The Bhagavad Gita (Penguin Classics)

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Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview

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Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu  Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In  Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion.  —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How  to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth.  —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld  I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst  When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations.  —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.  —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits  My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]

Woman with Power Is Woman Unchecked: Reading Narratives of Indian Women

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1. Raja ne gami te raani Chaana veenthi aane Kya karega kaaji My mother spouted these words during another one of our marriage talks, which seem to be the ultimate tangent in any family conversation now. As more of my friends tie the knot, younger generations of my family dive into romantic exploits, and I near 30, there seems no escaping it. Roughly translated, the folk saying means: A king makes a queen [of any who he fancies] Even if she’s making cow pies And what can the priests do In it lies the implied sense of manhood’s rule over anyone he sets his eyes on, regardless of what his educated elders have to say about it. It’s a folksy saying, innocent and dated, but it cuts to the core of where I stand in the world: An Indian-American man, instilled with and expected to live up to societal duties to establish my castle and spread my seed. The cultural disposition of just “going along” with these things to please the family -- as a writer, it feels antithetical. Would I write something just to please the culture? In speaking of the social role of literature, Indian writer Govardhanram Tripathi wrote in the preface to his novel Saraswatichandra,  “Both women and the novel desire to be beautiful, but our fulfillment of this desire just be a means to achieve higher goals. Striving for mere aesthetic pleasure is not only understandable, it is futile -- and indeed it could be harmful -- to attain that step and not rise upwards.” Tripathi’s belief was that the novel should project an ideal future, but should remain in-step with the quotidian, avoiding any real radical divergence. That’s not good for society. It’s not good for the family. Literature, like all art, becomes an avatar of the cultural identity, and in Indian publishing, the country’s complicated relationship with autonomous female narratives continues. It is no secret that this idea lies at the root of a larger social ill in India today. The headlines are flush with stories that range from men whistling and pawing at women walking down the street, to, at their most vile, incidents like Delhi’s 2012 bus gang rape, or last New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru, where 1,500 police officers couldn’t control thousands of drunken revelers snatching at the clothing of women trying to get home. 2. I used to have an easy target: Bollywood. Entire plotlines of lovesick boys chasing their consorts through forests and mountains, their affections easily reciprocated after a song-and-dance number, have brainwashed generations into thinking that romance starts with lighthearted stalking, and flourishes through female obligation. But Bollywood, whose male stars are propelled to near-mythic status, revered as Gods walking the earth, gestures towards a deeper ritual of masculinity worship that is central to the Indian condition. Many cultures are built on a similar patriarchal notions that codified into the social fabric in different ways. In India, many will claim that female equality had been the norm in Vedic times, citing principles like ardhangini, that men and women are complementary halves of a whole. They will point to the images of Goddesses, and professing an insult to wife or mother is unconscionable. Somewhere along the way -- Muslim empires, British colonials -- it all got messed up. Literature however, preserves a record of women perhaps, yes, having a voice and role -- but one dictated by the whims of men. The uber-mensch is no doubt Krishna, who toyed with the bathing Gopis by stealing their clothes along the river bank. His love story with Radha is our Romeo and Juliet, without the familial strife. Krishna of course, is a supporting player in the epic The Mahabharata, chronicling the battle between the cousin clans of the domineering 100 Kauravas against the heroic five Pandavas. The tale’s pivotal moment comes during a game of dice, where the Pandava King, Yudhishthira, is cheated out of his kingdom by his cousins. One by one, he stakes his own throne, then each of his brother’s estates, and finally their polyamorous wife, Draupadi. At this point, Draupadi is dragged by her hair into the main hall, and the Kauravas begin pulling at her clothes, crying that if she can be married to five men at once, what’s the point of covering up? As her linen is torn from her, she prays to Krishna, who blesses her with a never-ending strand of clothing so that she doesn’t experience the ultimate shame of nudity, and in doing so, seals her holiness in the annals of myth. Now, it’s important to mention that Draupadi is revered across India as a goddess in her own right, and celebrated as a feminist figure. But what of the feckless Pandavas, her husbands, who sit by and watch, unable to act because they’ve “rightfully” lost her? The Pandavas, we are told, are virtuous, stalwart, underdog heroes -- but at every beat they seem to buck their superlatives. They give in to the cheating and hostile bureaucracy of their cousins. Throughout the epic, they all fall prey to various vices: Yudhishthira loves to gamble; Bhima is a bully with seemingly insatiable bloodlust, brutally dismembering, crushing, and decapitating several characters through the story. Arjuna famously has a crisis of faith and confidence moments before battle, prompting Krishna to recite the Bhagavad Gita (and only then fights because Krishna tells him to). And there’s poor pretty-boy Nakula and dutiful Sahadeva, victims of vanity and pride, who barely register in the tale. Indian children are raised on similar tales of kings wandering the wilds and happening upon village nymphs, struck with cupid’s arrows and picking up new wives. These are our mythical heroes and role models. We’re told they act out of honor and passion; when their actions are questionable, it is waived by divine destiny. Through time, the examples multiply: the poet Kālidāsa in the 5th century dramatized the story of Shakuntala, another forest nymph who ensnared King Dushyanta. Their offspring Bharata founds the dynasty leading to the Pandavas. Upon the Muslim invaders, the culture ripens with more stories of star-crossed lovers: Leila and Majnun; Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (of the Taj); or the Hindu warrior Bajirao and his lover Mastani, who commits suicide upon hearing of his death in battle, an act of Sati, where Hindu widows are bidden to throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres. (Let’s add that Sati herself is a goddess, and first of two consorts to Shiva.) The folk saying Raja Ne Game Te Raani is also the title of a popular contemporary Gujarati stage play, about a middle-aged couple whose three daughters run the household instead of learning wifely duties from their mother. It takes a strong-willed servant -- male, of course -- to show the daughters their rightful way and bring peace to the home. Modern feminism in India has often been dictated by men, first by colonialists trying to tame “savage” rituals like Sati, and later by Gandhi and other reform leaders hoping to envelope women’s liberation as a component of Independence. Today as women wrestle control of their own narratives, men tax them by attacking their moral standing. When the women assaulted in Bengaluru reported to the police and caused a national uproar, the politicians were quick with stock answers -- they shouldn’t have dressed immodestly, they should have known better, it was New Year’s -- what did they expect? Karnataka State’s home minister G. Parameshwara remarked, “They try to copy westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing, so some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen.” #NotAllMen trended the next few days, as if India’s stalwart Pandavas threw their hands up and claimed, “Hey, don’t look at me.” 3. The lack of women’s agency in their own narratives was chronicled famously by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Madwoman in the Attic, examining writers like Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, and noting that even the most prominent women writers worked under the shadow of their male counterparts. They pose the question, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?” As in most cultures, the Indian woman writer has often been placed in the position of being reactive to male hegemony.  For every Mirza Ghalib there is a Begum Zeb-un-Nisa; both prized Mughal-era poets, only one imprisoned the last 20 years of her life for being too freethinking. For every Munshi Premchand, an Ismat Chughtai; both crafting socio-realist fiction about female sexual identity, yet only one summoned to court on grounds of indecency. In her autobiography My Story, the late writer Kamala Das characterizes her life living under a conservative father and later a conservative arranged husband. She tries to dutifully please both of them, but they fail to ignite any intellectual and emotional connection with her. Even after achieving literary prominence, she writes in the preface: “This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret writing it.” There is no shortage of amazing writing coming out of India today. Novels about cultural displacement by authors of Indian descent like Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and their contemporaries have found global success. A diaspora bubble shifts the critical focus of diaspora writers away from gender, and makes it a battleground for class. In the eyes of India’s patriarchal culture wardens, their work is now Western, immoral, published by the big New York and London houses, printed for English-only eyes. It’s not Swadesi, not of this land. Their stories are dictated by a migration and divorce from a culture that then remains untouched, unchanged. Meanwhile, writers like Arundhati Roy and the late Mahasweta Devi who remain in India are often perceived more as leftist activists than storytellers. It’s a longshot to assume their rich, nuanced works have any traction with India’s cricket-playing, paan-chewing working class. The current Hindu nationalist government staunchly opposes voices that threaten a particular religio-nationalist narrative (in one example from outside the country, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindu sexuality was banned in India). Writers like Anjum Hasan, Anita Hair, and Anuradha Roy battle for bookshelf space against the likes of Chetan Bhagat, whose simple prose about cricket and call centers flies off the shelves. They are competing with Shobhaa De, a former model and Mumbai socialite, dubbed the “Jackie Collins of India,” whose bestselling tawdry Sex-in-the-City-esque tales serve to titillate schoolboys as much as give a feigned sense of female success in books. Recently Bollywood has trended toward women-centric stories. Films such as Pink, Queen, Gulaab Gang, and Piku have all been smash hits at the box office, yet come with the stamped approval of male directors, male co-stars, and plotlines circling around and back to the women defying fathers, marriage, rape, or ignorance. And again, we find that any directorial voice -- say a Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta -- looks to markets abroad to find a platform. Admittedly, I am also covering here only the writers who have risen high enough in the Indian literary scene that I, as an American, can identify them. There’s much to be said of small presses like Zubaan and Women Unlimited, as well as authors writing in one of India’s many regional languages. But in an increasingly globalized country, the success of English-language publishing remains the most profitable benchmark, which only threatens to further limit Indian women’s narratives. 4. In speaking of literature from South Asia, I admit this is a cursory overview of a millennia-spanning history. But as an Ahmedabad-born immigrant in a growing diaspora, my identity remains its product — through literature, through film, through every custom. We pray to the feminine image with ultimate, unreciprocated piety, but in practice it’s considered a two-way street. We elected a woman prime minister before it was common to do so, then brutally assassinated her at the gates of her own home. Bollywood’s current screen queen, Deepika Padukone, drew scorn for a Vogue short film by proclaiming sex was “my choice.” A woman with power is a woman unchecked. Woman is either heretically subversive or divinely transcendent; there is no middle ground. In a workshop in my early 20s, my writing was torn down over one prevalent problem: All of my female characters were immaculately beautiful, endearingly personable, cherished by my protagonist — like a goddess, and were just as intangible. I resist marriage, not because I detest the prospect of a devoted relationship (or the lavish wedding party), but because I’m uncertain of my own place in it, suffering from what Harold Bloom dubbed, “the anxiety of influence.” How does one escape the ills of heritage without leaving it behind entirely? When the conversation arises — and it does with growing frequency — my family talks as if it’s already a done deal. Just say the word and we’ll find the girl. Do it for us. You’re a great catch — you even know how to cook! Most Indian girls don’t bother to learn anymore. I’ve stood in the corner of those banquet halls, watching grooms draped in dowries, riding in on stallions and carried to the mandap on shoulders of their brothers. It was nauseating. As of now, even the best of us may have to settle with the fact that we are reserved Pandavas, and no more or less righteous. The Disrobing of Draupadi, Wikimedia Commons

God-born Devil’s S**t: Unleashing the Essence of Self-Help Books in Three Simple Steps

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1. Step One: Admit You Have a Problem Last month, New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote a lukewarm review of two “philosophical” self-help books, the first installments in a series edited by Alain de Botton called The School of Life. Towards the beginning of the review we are cautioned that self-help books can be “fraught with peril,” attended by the risk “of leading millions of your innocent brain cells into the killing fields.” (The books under consideration appear to have been only mildly perilous.) Garner’s disdain for the genre is nothing new. Disgust with self-help has been around since Dr. Samuel Smiles wrote his lucrative 1859 classic Self-Help, followed by a popular series of sequels: Character, Thrift, Duty, and Life and Labour. A laudatory 1893 review of this oeuvre begins with a telling disclaimer: “It is the fashion these days to speak in anything but complementary terms of Dr. Smiles and his different books...” Apparently hating on self-help was common practice by the turn of the century. The preface to the Oxford Classics edition of Self-Help cites a particularly blunt example, written by Irish author Robert Tressell in 1906: “[Self-Help] is suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties.” Yet, in one of his many legacies to modern self-help, Smiles was both widely reviled and fantastically successful. He quickly became a household name in the English-speaking world — early printings of Self-Help sold out instantly, one of them reportedly purchased by Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species was published in the same year. Success was equally explosive abroad. Nakamura Masanao’s somewhat liberal 1871 Japanese translation Saigoku risshihen ("Success Stories of the West") eventually sold a million copies, serving as an exotic Western repackaging of stale Neo-Confucian values. (Scholars also credit Saigoku risshihen with introducing Hamlet to Japan: three lines from Polonius’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be...” are the epigram for Chapter 10, “Money, It’s Use and Abuse.”) Self-Help achieved a near-sacred status across the globe. It was translated into over a dozen languages (Dutch: Help u Zelfen) and did well in all of them. In his autobiography, Smiles recounts the following illustrative anecdote, related to him by a friend (and there is no reason to disbelieve it): An English visitor to the Khedive’s palace in Egypt asked from what source the mottoes written on the walls were derived. “They are principally from Smeelis,” he was told, “you ought to know Smeelis! They are from his Self-Help; they are much better than the texts from the Koran!” There are some for whom the very act of comparing “Smeelis’s” work with a foundational religious text will feel vaguely sacrilegious. The same kind of sacrilege is committed by Tom Butler-Bowdon in his meta-self-help bestseller, 50 Self-Help Classics, a Cliff’s Notes style alphabetical review in which Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star is followed by the Bhagavad-Gita, and Wayne Dyer’s Real Magic precedes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Self-help detractors would want to accuse the Khedive palace architect of poor taste, and Butler-Bowdon of making a self-serving category mistake, elevating profitable trash by placing it in illustrious company. Others, like Alain de Botton, might call such accusations snobbish and unjustified, reflexive dismissals of recent work in the venerable tradition of wisdom literature, a tradition that traces its lineage back to the Dao-de-jing. Stoic philosophy, and the Bible. No one expresses this tension better than Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle. Although Carlyle makes a cameo in Self-Help (as an exemplar of indefatigable industriousness), Smiles seems to have missed the appearance of his favorite concept in Carlyle’s satirical novel, Sartor Resartus. The novel purports to tell the true story of a German philosopher who develops a transcendentalist theory of clothing. In one of the earliest non-juridical uses of the term, this sartorial philosopher “acquires for himself” the virtue of Self-Help, which Carlyle’s narrator describes as “the highest of all possessions.” But we cannot trust this description. Sartor Resartus is laced with irony (a rhetorical technique notably absent from most self-help, which is nothing if not earnest). Carlyle’s protagonist, for instance, is named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, which translates to God-born Devil’s Shit. In the ironizing shadow of Teufelsdröckh, everything in Sartor Resartus looks a little like divine truth and a little like incoherent platitude, from the self-helpish notion of the EVERLASTING YEA, “wherein all contradiction is solved,” to the very concept of self-help that Carlyle helps inaugurate. In other words, Teufelsdröckh makes me wonder: The EVERLASTING YEA, Self-Help, Samuel Smiles, The School of Life — are these essentially God-born or Devil’s Shit? That’s my problem. I don’t know how to feel about self-help. And like it says in the Bible, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or maybe it was Ben Franklin, 99% of solving a problem is identifying it, so I’m well on my way! 2. Step Two: Look Inside Yourself It is always tempting to answer questions via a scholarly, objective route: are we more convinced by sociologist Micki McGee, whose analysis reveals self-help literature as a pernicious facilitator of American egoism and oppressive social norms, or by folklorist Sandra K. Dolby, who identifies in self-help the universal rhythms and patterns of parables and folk wisdom? While researching this essay, however, I learned from numerous self-help authors that answers to profound philosophical questions don’t come from other people, especially not scholars. I also learned the sad truth about “objectivity,” a pseudo-concept that Daoist sages, quantum physicists, and Deepak Chopra’s tweets have all shown to be objectively false. What’s left? Where can we turn? The only person you can depend on for answers is YOU, which means consulting your own, unmediated, subjective feelings, and then allowing them to speak the Truth. Okay, here goes. When it comes to self-help, my unmediated, subjective feelings place me squarely in the Devil’s Shit camp. Just reading certain titles (Learning to Dance in the Rain, To a Child Love is Spelled T-I-M-E) prompts a deep and spontaneous revulsion. This revulsion is both aesthetic, a matter of taste, and intellectual, a matter of truth. And it is unique, reserved for a very small number of cultural products — off the top of my head I come up with Thomas Kinkade paintings, smooth jazz, and televangelism. (Olive Garden? Close, but not quite.) It’s clear to me why televangelism makes the list. There’s obvious crossover between evangelism and self-help, their easy synthesis epitomized by Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Christian self-help is a sub-genre so ubiquitous that when I entered a Christian bookstore and asked for the self-help section, one employee looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, that’s pretty much everything in here, unless you’re looking for a Bible.” Nominally secular self-help routinely borrows Christian terms and metaphors (calling, mission). Even science-y Tony Robbins is indebted to televangelism — sociologist McGee quotes Robbins’s infomercial co-producer Greg Renker: “The infomercial boomed because the televangelists ran into problems. We are the new televangelists.” The link between self-help and televangelism helps make sense of my intellectual revulsion. Rick Warren may be a charismatic speaker, but he is a lousy interpreter of the Bible. Take, for example, his reading of Jeremiah 29:11, where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Warren takes the passage out of context and reads it as an uplifting message for everyone. But God’s words in Jeremiah 29:11 are actually meant specifically for the Israelites exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Contextualization is important, because without it one could appropriate Jeremiah 29:18 to show that God suffers from wild mood swings (“I will send the sword, famine and plague”), or Jeremiah 29:26 as justification for locking up people like Rick Warren: “You should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.” Many self-help books take similar liberties with science, history, and Eastern philosophy, my own area of expertise. I can only assume that quantum physicists are as frustrated by Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Healing as I am by the short biography of Laozi on the front flap of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s version of the Dao-de-jing: “Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a God-realized being named Laozi in ancient China dictated 81 verses...” While I share Dyer’s admiration of the Dao-de-jing, it’s unclear to me why extolling its virtues entails willful ignorance (or duplicity) about its origins. Wikipedia helpfully points out that sinologists have serious doubts about Laozi’s historical existence, and a quick read of D.C. Lau’s preface to the Penguin edition explains the composite nature of the text. One thinks Dyer’s extensive research (mentioned repeatedly) would have turned up Lau’s influential analysis, but it is nowhere to be found. So, unsurprisingly, my intellectual revulsion is a reaction to untruth, the result of either idiocy or mendacity, depending on the self-help author in question. In order to explain my aesthetic revulsion, then, I merely need to figure out what self-help shares with smooth jazz and Thomas Kinkade. Hmm. What could the Painter of Light™ have in common with self-help authors? Famous for his religiously-themed art, yet fond of public urination, accused of ruthless business practices, dead at 54 from a valium and alcohol overdose, the subject of posthumous scandal when his wife placed a restraining order on his girlfriend. Surely famous self-help authors don’t have similarly sordid and profit-driven biographies… No! Wait! This is just a distracting, ad hominem argument that can’t prove anything about the aesthetics of Kinkade’s work or self-help books. Block out the negative energy. Focus. Look through your inner eye (eyes?) at the glowing pink cottage. What do you see? Listen with your inner ear to Kenny G. What do you hear? Read Stephen Covey with your heart. What do you feel? I see… I hear… I feel… nothing. Nothing! That’s it! Kinkade’s over-saturated pastels, Kenny G’s bland solos, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: they have no soul. And this, ultimately, is the source of my aesthetic revulsion. It’s not that self-help writers are unskilled, though many of them are. It’s that they exploit a formula: co-opt an established authority (religion, philosophy, science, historical hero, literary master), add uplifting anecdotes, mix with self-adulation and empty promises, season with acronyms or lucky numbers, and serve! (I’ll leave it to art critics and music critics to detail the formulas behind smooth jazz and Kinkade’s mass-produced schlock.) But true soullessness goes beyond formula. After all, fairy tales and blues are as formulaic as it gets, and they are God-born through and through. No, Devil’s Shit only results when formulas are calculated to produce maximal ease and safety, and then used to manufacture religious insights, jazz, or the self, products that are by nature challenging, dangerous, and complicated. That’s why 18th century morality tales for children (The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, etc.) are so repugnant. Seven Easy Tricks for a Delicious Sandwich isn’t sacrilege — it’s a cookbook. But Seven Easy Tricks to Save Your Soul… In short: Only Satan could enjoy reading The Purpose Driven® Life while listening to smooth jazz in a room filled with Kinkade landscapes. Actually, that’s not quite it. Only Satan could enjoy producing such a scene. 3. Step Three: Stand Up for What You Believe Objection 1: Self-help books work for me/work for people, so why be nasty about them? Answer: This objection rests on two flawed premises. The first is that self-help books work for people. While twelve-step programs (a noble relative of self-help books) enjoy some empirical validation, self-help books do not. This lack of validation will not deter self-help fans, fond as they are of anecdotal evidence. That’s fine. Victims of medical quackery are notoriously unwilling to admit the inefficacy of their favored panacea, even when it has obviously failed them. Why should it be any different for victims of spiritual quackery? Nevertheless, for the sake of explanation: as in those cases when astonishing cancer recoveries are misattributed to faith-healing or coffee-enemas, it’s likely that the perceived efficacy of self-help books is due to chance, the passage of time, or unsung orthodox treatment (therapy, exercise, friendship) undertaken in conjunction with the miracle cure. The second flawed premise is that one shouldn’t be nasty about things that work. The geocentric model of the universe worked (Gee, our planet is super-special!). Propaganda works (Gee, our country is super-special!). Falsehoods and empty rhetoric deserve to be unmasked because people are entitled to think for themselves about important truths, even at the cost of happy complacency. And never fear, there’s all sorts of writing that can replace the crap I’m spoiling—just comb the epigrams of any self-help book and read whatever it is they came from. Objection 2: But there’s lots of good self-help! Haven’t you heard of Aesop’s Fables? Answer: Fair enough. A wildly broad definition of self-help ends up including everything from Aesop’s Fables to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, books well-worth reading and re-reading. But the problem is not with offering life counsel. The problem is with counsel that promises quick fixes and simple solutions, promises that are definitive of self-help. Otherwise there would be no need for the term at all: we already have philosophy, religion, fiction, psychology, economics, biography. What distinguishes self-help from these other categories is how it markets the allure of certain success in an endeavor where success is never certain, an approach evident in less unholy forms of self-help like diet books. As with propaganda, the evil is built right into the meaning of the genre, poisoning anything so-classified (even decent stuff) simply by association. In an essay defending self-help, Alain de Botton writes, “The ancient philosophers recognized we all need help navigating our lives – so what explains self-help books’ decline in prestige?” But he is conflating wise masterpieces, which haven’t declined in prestige (does anyone trash Letters to a Young Poet?), with self-help, which, as we have seen, was always immensely popular and never prestigious. Ancient and modern philosophy already have a section in the bookstore. Categorizing them as self-help is a straightforward move made to sell more books by lacquering them with false hope. (Which is why it’s no shock that de Botton’s spirited defense appeared in the Guardian just after his School of Life series debuted.) Objection 3: You’re a cultural elitist. Answer: Really? George Carlin, the same guy who hated parents that wear Baby-Bjorns, put “these people that read self-help books” first on his list of “people who ought to be killed.” The problem with this objection is that it confuses good judgment with elitism, a confusion that is itself elitist. In a recent New York Magazine article, Kathryn Schulz describes her vision of someone who looks down on self-help: “I know people who wouldn’t so much as walk through the self-help section of a bookstore without The Paris Review under one arm and a puzzled oh-I-thought-the-bathroom-was-over-here look on their face.” De Botton agrees: “The unstated assumption of the cultural elite is that really only stupid people read them.” Actually, it is an unstated assumption of the cultural elite that only those with high-falutin’ humanities degrees have a nose for Devil’s Shit. This is manifestly false. All you need to loathe smooth jazz is an ear for music. Anyone equipped with a moral compass who has heard the Sermon on the Mount will be revolted by Osteen’s pearly-toothed prosperity gospel. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the paradox in self-help’s insipid affirmation of its readers’ inner strength. In Carlin’s words, “The part I really don’t understand, if you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?! That’s not self-help, that’s help! There’s no such thing as self-help… if you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. You did it yourself! Try to pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on!” To be fair, Carlin might be trying to put his competition out of business, since he’s hawking his own brand of simple, formulaic wisdom: “Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, you eat three meals, you take one good shit and you go back to bed. What’s the fucking mystery?” Now there’s some good self-help, straight from the mouth of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh.
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