, as in a disappointingly banal piece on ‘How to Be Single.’ Much more often, she demonstrates how being deeply personal with the people in one’s life can help one to be critically engaged. ‘I think about writing and hoarding together,’ she says, after describing the hoarders in her family, in that ‘so much has to be serendipitously discovered and rediscovered and collected and stored.’ There is some to be passed over in these essays, but there is much more to be discovered.”
The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Atlas of Reds and Blues: “Laskar’s stunning debut skillfully tackles hefty topics such as bullying, racism, and terrorism in a mosaic, life-flashing-before-one’s-eyes narrative. Set in 2017 near Atlanta, the novel centers on Mother, an Indian-American woman in her 40s with three daughters and a husband who travels internationally more than he’s at home. One morning, after taking her children to school, Mother is gunned down in her driveway in an unexplained robbery; the narrative is told in discursive segments that jump around in time to present flashes of Mother’s life, all while she lies dying. These short pieces cover her job as a former crime reporter demoted to obituaries; her North Carolina childhood and girlish fascination with Barbie dolls and their tainted concept of beauty; being asked, beginning as a child, where she was from, though she was born in the U.S.; her family’s move to the Atlanta suburbs in an unwelcoming neighborhood where other kids torment her middle daughter and cops often question Mother about her husband’s job. Laskar touchingly shows how Mother just wants to have a normal life with her family and rise above prejudice. Elevated by its roaming structure, this is a striking depiction of a single life.”
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sea Monsters: “In Aridjis’s ethereal and ruminative second novel (after Book of Clouds), a new wave–loving teenage girl named Luisa, living in Mexico City, impulsively runs away from home with Tomás Román, an exotic and exciting boy she hardly knows. They head for Zipolite, the ‘Beach of the Dead’ in Oaxaca, where Luisa hopes to find a missing troupe of Ukranian dwarves that she believes may be hiding in the area after escaping from a Soviet circus touring Mexico. Enmeshed in precocious Luisa’s inner world, readers follow surreal fantasies and fascinations as she learns to dwell among Zipolite’s population of nudists, beachcombers, hippies, and even a so-called merman while she searches for the dwarves. She also meditates on William Burroughs, Baudelaire, Laurteamont, historical curiosities such as the shipwreck where researchers discovered the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism, and, above all, her favorite bands, including Joy Division and The Cure. The book functions more like a mood piece than a traditional novel, a fitting choice in rendering Luisa and Tomás’s life as runaways. Brilliant in her ability to get inside the head of her young narrator, Aridjis skillfully renders a slightly zonked-out atmosphere of mystery and the mind of a young romantic, resulting in a strange and hypnotic novel.”
Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Friend of My Youth: “This striking novel from Chaudhuri (A Strange and Sublime Address) tracks a writer by the same name returning to his boyhood home of Bombay for a book reading. This time, the place feels different—it’s after the 2008 terror attack, and his childhood friend Ramu is back in rehab. Amit doesn’t have anywhere to be aside from his reading and running an errand for his family. As he wanders the streets, Amit reflects on why he left Bombay. He scans bookshelves for his work and doesn’t see his titles, forcing him to reconsider his mark on the city. He also thinks about the sacrifices his parents made for his education; his mother had to sell her jewelry after the family fell on hard times. Amit speaks with a working man who recalls his parents from years ago, making him realize though Amit’s parents no longer live in Bombay, they still belong. Without the anchor of seeing Ramu, Amit discovers how tenuous his connection to the past becomes. In this cogent and introspective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allow individuals to connect their present and past.”
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A People’s Future of the United States: “LaValle (The Changeling) and Adams (The Living Dead) present an outstanding collection written by 25 heavy hitters of speculative fiction, offering dazzling and often chilling glimpses of an uncertain future in which America teeters on the brink. In ‘Calendar Girls’ by Justina Ireland, a young black girl arrested for selling illegal contraceptives must provide abortion transport to the daughter of the senator who criminalized contraception. In ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’ by A. Merc Rustad, an autistic, nonbinary person struggles to survive an oppressive, technofascist society where each quality that marks them as atypical puts them at risk for being ‘remade’ into the ‘white, male, straight’ ideal. In ‘Riverbed’ by Omar El Akkad, a survivor of American Muslim internment returns to the site of her imprisonment to retrieve her slain brother’s possessions and confront America’s Islamophobic ghosts. Each story builds a plausible extrapolation of the current world, and each character is well drawn. This bold collection is full of hope, strength, and courage, and will be welcomed by readers looking for emotional sustenance and validation of their experiences in a challenging time.”
As you learned last week, The Millions is entering into a new, wonderful epoch, a transition that means fretting over the Preview is no longer my purview. This is one of the things I’ll miss about editing The Millions: it has been a true, somewhat mind-boggling privilege to have an early look at what’s on the horizon for literature. But it’s also a tremendous relief. The worst thing about the Preview is that a list can never be comprehensive—we always miss something, one of the reasons that we established the monthly previews, which will continue—and as a writer I know that lists are hell, a font of anxiety and sorrow for other writers.
That said, the technical term for this particular January-through-June list is Huge Giant Monster. Clocking in at more than 120 books, it is quite simply, too long. (If I were still the editor and he were still the publisher, beloved site founder C. Max Magee would be absolutely furious with me.) But this over-abundance means blessings for all of us as readers. The first half of 2019 brings new books from Millions contributing editor Chigozie Obioma, and luminaries like Helen Oyeyemi, Sam Lipsyte, Marlon James, Yiyun Li, and Ann Beattie. There are mesmerizing debuts. Searing works of memoir and essay. There’s even a new book of English usage, fodder for your future fights about punctuation.
Let’s celebrate very good things, and a lot of them, where we find them. The Millions, its writers, and its readers have been some of my very good things. I’m so grateful for the time I’ve spent as editor, and with all of you. Happy new year, and happy reading. I’ll be seeing you around.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: Millions Contributing Editor Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is a merciless beauty and one of my favorites of 2015. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: The Fishermen garnered universal critical acclaim with its recasting of biblical and African mythos to create a modern Nigerian tragedy. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey blended with Igbo folklore that has received similar glowing notice so far. As Booklist says in a starred review, An Orchesta of Minorities is “magnificently multilayered…Obioma’s sophomore title proves to be an Odyssean achievement.” (Adam P.)
Hark by Sam Lipsyte: In Lipsyte’s latest novel since The Ask, we meet Hark Morner, an accidental guru whose philosophies are a mix of mindfulness, fake history, and something called “mental archery.” Fellow comedic genius Paul Beatty calls it “wonderfully moving and beautifully musical.” While Kirkus thought it too sour and misanthropic, Publishers Weekly deemed it “a searing exploration of desperate hopes.” Their reviewer adds, “Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.” (Edan)
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Fever Dream, published in America in 2017 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was, excepting Fire and Fury, perhaps the most frightening book of the last two years. Schweblin has a special knack for blending reality and eerie unreality, and she provides readers more nightmare fuel with Mouthful of Birds, a collection of 20 short stories that has drawn advance praise describing it as “surreal,” “visceral,” “addictive,” and “disturbing.” If you like to be unsettled, settle in. (Adam P.)
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: VQR columnist and essayist Ruffin now publishes his debut novel, a near-futurist social satire about people in a southern city undergoing “whitening” treatments to survive in a society governed by white supremacy. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls this a “singular and unforgettable work of political art.” For Ruffin’s nonfiction, read his excellent essay on gentrification and food in New Orleans for Southern Foodways or his work for VQR. (Lydia)
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: It took Hadley 46 years to publish her first novel, 2002’s Accidents in the Home. In the 17 years since, she has made up for lost time, publishing three story collections and six novels, including Late in the Day, about two middle-aged married couples coping with the death of one member of their tight-knit quartet. “Hadley is a writer of the first order,” says Publishers Weekly, “and this novel gives her the opportunity to explore, with profound incisiveness and depth, the inevitable changes inherent to long-lasting marriages.” (Michael)
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: House of Stone is a debut novel by Zimbabwean author Tshuma. The book opens with the narrative of a 24-year-old tenant Zamani, who works to make his landlord and landlady love him more than they loved their son, Bukhosi, who went missing during a protest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In his book review for The Guardian, Helon Habila praises Tshuma as a “wily writer,” and says that her book is full of surprises. House of Stone not only takes unexpected turns in terms of plot lines, but also bears no single boring sentence. It makes the violent political scenes and circumstance-driven characters vivid on the page and thus renders Zimbabwean history in a very powerful and yet believable way. (Jianan)
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In what Publishers Weekly describes as an “impressive debut replete with luminous prose,” Maren’s Sugar Run tells the story of Jodi McCarty, unexpectedly released from prison after 18 years inside. McCarty meets and quickly falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother, and together they set out towards what they hope will be a better life. Set within the insular confines of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing, gritty novel about escape—the longing for it, the impossibility of it—and it announces Maren as a formidable talent to watch. (Adam P.)
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay: Searching for answers about her late mother, Shalini, a 30-year-old privileged woman, travels from Bangalore to Kashmir in search of a mysterious man from her past. In the remote village, political and military tensions rise and threaten the new community she’s immersed herself in. Publishers Weekly, in starred review, wrote: “Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.” (Carolyn)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A scholar who has earned acclaim both within her discipline of Sociology and outside of the academy for her book Lower Ed, on the predatory for-profit college industry, Cottom has a huge following that looks to her for her trenchant analyses of American society. Now she publishes a collection of essays on race, gender, money, work, and class that combines scholarship and lived experience with Cottom’s characteristic rigor and style. (Lydia)
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rebeah Ghaffari: A story of the family of a retired judge in Iran just before the Revolution, where the events that roil the family are set against, and affected by, the events that will roil the nation. Kirkus calls this “an evocative and deeply felt narrative portrait.” (Lydia)
Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea: Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s Young Adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures. (Ed)
Mothers by Chris Power: Smooth and direct prose makes Power’s debut story collection an entrancing read. In “Portals,” the narrator meets Monica, a dancer from Spain, and her boyfriend. “We drank a lot and told stories.” A year later, Monica messages the narrator and says she wants to meet up—and is newly single. Power pushes through the narration, as if we have been confidently shuffled into a room to capture the most illuminating moments of a relationship. Lying on the grass together, Monica stares at the narrator as she rolls onto her back. “It was an invitation, but I hesitated. This was exactly what I had come for, but now the tiny space between us felt unbridgeable.” Mothers is full of those sharp moments of our lives: the pulse of joy, the sting of regret. (Nick R.)
Nobody’s Looking At You by Janet Malcolm: This essay collection is a worthy follow-up to Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In this new collection, readers can catch up on the masterful profiles of Eileen Fisher, Rachel Maddow, and Yuju Wang they may have missed in The New Yorker, as well as book reviews and literary criticism. (Hannah)
Talent by Juliet Lapidos: This debut is a literary mystery/campus novel set into motion by a graduate student, Anna Brisker, who can’t finish her dissertation on “an intellectual history of inspiration.” When Anna crosses paths with the niece of a deceased writer famous for his writer’s block, she’s thrilled to discover that the eminent writer has left behind unfinished work. Anna thinks she’s found the perfect case study for her thesis, but soon learns that the niece’s motives aren’t what they seem and that the author’s papers aren’t so easily interpreted. (Hannah)
Golden State by Ben Winters: With The Last Policemen Trilogy and Underground Airlines, Winters has made a career of blending speculative fiction with detective noir. His next in that vein is Golden State, a novel set in California in the not-too-distant future—an independent state where untruth is the greatest offense. Laszlo Ratesic works as a Speculator, a state force with special abilities to sense lies. (Janet)
Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé: Prix Goncourt winning French playwright Gaudé’s philosophical meditation on human foibles and violence makes its English language debut. Bracketed around the romance of a French intelligence officer and an Iraqi archeologist, the former in pursuit of an American narco-trafficker and the latter attempting to preserve sites from ISIS, Hear Our Defeats ultimately ranges across history, including interludes from Ulysses S. Grant pushing into Virginia and Hannibal’s invasion of Rome. (Ed)
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian: The short story collection whose centerpiece is “Cat Person,” the viral sensation that had millions of people identifying with/fearing/decrying/loving/debating a work of short fiction last year. (Lydia)
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen: This writer from Greenland was 22 when she won a prestigious writing prize, and her subsequent debut novel took the country by storm. Now available for U.S. readers, a profile in The New Yorker calls the novel “a work of a strikingly modern sensibility—a stream-of-consciousness story of five queer protagonists confronting their identities in twenty-first-century Greenlandic culture.” (Lydia)
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer: A guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic (please don’t copyedit this sentence). George Saunders calls it “A mind-blower—sure to jumpstart any writing project, just by exposing you, the writer, to Dreyer’s astonishing level of sentence-awareness.” (Lydia)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Following up his Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has written the first book in what is to be an epic trilogy that is part Lord of the Rings, part Game of Thrones, and part Black Panther. In this first volume, a band of mercenaries—made up of a witch, a giant, a buffalo, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter who can track anyone by smell (his name is Tracker)—are hired to find a boy, missing for three years, who holds special interest for the king. (Janet)
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li: Where Reasons End is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Li creates this fictional space where a mother can have an eternal, carefree conversation with her child Nikolai, who commits suicide at the age of 16. Suffused with intimacy and deepest sorrows, the book captures the affections and complexity of parenthood in a way that has never been portrayed before. (Jianan)
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang: Wang writes brilliantly and beautifully about lives lived with mental illness. Her first novel, The Border of Paradise, traces a family through generations, revealing the ways each becomes inheritors of the previous generation’s isolation and depression. In The Collected Schizophrenias, her first essay collection (for which she was awarded the Whiting Award and Greywolf Nonfiction Prize), Wang draws from her experience as both patient and speaker/advocate navigating the vagaries of the mental healthcare system while also shedding light on the ways it robs patients of autonomy. What’s most astonishing is how Wang writes with such intelligence, insight, and care about her own struggle to remain functional while living with schizoaffective disorder. (Anne)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson: It’s the mid-1980s and American Cold War adventurism has set its sights on the emerging west African republic of Burkina Faso. There’s only one problem: the agent sent to help swing things America’s way is having second, and third, thoughts. The result is an engaging and intelligent stew of espionage and post-colonial political agency, but more important, a confessional account examining our baser selves and our unscratchable itch to fight wars that cannot be won. (Il’ja)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: The two-time
finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award has written a road novel
for America in the 21st century. In the book, a family of four set out from their home in New York to visit a place in Arizona called Apacheria, a.k.a. the region once inhabited by the Apache tribe. On their way down south, the family reveals their own set of long-simmering conflicts, while the radio gives updates on an “immigration crisis” at the border. (Thom)
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): In 2016, Kang’s stunning
novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize; in 2018, she drew Man Booker attention again with her autobiographical work The White Book. There are loose connections between the two—both concern sisters, for one, and loss, and both feature Han’s beautiful, spare prose—but The White Book is less a
conventional story and more like a meditation in fragments. Written about and to the narrator’s older sister, who died as a newborn, and about the white objects of grief, Han’s work has been likened to “a secular prayer book,” one that “investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.” (Kaulie)
Bangkok Wakes to Rainby Pitchaya Sudbanthad: NYFA Fellow Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, has already been
hailed as “important, ambitious, and accomplished,” by Mohsin Hamid, and a book
that “brilliantly sounds the resonant pulse of the city in a wise and far-reaching meditation on home,” by Claire Vaye Watkins. This polyphonic novel follows myriad characters—from a self-exiled jazz pianist to a former student
revolutionary—through the thresholds of Bangkok’s past, present, and future. Sudbanthad, who splits his time between Bangkok and New York, says he wrote the novel by letting his mind wander the city of his birth: “I arrived at the site of a house that, to me, became a theatrical stage where characters…entered and left; I followed them, like a clandestine voyeur, across time and worlds, old and new.” (Anne)
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A new collection of nonfiction–speeches, essays, criticism, and reflections–from the Nobel-prize winning Morrison. Publishers Weekly says “”Some superb pieces headline this rich collection…Prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment…” (Lydia)
Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolano: Spirit of Science Fiction is a novel by the critically acclaimed author of 2666, Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Apparently it is a tale about two young poets aspiring to find their positions in the literary world. But the literary world in Bolano’s sense is also a world of revolution, fame, ambition, and more so of sex and love. Like Bolano’s previous fiction, Spirit of Science Fiction is a Byzantine maze of strange and beautiful life adventures that never fails to provide readers with intellectual and emotional satisfaction. (Jianan)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: It’s hard to believe it’sbeen 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House,perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short storycollections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fanswill no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows threegenerations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to acandlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls“almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determineprosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praisesMcCracken’s “psychological acuity.” (Edan)
Good Will Come from the Sea by Christos Ikonomou (translated by Karen Emmerich): In the same way that Greece was supposedly the primogeniture of Western civilization, the modern nation has prefigured over the last decade in much of what defines our current era. Economic hardship, austerity, and the rise of political radicalism are all manifest in the Greece explored by Ikonomou in his short story collection Good Will Come from the Sea. These four interlocked stories explore modern Greece as it exists on the frontlines of both the refugee crisis and scarcity economics. Ikonomou’s stories aren’t about the Greece of chauvinistic nostalgia; as he told an interviewer in 2015 his characters “don’t love the Acropolis; they don’t know what it means,” for it’s superficial “to feel just pride;” rather, the author wishes to “write about the human condition,” and so he does. (Ed)
The Heavens by Sandra Newman: This novel connects analternate universe New York in the year 2000 with Elizabethan England, througha woman who believes she has one foot in each era. A fascinating-soundingromance about art, illness, destiny, and history. In a starred review, Kirkuscalls this “a complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wideacclaim.” (Lydia)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (translated by Alice Whitmore): Argentinian writer Dimópulos’s first book in English is a novel that focuses on a narrator who has been traveling for a decade. The narrator reflects on her habit of leaving family, countries, and lovers. And when she decides to commit to a relationship, her lover is murdered, adding a haunting and sorrowful quality to her interiority. Julie Buntin writes, “The scattered pieces of her story—each of them wonderfully distinct, laced with insight, violence, and sensuality—cohere into a profound evocation of restlessness, of the sublime and imprisoning act of letting go.” (Zoë)
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah: An account of 19th-century Ghana, the novel follows twoyoung girls, Wurche and Aminah, who live in the titular city which is a notoriouscenter preparing people for sale as slaves to Europeans and Americans. Attah’s novelgives a texture and specificity to the anonymous tales of the Middle Passage,with critic Nadifa Mohamad writing in The Guardian that “One of the strengthsof the novel is that it complicates the idea of what ‘African history’ is.”(Ed)
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: This much sought-afterdebut, which was the object of a bidding war, is based on the life of LeeMiller, a Vogue model turned photographer who decided she would rather “take apicture than be one.” The novel focuses on Miller’s tumultuous romance withphotographer Man Ray in early 1930s Paris, as Miller made the transition frommuse to artist. Early reviews suggests that the novel more than lives up to itspromise, with readers extolling its complicated heroine and page-turningpacing. (Hannah)
Northern Lights by Raymond Strom: A story about the struggle for survival in a small town in Minnesota, the novel follows the androgynous teen run-away ShaneStephenson who is searching in Holm, Minn., for the mother who abandonedhim. Shane finds belonging among the adrift and addicted of the crumbling town,but he also finds bigotry and hatred. (Ed)
Adèle by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourtin 2016, became famous after publishing Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which is nowbeing translated and published in English as Adèle. The French-Morocconnovelist’s debut tells the story of a titular heroine whose burgeoning sexaddiction threatens to ruin her life. Upon winning an award in Morocco for thenovel, Slimani said its primary focus is her character’s “loss of self.” (Thom)
The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung (translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl): Known as “one of the most beloved masterpieces in Korean literature,” The Nine Cloud Dream (also known as Kuunmong) takes readers on a journey reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno combining aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous Korean shamanic religions in a 17th-century tale, which, rare in Buddhist texts, includes strong representation of women. Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and an introduction, notations, and translation done by one of my favorite translators, Heinz Insu Fenkl. Akin to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, an intriguing read for readers interested in Buddhism, Korea, and mindfulness. (Marie Myung-Ok)
Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins: Notlong after completing her first feature film, Losing Ground, in 1982, Collins died from breast cancer at age 46. In 2017, her short story collectionabout the lives and loves of black Americans in the 1960s, Whatever Happened toInterracial Love?, was published to ringing critical acclaim. Now comes NotesFrom a Black Woman’s Diary, which is much more than the title suggests. Inaddition to autobiographical material, the book includes fiction, plays,excerpts from an unfinished novel, and the screenplay of Losing Ground, withextensive directorial notes. This book is sure to burnish Collins’sflourishing posthumous reputation. (Bill)
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper: A collection of essays on therelationships between family members and friends, with background on the author’schildhood in an evangelical family. The collection garnered a starredreview from Kirkus and praise from essayist Leslie Jamison, who calls is “extraordinary.”(Lydia)
A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits: Markovits is aversatile writer, his work ranging from a fictional trilogy about Lord Byron toan autobiographical novel about basketball. He returns to athletics in AWeekend in New York, where Paul Essinger is a mid-level tennis player and1,200-1 shot to win the U.S. Open. Essinger may be alone on the court, but he hasplenty of company at his Manhattan home when his parents visit during thetournament. Upon its British publication, The Guardian praised the “light,limber confidence” with which Markowits handles sporting knowledge and hisacute treatment of the family tensions amid “first-world also-rans.” (Matt)
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This debut is the memoirof a young woman’s life shaped by unrelenting existential terror. The story istold in fragmentary vignettes beginning with Shalmiyev’s fraught emigration asa young child from St. Petersburg, Russia to the United States, leaving behindthe mother who had abandoned her. It closes with her resolve to find herestranged mother again. (Il’ja)
Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C. Hayden): It is 1930 in the Soviet Unionand Josef Stalin’s de-kulakization program has found its pace. Among thevictims is a young Tatar family: the husband murdered, the wife exiled toSiberia. This is her story of survival and eventual triumph. Winner of the 2015Russian Booker prize, this debut novel draws heavily on the first-personaccount of the author’s grandmother, a Gulag survivor. (Il’ja)
The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar: This novel’sinciting incident is a police raid on the home the daughter of Bengaliimmigrants, told from her perspective as she lies bleeding and running throughthe events, experiences, and memories that have led her to this moment. KieseLaymon calls Laskar’s book “as narratively beautiful as it isbrutal…I’ve never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages.Laskar has changed how we will all write about state-sanctioned terror in thisnation.” (Lydia)
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis: Imagine if Malcom Lowry’shallucinogenic masterpiece Under the Volcano, about the drunken perambulationsof a British consul in a provincial Mexican village on Dia de Los Muertos, hadbeen written by a native of that country? Such could describe Aridjis’snovel Sea Monsters, which follows the 17-year-old Luisa and her acquaintanceTomás as they leave Mexico City in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves whohave defected from a Soviet circus. Luisa eventually settles in Oaxaca whereLuisa takes sojourns to the “Beach of the Dead” in search of anyone who “nomatter what” will “remain a mystery.” (Ed)
Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela: The 13 stories inAboulela’s new collection are set in locales as distant as Khartoum and London,yet throughout they explore the universal feelings of the migrant experience:displacement, longing, but also the incandescent hope of creating a differentlife. (Nick M.)
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: Mildred Groves, TheCassandra’s titular prophetess, sometimes sees flashes of the future. She isalso working at the top-secret Hanford Research Center in the 1940s, where theseeds of atomic weapons are sown and where her visions are growing morehorrifying—and going ignored at best, punished at worst. Balancing thoroughresearch and mythic lyricism, Shields’s novel is a timely warning of whathappens when warnings go unheeded. (Kaulie)
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen: A new title from ShadeMountain Press, Tonic and Balm takes place in 1919, it’s setting a travelingmedicine show, complete with “sideshows,” sword-swallowers, anddubious remedies. The book explores this show’s peregrinations against thebackdrop of poverty and racist violence in rural Pennsylvania. Allen’s firstbook, A Place Between Stations: Stories, was a finalist for the Hurston-WrightLegacy Award. (Lydia)
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price): “Most of my friendshave left the country and are now refugees,” Khalifa wrote in a recentessay. Yet he remains in Syria, a place where “those of us who have stayed aredying one by one, family by family, so much so that the idea of an empty citycould become a reality.” If literature is a momentary stay against confusion,then Khalifa’s novels are ardent stays against destruction and decay—and DeathIs Hard Work continues this tradition. The novel begins with the dying hours ofAbdel Latif al-Salim, who looks his son Bolbol “straight in the eye” in orderto give his dying wish: to be buried several hours away, next to his sister.The novel becomes a frenetic attempt for his sons to honor this wish and reachAnabiya. “It’s only natural for a man,” Khalifa writes, “to be weak and makeimpossible requests.” And yet he shows this is what makes us human. (Nick R.)
Aerialists by Mark Mayer. For those gutted by the news ofRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closing in 2017, Mayer’s debutcollection supplies a revivifying dose of that carney spirit. The storiesfeature circus-inspired characters—most terrifyingly a murderous clown-cum-realestate agent—in surrealist situations. We read about a bearded womanrevolutionist, a TV personality strongwoman, and, in the grand tradition of petburial writing that reached its acme with Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, thefuneral of a former circus elephant. Publishers Weekly called it a “high-wiredebut [that] exposes the weirdness of everyday life.” (Matt)
Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri: Published for thefirst time in the U.S., this is the seventh novel by the renowned writer, awork of autofiction about a novelist named Amit Chaudhuri revisiting hischildhood in Mumbai. Publishers Weekly says, “in this cogent andintrospective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allowindividuals to connect their present and past.” (Lydia)
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams: An anthology of 25 speculative stories from a range of powerful storytellers, among them Maria Dahvana Headley, Daniel José Older, and Alice Sola Kim. LaValle and Adams sought stories that imagine a derailed future—tales that take our fractured present and make the ruptures even further. Editor LaValle, an accomplished speculative fiction writer himself (most recently The Changeling, and my personal favorite, the hilarious and booming Big Machine), is the perfect writer to corral these stories. LaValle has said “one of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot…[including] racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill”—the perfect description for this dynamic collection. (Nick R.)
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten: Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha,is the first and last Trump novel I’ll ever want to read. Doten started writingthe novel in 2015, when our current predicament, I mean, president, was a mereand unfathomable possibility. Doten’s President Trump brings about the nuclearapocalypse, and in its aftermath a journalist takes an assignment to researchInternet humor at the end of the world. The result? An “unconventional anddarkly satirical mix of memes, Twitter jokes, Q&As, and tightly writtenstream-of-consciousness passages,” according to Booklist. From this feat, saysJoshua Cohen,“Mark Doten emerges as the shadow president of our benightedgeneration of American literature.” (Anne)
Nothing but the Night by John Williams: The John Williams ofStoner fame revival continues with the reissue of his first novel by NYRB,first published in 1948, a story dealing with mental illness and trauma withechoes of Greek tragedy. (Lydia)
Famous Children and Famished Adults by Evelyn Hampton:“[Evelyn] Hampton’s stunned sentences will remind you, because you haveforgotten, how piercingly disregulating life is,” writes Stacey Levine ofHampton’s debut story collection Discomfort, published by Ellipsis Press. Ifirst encountered Hampton’s fictions through her novella, Madam, a story of aschoolteacher and her pupils at an academy, where memory is a vehicle and somuch seems a metaphor and language seems to turn in on itself. Hampton’sforthcoming story collection Famous Children and Famished Adults won FC2’sRonald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and continues with the quixotic. Inthis collection, Noy Holland says, “the exotic and toxic intermingle.” (Anne)
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: Described as the “Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for,” this debut novel, from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, tells the story of three Zambian families—black, white, and brown—caught in a centuries-long cycle of retribution, romance, and political change. Serpell asks, “How do you live a life or forge a politics that can skirt the dual pitfalls of fixity (authoritarianism) and freedom (neoliberalism)? And what happens if you treat error not as something to avoid but as the very basis for human creativity and community?” Recipient of a starred review from Kirkus and advance praise from Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Sebold, and Garth Greenwell, The Old Drift is already well positioned to become the Next Big Thing of 2019. (Jacqueline)
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi became a criticaldarling in 2014 with Boy, Snow, Bird, a retelling of “Snow White.” She takes usback into fairy tale world with Gingerbread, the story of mother and daughter,Harriet and Perdita Lee, and their family’s famous, perhaps…magical,gingerbread recipe. Along with Harriet’s childhood friend Gretel, the Leesendure family, work, and money drama all for the sake of that crunchy spice.(Janet)
The Reign of the Kingfisher by TJ Martinson: Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’sone of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologuereads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detectivefiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanlystrong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until hismutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once againbegan to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death?If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way,the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of theold one. We must save ourselves. (Emily)
Lot by Bryan Washington: Washington is a talentedessayist—his writing on Houston for Catapult and elsewhere are must-reads—andLot is a glowing fiction debut. Imbued with the flesh of fiction, Lot is aliterary song for Houston. “Lockwood,” the first story, begins: “Roberto wasbrown and his people lived next door so of course I went over on weekends. Theywere full Mexican. That made us superior.” Their house was a “shotgun withswollen pipes.” A house “you shook your head at when you drove up the road.”But the narrator is drawn to Roberto, and when they are “huddled in hiscloset,” palms squeezed together, we get the sense Washington has a keen eyeand ear for these moments of desire and drama. His terse sentences punch andpop, and there’s room for our bated breath in the remaining white space. (NickR.)
The New Me by Halle Butler: If Butler’s first novel,Jillian, was the “feel-bad book of the year,” then her second, The New Me, is askewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment. Butlerhas already proven herself a master of writing about work and its discontents,the absurdity of cubicle life and office work in all of its dead ends. The NewMe takes it to a new level in what Catherine Lacey calls a Bernhardian “darkcomedy of female rage.” The New Me portrays a 30-year old temp worker whoyearns for self-realization, but when offered a full-time job, she becomesparalyzed realizing the hollowness of its trappings. (Anne)
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander: Pulitzer finalist Englander’s latest novel follows Larry, an atheist in a family of orthodox MemphisJews. When he refuses to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead,for his recently deceased father, Larry risks shocking his family andimperiling the fate of his father’s soul. Like everyone else in the21st century, Larry decides the solution lies online, and he makes awebsite, kaddish.com, to hire a stranger to recite the daily prayer in hisplace. What follows is a satirical take on God, family, and the Internet thathas been compared to early Philip Roth. (Jacqueline)
Minutes of Glory by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Thiong’o, the perennial Nobel Prize contender who once got through a prison sentence by drafting a memoir on toilet paper, has collected his best short stories in this collection, which spans half a century. From “The Fig Tree,” which Thiong’o wrote when he was an undergraduate in Uganda, to “The Ghost of Michael Jackson,” which he wrote while teaching at Irvine, these stories affirm the wide range of a global sensation. (Thom)
Guestbook: Ghost Stories by Leanne Shapton: A collection of haunting stories and illustrations from the writer and visual artist Shapton, of which Rivka Galchen says, “Guestbook reveals Shapton as a ventriloquist, a diviner, a medium, a force, a witness, a goof, and above all, a gift. One of the smartest, most moving, most unexpected books I have read in a very long time.” (Lydia)
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike: A couple of months ago I zipped through this funny and poignant collection of stories about women grappling with motherhood in many different ways: one struggles with infertility, for instance, and another gets pregnant by accident. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of feeling, not once compromised by the brevity of the form. In its starred review, Kirkus calls it “an exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.” Meaghan O’Connell says, “Each story in Look How Happy I’m Making You is a lovely universe unto itself — funny, intimate, casually profound — but there is something transcendent about reading them together like this.” (Edan)
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Ostensibly a memoir.Yet the idea of a Beat poet rhapsodizing, eulogizing or—God help us—memorizing his life as a Beat would be a defeat difficult to recover from.Don’t worry. There’s plenty of indignation, wry observation, and inevitableprognostication as Ferlinghetti looks back on his near-century on the planet toremind us to—among other matters—stop griping and play the hand we’redealt. (Il’ja)
If, Then by Kate Hope Day: In a quiet mountain town, four neighbors’ worlds are rocked when they begin to see versions of themselves in parallel realities. As the disturbing visions mount, a natural disaster looms and threatens their town. From a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.” (Carolyn)
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden: With a sparkling blurb from Mary Gaitskill—“Sad, funny, juicy and prickly with deep and secret thoughtful places”—and a sparkling cover (literally—see her website), T. Kira Madden’s debut memoir, a coming-of-age story set in Boca Raton, is primed for buzz. As a grownup, Madden self-describes as an “APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician”; as a child, “Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability . . . she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.” One of the best, most evocative titles of the release season, IMHO. (Sonya)
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum: Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl in 1990, prefers reading to suitors, but after her family marries her to an American deli owner she finds herself living in Brooklyn, trapped in a losing struggle against his oppressive mother, Fareeda. Eighteen years later, Fareeda attempts to pressure Isra’s oldest daughter into an early marriage, but an estranged family member offers Isra a chance to determine her own life. Rum, who was born to Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, has written that she hopes her debut novel moves readers “by the strength and power of our women.” (Kaulie)
The White Card by Claudia Rankine: The author of Citizen, Macarthur Genius grant honoree, and founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute will publisher her first play, one that examines the concept of whiteness and white Americans’ failures to acknowledge it, through a series of interactions between an artist and an affluent couple. In the play’s introduction, Rankine writes “The scenes in this one-act play, for all the characters’ disagreements, stalemates, and seeming impasses, explore what happens if one is willing to stay in the room when it is painful to bear the pressure to listen and the obligation to respond.” (Lydia)
EEG by Dasa Drndic: I first encountered Daša Drndic through her novel Belladona in June, unwittingly a mere two weeks after the author’s death from lung cancer. I was struck by the character Andreas Ban, and his idiosyncratic reflection upon ears, that “marvelous ugly organ,” accompanied by a diagram of an ear marked with the body’s points. This character Ban continues into Drndic’s next and final book, EEG, where after surviving a suicide attempt he goes on to dissect and expose the hidden evils and secrets of our times. He’s stand-in for Drndic herself, who wrote emphatically and had stated that “Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” (Anne)
Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda: Poet Terese Svoboda brings a lyrical intensity to her collection of short stories in Great American Desert. Svoboda examines the excavations that we perform on ourselves and on the land, with her stories ranging from the ancient North American Clovis people, to a science fiction description of a massive pink pyramid arising from the prairies far into the future. Author of Swamplandia! Karren Russel describes Great American Desert as “A devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.” (Ed)
King of Joy by Richard Chiem: Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential Books of the American West, and now he brings us King of Joy, an experimental narrative that explores fantasy, trauma, survival, and resilience. The novel follows Corvus, a woman that can imagine her way out of any situation–until she experiences a grief so profound that she cannot escape through fantasy. Foreword Reviews recently gave it a starred review and Kristen Arnette describes the novel as “a brilliant, tender examination of the unholy magnitude of trauma. It shows how pain can simultaneously destroy and preserve a person. Most of all, it is just goddamn beautiful writing.” (Zoë)
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means: Means’s last publication, Hystopia, was a Booker-nominated novel, but he is still best known for his short stories. Instructions for a Funeral is therefore a return to (the short story) form, 14 pieces, previously published in the New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review, and VICE, that display the intelligence and questing range for which Means is known. From a fistfight in Sacramento to a 1920s FBI stakeout in the midwest, Instructions for a Funeral invites readers on a literary journey with a master of the modern short story. (Adam P.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor): Writes Priya Parmal in her 2014 New York Times review of Maylis de Kerangal’s first novel translated into English, The Heart, “These characters feel less like fictional creations and more like ordinary people, briefly illuminated in rich language, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, that veers from the medical to the philosophical.” In the The Cook, a “hyperrealist” tale centered around a self-taught professional cook, we are treated to “lyricism and [the] intensely vivid evocative nature of Maylis de Kerangal’s prose, which conjures moods, sensations, and flavors, as well as the exhausting rigor and sometimes violent abuses of kitchen work.” The Cook is her 10th novel, her second translated into English (also by Taylor); Anglophones can be grateful that we’re finally catching up with this many-prize-winning author. (Sonya)
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan: A speculative novel about the “end of the Internet,” and what comes after for a society increasingly dependent on Big Data, surveillance, and the other sinister trappings of the 21st century. From the author of this vivid take on Santa Claus and his elves in the age of Amazon. (Lydia)
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young: A memoir in essays by the co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com, heartfelt and bursting with humor. In Young’s words, “it’s a look at some of the absurdities, angsts and anxieties of existing while black in America,” and includes deeply personal material, including about the death of his mother, which was rooted in racism in America. (Lydia)
The Parade by Dave Eggers: No one can accuse Eggers of playing it safe. Last year, in The Monk of Mokha, he profiled a Yemeni American who dreams of reconstituting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee. A couple years before that, he wrote a novel, Heroes of the Frontier, about an American dentist road-tripping around Alaska with her kids. In his latest novel, two Western contractors, one named Four, the other named Five, travel to an unnamed country to build a new road intended to mark the end of a ruinous civil war. It’s “a parable of progress, as told by J.M. Coetzee to Philip K. Dick,” says Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (Michael)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: For her seventh novel, the celebrated Siri Hustvedt goes meta. A novelist of a certain age, known as S.H., discovers a notebook and early drafts of a never-completed novel she wrote during her first year in New York City in the late 1970s, some four decades ago. The discovery allows S.H. to revisit her long-ago obsession with her mysterious neighbor, Lucy Brite. Weaving the discovered texts with S.H.’s memories and things forgotten, Hustvedt has produced a rich novel built on the sand of shifting memory. As a bonus, the book includes a sampling of Hustvedt’s whimsical drawings. (Bill)
Sing to It by Amy Hempel: Hempel, the short story legend best known for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” is back with her first new collection of stories in over a decade. From “Cloudland,” which depicts a woman’s reckoning with her decision to give up her child, to “A Full-Service Shelter,” which follows a volunteer at a shelter where abandoned dogs are euthanized, the stories in Sing to It are fitting additions to Hempel’s work. (Thom)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Lalami, whose previous novel, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, returns with a “structurally elegant mystery” (Kirkus). At the opening of this highly anticipated new novel, Morroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui is killed by a speeding car on a California highway. The book then follows a number of characters connected to and affected by his death, including his jazz composer daughter, his wife, and an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident. J.M. Coetzee says, “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.” (Edan)
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf: When a huge, garish home called the White Elephant infiltrates Willard Park, a quiet suburb, the neighborhood falls into utter comedic chaos. In the shadow of the home, neighbors begin to fight, lives are upended, and their once-peaceful town becomes anything but. Meg Wolitzer calls the debut novel a “smart, enjoyable suburban comedy.” (Carolyn)
The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser: The intellectually peripatetic Brad Leithauser—poet, novelist, editor, translator and MacArthur fellow whose interests range from Iceland to insects, American music and ghosts—has produced a sharp comic novel about a monster of a mid-life crisis. Louie Hake, a 43-year-old professor at a third-rate Michigan college, comes undone when his actress wife is discovered performing acts of “gross indecency” with her director. Bipolar Louie sets off on a tour of great world architecture, but he has stopped taking his lithium (though not all psychotropic substances), so he can get erratic. He can also be very funny—and very touching on those great American taboos, shame and failure. (Bill)
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker: Touted as “an international sensation” and sold in many countries, this debut novel follows the quest of a down-on-his-luck professor to get his mitts on his children’s inheritance. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “a painfully honest, but tender, examination of how love goes awry in the places it should flourish.” (Lydia)
When All Else Fails by Rayyan al-Shawaf: Past Millions contributor and NBCC critic al-Shawaf is out with his own novel, an absurdist tale of a lovelorn and luckless Iraqi college student in the States whose life is upended by 9/11 and who later moves to Lebanon. (Lydia)
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: A graphic novel about raising her mixed-race son in a white supremacist society by the author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, built around conversations with a curious six-year-old. Jacqueline Woodson says “In Jacob’s brilliant hands, we are gifted with a narrative that is sometimes hysterical, always honest, and ultimately healing.” (Lydia)
Working by Robert A. Caro: Widely known—and celebrated—for his monumental biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, Caro steps out from behind his subjects in Working, a collection of personal writings about, well, working. Here he describes his experiences searching Johnson’s presidential archives, what it was like to interview some of the major figures of the last half century, and how exactly he goes about structuring those massive, award-winning books. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes look at how “the greatest political biographer of our time” gets the job done. (Kaulie)
Morelia by Renee Gladman: It’s been said again and again that no one writes quite like Renee Gladman, whose writing and drawing explore movements of thought. Gladman’s Ravicka series of novels, published by Dorothy Project, traverses the fictional city, where “everything is vivid and nothing is fixed.” In Gladman’s essay collection Calamities, she writes toward the experience of the everyday where nothing of importance happens (which are most days, she has commented). Gladman’s latest, short novel, Morelia, “is an expansive mystery,” Amina Cain writes, “but I don’t think it exists to be solved…. There is a city with structures in it that multiply or are ‘half-articulated,’ where climate dictates how the city’s inhabitants move.” (Anne)
Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Canadians have come to accept that we can’t keep Toews to ourselves any longer. After her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, became an international sensation, the timely and urgent Women Talking is set to do the same. It’s a fictionalized telling of real life rapes that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After repeated attacks, a group of women are told they are lying about the violence or being punished by Satan. The narrative unfolds as they meet to decide what they will do: forgive, fight, or run. (Claire)
Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: This story collection by the author of the acclaimed epic novel, Kintu, is centered on the lives of Ugandans living in Britain, where they are both hyper-visible and unseen, excluded from British life as they work jobs in airport security, in hospitals, in caring for the elderly. In the title story, when the protagonist’s husband dies in England, her fellow Ugandans start a fund-raising drive to pay for transporting the body back home. Their motivation beautifully captures the dislocation of exile: “We are not burying one of us in snow.” It has been said that Makumbi has done for Ugandan writing what the great Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian literature. (Bill)
Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş: Of her family, global citizen (of Turkish descent) Savaş writes, “They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic . . . This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms . . . are nicked from brothel fires.” Evidently drawing on her own life, Savas’s debut novel is set in Paris (where she lives) and features a young Turkish woman who tells her family’s stories to a novelist friend. “Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much . . . fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.” Writes Helen Phillips, “This quietly intense debut is the product of a wise and probing mind.” (Sonya)
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar: A story about a young woman who is lured to an intentional community in the North Carolina mountains by an enigmatic man, only to find out that her community members are disappearing one by one. Samantha Hunt says “Dektar’s unstoppable tale of a country beyond is an addictive read so engrossing I forget where I am.” (Lydia)
I Miss you When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott: An debut essay collection from the Emmy-winning TV host and beloved bookseller at Parnsassus Books in Nashville. Philpott’s inspiration came from readers who would beeline to the memoir section to pick up Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, then ask, “What do you have like this, but more like me?” With essays that Ann Patchett calls relentlessly funny, self-effacing, and charming,” the result is a kind of wisdom that comes from making so many wrong turns they strangely add up to something that is exactly right. (Claire)
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead): Critically acclaimed Argentinian writer Maria Gainza’s first book translated in English. The story interweaves the narrator’s fascination and obsession with art and art history and her intimate experiences involving her family, romantic relationships, and work life. Mariana Enríquez declares, “In between autofiction and the microstories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate, and other times brutal.” (Zoë)
Naamah by Sarah Blake: In a stunning, feminist retelling of Noah’s Ark, Blake’s debut novel focuses on Naamah (Noah’s wife) and their family in the year after the Great Flood. Full of desire, fury, strength, and wavering faith, Naamah becomes the bedrock on which the Earth is rebuilt upon. Written in poetic prose, Lidia Yuknavitch praises the novel as “a new vision of storytelling and belief” and “a new myth-making triumph.” (Carolyn)
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: With accolades from all-stars like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short-story collection promises to wow us. “Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force.” A two-book deal with historical novel to follow. (Sonya)
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: This debut has it all—a novel of the Korean immigrant experience, a courtroom thriller, an exploration of controversies over autism therapies (specifically here, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, HBOT). Kirkus calls it “deeply satisfying” and says “it should be huge.” (Marie Myung-Ok)
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s previous novel The Animals, was downright masterful, and I’ve been anticipating Phantoms ever since. In this new novel, veteran John Frazier returns shaken from the Vietnam War to witness a dispute between his family and their former neighbors, a Japanese-American family that was displaced during World War II and sent to an internment camp. The jacket copy calls it “a fierce saga of American culpability.” Luis Alberto Urrea says, “Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” I, for one, cannot wait! (Edan)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: In this novel’s opening section, Dave and Sarah, two new students at a prestigious performing arts high school, fall madly in love under the watchful eye of a charismatic acting teacher. But in a second segment, set 12 years later, a change in narrative viewpoint calls into question everything the reader has understood to have happened before. Early reviews are highly polarized. Publishers Weekly says the novel is “destined to be a classic” while a reader on Goodreads, speaking for a number of other dissatisfied early readers, complained “the payoff wasn’t worth the ick.” (Michael)
Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney, the Irish author known for the acclaimed Conversations with Friends, has written a second novel about the lives of young people in modern Ireland. The protagonists of Normal People are teenagers named Connell and Marianne, who develop a strange friendship that both are determined to hide. Years pass, and as the two get older, their relationship grows steadily more complicated. (Thom)
The Gulf by Belle Boggs: The author of a trenchant inquiry into fertility and maternity in America, Belle Boggs turns to satire in her debut novel, a divinely witty look at the writing industry and religion. A job is a job, and so Marianne, a struggling Brooklyn poet—and atheist—agrees to direct a Christian artists’ residency program, “The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch,” in Florida. (One of the residents is working on a poem cycle about Terri Schiavo, the comatose woman in the “right-to-die” case that galvanized religious groups in 2005.) There’ll be skewering aplenty, but also a comic hero’s conversion toward acceptance of her new community. (Matt)
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie: How do our charismatic teachers set the stage for the rest of our lives? That’s one of the questions that Ann Beattie tackles in this novel. When a former New England boarding school student named Ben looks back on his childhood, he starts to questions the motives of his superstar teacher. Later on, his teacher gets in contact, and Ben has to grapple with his legacy. (Thom)
The Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno: Sometimes, you don’t stop being obsessed with something just because the book’s written. The Appendix Project takes up where Kate Zambreno’s last book, Book of Mutter, left off, examining, as Kate Briggs describes it, about “how things – interests, attachments, experiences, projects – don’t finish.” The Appendix Project is a genre-crossing work about grief, time, memory, and the maternal, which is also a work about writing itself. Oh, and she’s also got a collection of stories and a novel coming out this year – no big deal. “I try to work on many books at the same time,” Zambreno has said. Same. (Jacqueline)
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker: Meet the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor. His wife Urmila imports artisanal African crafts. Their son Sunil is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. But for all their outward success, theirs is a family riven with secrets, and when the family is forced to return to Nairobi, where Premchand and Urmila were born, Sunil reveals an explosive secret of his own: his Jewish girlfriend, who has accompanied the family on the trip, is already his wife. (Michael)
Cape May by Chip Cheek: A novel about a 50s couple from Georgia on what turns into a louche honeymoon in Cape May. It sounds like whatever the literary opposite of On Chesil Beach is, with lots of sex, gin, and intrigue. (Lydia)
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate: A collection of essays about subjects too painful or explosive to broach among families. Based on Filgate’s essay of the same name, about being abused by her stepfather, the essay features work from a stellar lineup of writers like Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, André Aciman, and Leslie Jamison, among others. (Lydia)
Furious Hours by Casey Cep: Did you know Harper Lee wanted to write her own true-crime story à la In Cold Blood? That following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent a year living in the Alabama backwoods to report it, and many more years in research, but ultimately never completed the work? In Furious Hours, Casey Cep completes the work Lee couldn’t, writing a vivid portrayal of a killer, but also exploring the effects of fame and success on one of the most famous writers in U.S. history. (Nick)
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Home Remedies, forthcoming in May 2019, is a debut collection of stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. The characters in the 12 stories vary from an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street who tries very hard to fit in, to a couple of divers at the Beijing Olympics who reach for their success. Wang conveys a promising message through her mind-boggling stories that whoever they are and wherever they are from, they have their rights to live extraordinary lives. (Jianan)
Lanny by Max Porter: The follow-up to Porter’s highly lauded Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. This follow-up gives readers all the experimental typography and poignant insight they might expect—with a twist of gut-wrenching suspense thrown in. Lanny is a mischievous young boy who moves to a small village outside of London, where he attracts the attention of a menacing force. Porter has done it again. (Claire)
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores: Move over, chupacabra—there’s a new mythical Southwestern beast in town: the trufflepig, a creature worshipped by a lost Aranana Indian tribe in this exuberant novel set on a trippier version of the American border. Drugs are legal in this near-future society, but the new (illegal) craze is “filtered animals,” extinct species revived, Jurassic-park style, and sold at great cost. The novel follows Esteban Bellacosa, trying to live the quiet life amid the region’s traffickers, obscenely rich pleasure seekers and legends. This is Flores’s first novel after a short story collection, wonderfully titled Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. (Matt)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: A Taiwanese family of six struggles to make a go of it in far-flung Anchorage, Alaska, but tragedy strikes like a stone in a still pond, rippling out to affect each family member differently. Lin’s debut novel is a raw depiction of grief and resolve set against the terrible beauty of the Alaskan north. (Nick M.)
The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This debut novel takes us to Golden Oaks Farm, where the super-rich begin life in utero with the best of everything, including balanced organic diets in young, cortisol-optimized wombs. The surrogate Hosts offer their wombs in exchange for a big payday that can transform their marginal lives. But as the Hosts learn, nine months locked inside the Farm can be a very long time. The story roams from the idyllic Hudson Valley to plush Fifth Avenue to a dormitory in Queens crowded with immigrant service workers. Echoing The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel explores the tensions between ambition and sacrifice, luck and merit, and money and motherhood. (Bill)
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman: In a New York penitentiary, a doorman-turned-inmate has barricaded himself inside the computer lab while a prison riot rages like hell. Alone, the inmate confesses, recounting the twists of fate that landed him in this predicament, and pondering the many—often hysterically funny—questions he has about it all. Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch. (Nick M.)
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew): A new novel from the Chinese novelist who lives in exile in the U.K. and whose books have never been allowed to appear in China. A dystopian satire where the dystopia is today, and an exploration of totalitarianism in China. Madeleine Thien writes for The Guardian: “Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives.” (Lydia)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Fulbright alumna Phillips has written a literary mystery about two sisters who go missing on the Kamchatka peninsula, an isolated spot and one of the easternmost points of Russia. Jim Shepard called this “a dazzlingly impressive first novel.” (Lydia)
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Ybarra’s critically acclaimed first novel, which won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Her novel makes connections between two losses in her family: her mother’s private death from cancer and her grandfather’s public kidnapping and murder by terrorists in the 1970s. Drawing on research and personal experiences, the book creatively blends nonfiction and fiction. The Irish Times praises her work as a “captivating debut…written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer.” (Zoë)
Exhalation by Ted Chiang: A new collection by the beloved science fiction writer, winner of many Hugo and Nebula awards, whose story “The Story of Your Life” formed the basis of the movie Arrival. (Lydia)
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Lots of people grow up loving horses; few of them end up competing (and winning) in the “world’s longest, toughest horse race.” Lara Prior-Palmer, the niece of famed British equestrian Lucinda Green, is just the person to attempt that challenge, galloping across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland, competing in a country so adept at riding that they once conquered the world from the backs of horses. In Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer follows in the hoofs of Genghis Khan and becomes the first woman to win the challenge. (Ed)
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In her much anticipated second novel, the author of the acclaimed Here Comes the Sun—a Young Lions, Center for Fiction, and John Leonard National Book Critics Circle finalist, and Lambda Literary Award winner, among other honors—Dennis-Benn plumbs the wrenching, too-real inner (and outer) conflict that women face when self-fulfillment is pitted against nurturing loved ones. Immigration, mother-daughter estrangement, sexuality and identity; “Frank, funny, salty, heartbreaking,” writes Alexander Chee. What else could you ask for? (Sonya)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Vincent and Alice and Alice by Shane Jones: There’s always a hint of play and whimsy in Shane Jones’s fictions. His previous novel, Crystal Eaters, was a wonderfully sad and tender story where what remained of a character’s life could be measured in crystal counts—and where a young girl attempted to save her sick mother by reversing her diminishing numbers. In his latest, Vincent and Alice and Alice, Vincent’s life has hit some doldrums with a divorce from his wife Alice and a mindless job with the state. However, things turn weird when work enrolls him in a productivity program and Alice returns, but changed. Is she a clone? A hologram? Possibly. It’s a book that Chelsea Hodson calls both “laugh-out-loud funny and knife-in-your-heart sad.” (Anne)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann: In the essay “Spill Spilt,” T Fleischmann writes of itinerancy, languorous Brooklyn summers, and art-going, with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) at its center. The artwork is a pile of candies piled high in a corner that visitors are invited to take from and consume, and I am struck how sensual and alluring and and contemplative and intimate both the artwork and Fleischmann’s writing feel, how this pairing seems essential. I can only imagine that essential is the word to describe Fleischmann’s forthcoming Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a book-length essay which reflects on Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork while probing the relationships between bodies and art. Bhanu Kapil says the book “is ‘spilled and gestured’ between radical others of many kinds. Is this love? Is this ‘the only chance to make of it an object’? Is this what it’s like to be here at all? To write ‘all words of life.’” (Anne)
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: The bestselling author of The Signature of All Things—and of course, Eat, Pray, Love—returns to historical fiction with a novel set in the theater world of 1940s New York City. Ninety-five-year-old Vivian Morris looks back on her wild youth as a Vassar College dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg, the owner of a decrepit, flamboyant, Midtown theater, called the Lily Playhouse. There, Vivian falls in love with the theater—and also meets the love of her life. (Hannah)
How Could She by Lauren Mechling: A novel about women’s friendships and professional lives within the cutthroat media world that Elif Batuman called “as wise and unforgiving as a nineteenth-century French novel.” (Lydia)
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge (translated by Frank Wynne): A perverse love story about two victims of traffickers in an unnamed country who become traffickers themselves, by the renowned novelist from Mexico. The Guardian says “Monge’s realist, deadly topical fiction is a weighty metaphor for our world gone mad.” (Lydia)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: A new collection of essays by Native writers using the art of basket-weaving as a formal organizing principle for the essays and collection. Featuring work by Stephen Graham Jones, Deborah Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Eden Robinson, and Kim TallBear. (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
In 2014, Huda Al-Marashi and I met at a writers’ meet-up. Afterward, we kept up with each other’s writing on social media. By reading each other’s personal essays, we discovered we shared similar cultural concerns as hyphenated Americans, and we have even more in common now that we’re both writers with three children each—it’s a great solace to know another writer who is a mother. I first heard Huda read from her memoir at Hazel Reading Series in San Francisco, and I was impressed by her skillful weaving together of humor and deep insights about her Iraqi-American family. How did I not know how funny she is? I was excited to get my hands on a galley of her debut memoir First Comes Marriage, published this November, just after my debut short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent.
First Comes Marriage is a tender examination of love and virgin sexuality from an Iraqi-American perspective. It shatters the Muslim monolith by painting Huda’s Iraqi Shia family in glorious specificity, while also doing the same for other Muslim families within the scope of her love story. Hadi Ridha is a boy she’s known since she was 6 years old. Huda details their relationship from their first meeting to a difficult prom arranged by their mothers, from the istikharas her family did to determine whether she should marry him to their tumultuous year in Mexico early in their marriage.
The characters in the 13 stories that make up my debut short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent are almost congenitally rebellious. Nonetheless, there are a number of overlapping themes between our books. The collection is about the stories we tell ourselves about our identities, the murky quandaries of a grayscale world, and what Huda calls “the fictions of love” in her memoir. Many of my characters are Tamil and Tamil Americans from the Indian subcontinent.
Anita Felicelli: I think you did a beautiful job excavating the complexities of your own love story. In your book, you mention how, as an adolescent, you loved Victorian love stories and then realized, “I would have never been the protagonist of one of these stories. I would have been the Mohammedan, the exotic Oriental or the native savage.” When did you know you wanted to write yourself into literature?
Huda Al-Marashi: Growing up, I read Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. In Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, the girls venture into Little Syria, and they meet this little girl and her family who should have been the closest I’d ever come to seeing a kid like myself represented in a book. But at the time, I saw myself in the protagonists, Betsy and Tacy, and their encounter of the other. It wasn’t until college when I was researching the first wave of Syrian immigration to the United States that I remembered Betsy and Tacy’s visit to Little Syria, and I realized that my entire life I’d been inserting myself into stories that only had room for me in the margins.
But it never occurred to me that I could actually write my own story until years later when I was sitting in this haze of the post-9/11 years and the Iraq War. I feared that war and global terrorism had taken over our narratives, and while these stories are vital and necessary, they also make it easier to write off a group’s suffering, as if it’s their destiny only to die. And, I felt this pull to tell a story that reflected an Iraqi family in their daily lives, preoccupied with everyday concerns, like love and weddings.
One thing I love about your collection was seeing your characters preoccupied with mundane relationship concerns but also against the backdrop of what one of your characters calls the –isms, colonialism and imperialism. Particularly, I’m thinking about Tarini in “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” and her struggle to see herself in the colonial past she inherited as both the daughter of Tamil immigrants in the U.S., and now, as the girlfriend of a man who descended from colonizers and who has returned to essentially recolonize Madagascar through his new business venture. In what ways, if at all, has that colonial legacy played out for you? And, as a writer, do you think it’s something we can rectify by centering ourselves in our stories?
AF: I’ve had similar thoughts about the Syrian girl in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. But unlike my upper-caste Hindu character Tarini, I grew up in a multi-caste, interfaith household, and I was hypersensitive to different contexts and perspective shifts early on. The more research I did as an adult, the more I realized colonialism was atrocious, but it impacted castes and regions of India differently. When upper-caste Tamils fought for freedom, they were fighting for absolute power, but it was Brahmins, the highest caste, who also most readily adapted to British Victorian culture. The situation of lower caste people and Dalits fighting for freedom was complicated. The British strengthened and manipulated caste tensions, but their presence also resulted in lower-caste people gaining benefits. My grandmother’s family, for example, converted to Catholicism to escape caste discrimination from fellow Tamils. I intensely love fiction, but I don’t know that we can rectify power imbalances by writing our own stories. Maybe for the world to change, those with power need to read those stories, and make the active, painful decision to truly see us in our equal complexity, beauty, ugliness, and humanity.
On that topic of seeing ourselves with complexity, at one point, you and your husband disagree about whether you should wear a bathing suit and you explain, “I’d assumed we shared such a similar background that our religion and culture were going to be the conflict-free areas of our lives, but here we were, one of us willing to bend the rules, one of us not.” It’s interesting how we might attribute differences we have with our partner to culture, rather than individual personalities.
HA: Culture was such a crutch for me in 20s. It was the easy answer to everything—where I went to college, why I got engaged, and, of course, this bathing suit argument. But writing this memoir after over a decade of marriage, I had insights into my spouse’s character that I didn’t have access to as a newlywed, and it made me look back on my younger self with pity for my own ignorance. Now I know that my husband just doesn’t mess around with rules. He makes a full and complete stop at stop signs every single time. There is no unfastening your seat belt in his car until he is in park. And at the time of that scene, he was a young man, too, and someone had taught him these were the rules for privacy, and he believed in them for himself, too.
But these disagreements came as a shock to me because I was convinced that as long as I married another Iraqi who was born in the U.S., rather than abroad, then we’d share the same “Iraqi-American culture” and we’d agree on everything. I think that’s a fairly common tendency among children of immigrants, to perceive a division between those people in their community that were in raised in diaspora and those who were raised in their country of origin. You captured that tension so brilliantly in several of your stories. We see it between cousins, lovers, and friends. Do you believe there’s an irreconcilability between say, in your case, a Tamil person raised in India, and one raised in the U.S.?
AF: I do think there’s irreconcilability between diasporic Tamils and Tamils in India—migration and geopolitics discombobulate the power in relationships. In “Snow,” the character Devi grew up in India believing she’s entitled to every success as a fair-skinned, middle-class Tamil Brahmin, a privileged status in India, but her top dog entitlement is very painfully, unjustly challenged when she immigrates and is confronted with the harsh realities of race in America. Meanwhile, her cousin, Susannah, grew up understanding herself as polluted, inferior because her father is Dalit. She’s ostracized due to diasporic caste prejudice. She’s an invisible, reviled brown girl who grew up in an underclass in America. Yet, like a lot of Americans, Susannah is obnoxiously, offensively blind about how relatively lucky she’s been in the global scheme of things.
Speaking to that challenge of properly contextualizing your own experience, I really liked your discussion of how, in some instances, you’d conflated religion with rules that were specific to your family. Of your mother, you realize: “I attributed so much to our religion and culture that I rarely allowed her the everyday motivations of instinct and fear.” The memoir is full of deep insights that parse what’s individual, what’s cultural and what’s just human. Has writing this memoir been a process of discovering those sorts of insights, or did you know beforehand your conclusions?
HA: It was a mixture of both. I came to this with the sense that I’d woven this tight knot about culture and religion’s role in my marriage, but I didn’t know where I’d applied that bias too liberally. Writing forced me to unravel which of the many restrictions I grew up with were from my religion and culture and which were my parents trying to keep me safe. And I hadn’t realized just how much of my life was shaped by mom’s anxieties and a traumatic childhood where she had lost her mother and then her stepmother before the age of 15. However, I do think some of that tendency to filter everything through the lens of culture and religion is a consequence of this outsider’s gaze that you can’t help but pick up living in diaspora.
You conveyed that tension so poignantly in the title story where your unnamed narrator is pursuing an academic career studying his own Tamil history and folklore. Would you agree that being raised in the U.S. and educated under the white gaze is what allows him to see the value in the mythology that his own father and other elders dismiss? And do you think there is anything exploitative about your narrator’s interest in his cultural background?
AF: Oh, interesting! That interpretation works, but in my own mind, I was examining a man’s search for something tender and real, in contrast to what his Silicon Valley upbringing offers. His father dismisses the folklore because he’s culturally Tamil Brahmin—Tamil Brahmin culture tilts in favor of Sanskrit, as well as British cultural and educational standards.
In contrast, Komakal’s lower-caste family arises out of indigenous Tamil culture, but like working-class parents worldwide, her parents believe the narrator should be making money in a “real job,” not conducting esoteric research. I don’t find the narrator’s fascination with folklore exploitative since it’s his only maternal inheritance. But I can see how the ethics of his documentary film—that aestheticizes the mythology of poorer, lower-caste people to whom he’s linked by blood, but not really a part of—might be questioned. On the other hand, he’s also alien in Silicon Valley. So where’s his place? Perhaps nowhere.
I love the character of Mrs. Ridha, your mother-in-law! She says at one point, “We did not expect you to listen to everything we said.” It makes you realize you’d been viewing your community’s code of conduct as a matter of life, death and God, but your parents had been trying to protect you, and even understanding you might break rules. I admire your willingness to really reveal yourself, to make yourself real before “likable.”
HA: I’m relieved to hear that because I consistently got feedback that I wasn’t likable in certain parts of the book, and I struggled with how much weight to give those comments. It’s a story of an evolving worldview more than it is about action, and who is likable in their own mind? Who has censored, wonderful thoughts? Our minds are where we are ruthless and cruel to ourselves and those we love. But I didn’t think it was fair to apply that same kind of scrutiny to my loved ones in the book. I made a conscious effort to hold them in my mind’s eye with love and generosity as I was writing about them. And I think being loving doesn’t mean you paint someone glowingly. Rather, you render them alive and fully human.
Which is something I think you’ve mastered in your book. Your characters are so endearing even though they are not always doing the nicest things. They leave lovers without any closure, make promises they don’t keep, and fling cocktail glasses at bartenders. Were there any moments, while writing this, where you struggled with the burden of the representation and the need to paint your community in a positive light?
AF: During revisions in 2016-17, I did worry. I understood America was falling apart, that pluralism as a value might seem quaint. But I didn’t think about social justice concerns while drafting. Fiction should work at a subterranean, not a prescriptive level. Characters should be complicated and even problematic. As humans, we’re always falling short of our ideals; sometimes our ideals are awful, too. Why should white American writers get to corner the market on complex characters? Of course, some readers will believe I’ve taken my penchant for complexity too far in these characters: a little girl whose lie costs someone her job, a casteist cokehead, an affluent folklorist who betrays his lover, a Galatea-like hitchhiker reinvented as a con artist. Still, trouble is vital in fiction.
Any books you’re looking forward to reading in the coming year? So far, I’m especially excited to read Kavita Das’s forthcoming biography Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar; Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias; and Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread.
HA: There are so many! Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable, Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Red and Blues, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, and my close writing-friend, Laura Maylene Walter is one to watch. Her book is going on submission soon, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to land.