The Book of Evidence

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Most Anticipated: The Great Summer 2024 Preview

Summer has arrived, and with it, a glut of great books. Here you'll find more than 80 books that we're excited about this season. Some we've already read in galley form; others we're simply eager to devour based on their authors, subjects, or blurbs. We hope you find your next summer read among them. —Sophia Stewart, editor July Art Monster by Marin Kosut [NF] Kosut's latest holds a mirror to New York City's oft-romanticized, rapidly gentrifying art scene and ponders the eternal struggles between creativity and capitalism, love and labor, and authenticity and commodification. Part cultural analysis, part cautionary tale, this account of an all-consuming subculture—now unrecognizable to the artists who first established it—is the perfect companion to Bianca Bosker's Get the Picture. —Daniella Fishman Concerning the Future of Souls by Joy Williams [F] If you're reading this, you don't need to be told why you need to check out the next 99 strange, crystalline chunks of brilliance—described enticingly as "stories of Azrael"—from the great Joy Williams, do you? —John H. Maher Misrecognition by Madison Newbound [F] Newbound's debut novel, billed as being in the vein of Rachel Cusk and Patricia Lockwood, chronicles an aimless, brokenhearted woman's search for meaning in the infinite scroll of the internet. Vladimir author Julia May Jonas describes it as "a shockingly modern" novel that captures "isolation and longing in our age of screens." —Sophia M. Stewart Pink Slime by Fernanda Trías, tr. Heather Cleary [F] The Uruguayan author makes her U.S. debut with an elegiac work of eco-fiction centering on an unnamed woman in the near future as she navigates a city ravaged by plague, natural disaster, and corporate power (hardly an imaginative leap). —SMS The Last Sane Woman by Hannah Regel [F] In Regel's debut novel, the listless Nicola is working in an archive devoted to women's art when she discovers—and grows obsessed with—a beguiling dozen-year correspondence between two women, going back to 1976. Paul author Daisy LaFarge calls this debut novel "caustic, elegant, elusive, and foreboding." —SMS Reinventing Love by Mona Chollet, tr. Susan Emanuel [NF] For the past year or so I've been on a bit of a kick reading books that I'd hoped might demystify—and offer an alternative vision of—the sociocultural institution that is heterosexuality. (Jane Ward's The Tragedy of Heterosexuality was a particularly enlightening read on that subject.) So I'm eager to dive into Chollet's latest, which explores the impossibility of an equitable heterosexuality under patriarchy. —SMS The Body Alone by Nina Lohman [NF] Blending memoir with scholarship, philosophy with medicine, and literature with science, Lohman explores the articulation of chronic pain in what Thin Places author Jordan Kisner calls "a stubborn, tender record of the unrecordable." —SMS Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner [F] In this particular instance, "Long Island Compromise" refers to the long-anticipated follow-up to Fleishman Is In Trouble, not the technical term for getting on the Babylon line of the LIRR with a bunch of Bud-addled Mets fans after 1 a.m. —JHM The Long Run by Stacey D'Erasmo [NF] Plenty of artists burn brightly for a short (or viral) spell but can't sustain creative momentum. Others manage to keep creating over decades, weathering career ups and downs, remaining committed to their visions, and adapting to new media. Novelist Stacey D’Erasmo wanted to know how they do it, so she talked with eight artists, including author Samuel R. Delany and poet and visual artist Cecelia Vicuña, to learn the secrets to their longevity. —Claire Kirch Devil's Contract by Ed Simon [NF] Millions contributor Ed Simon probes the history of the Faustian bargain, from ancient times to modern day. Devil's Contract is, like all of Simon's writing, refreshingly rigorous, intellectually ambitious, and suffused with boundless curiosity. —SMS Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel by Yoko Tawada, tr. Susan Bernofsky [F] Tawada returns with this surrealist ode to the poet Paul Celan and human connection. Set in a hazy, post-lockdown Berlin, Tawada's trademark dream-like prose follows the story of Patrik, an agoraphobe rediscovering his zeal for life through an unlikely friendship built on a shared love of art. —DF The Anthropologists by Ayşegül Savaş [F] Savaş’s third novel is looking like her best yet. It's a lean, lithe, lyrical tale of two graduate students in love look for a home away from home, or “trying to make a life together when you have nothing that grounds you,” as the author herself puts it. —JHM The Coin by Yasmin Zaher [F] Zaher's debut novel, about a young Palestinian woman unraveling in New York City, is an essential, thrilling addition to the Women on the Verge subgenre. Don't just take it from me: the blurbs for this one are some of the most rhapsodic I've ever seen, and the book's ardent fans include Katie Kitamura, Hilary Leichter, and, yes, Slavoj Žižek, who calls it "a masterpiece." —SMS Black Intellectuals and Black Society by Martin L. Kilson [NF] In this posthumous essay collection, the late political scientist Martin L. Kilson reflects on the last century's foremost Black intellectuals, from W.E.B Dubois to Ishmael Reed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that Kilson "brilliantly explores the pivotal yet often obscured legacy of giants of the twentieth-century African American intelligentsia." —SMS Toward Eternity by Anton Hur [F] Hur, best known as the translator of such Korean authors as Bora Chung and Kyung-Sook Shin (not to mention BTS), makes his fiction debut with a speculative novel about the intersections of art, medicine, and technology. The Liberators author E.J. Koh writes that Hur delivers "a sprawling, crystalline, and deftly crafted vision of a yet unimaginable future." —SMS Loving Sylvia Plath by Emily Van Duyne [NF] I've always felt some connection to Sylvia Plath, and am excited to get my hands on Van Duyne’s debut, a reconstruction of the poet’s final years and legacy, which the author describes as "a reckoning with the broken past and the messy present" that takes into account both Plath’s "white privilege and [the] misogynistic violence" to which she was subjected. —CK Bright Objects by Ruby Todd [F] Nearing the arrival of a newly discovered comet, Sylvia Knight, still reeling from her husband's unsolved murder, finds herself drawn to the dark and mysterious corners of her seemingly quiet town. But as the comet draws closer, Sylvia becomes torn between reality and mysticism. This one is for astrology and true crime girlies. —DF The Lucky Ones by Zara Chowdhary [NF] The debut memoir by Chowdhary, a survivor of one of the worst massacres in Indian history, weaves together histories both personal and political to paint a harrowing portrait of anti-Muslim violence in her home country of India. Alexander Chee calls this "a warning, thrown to the world," and Nicole Chung describes it as "an astonishing feat of storytelling." —SMS Banal Nightmare by Halle Butler [F] Butler grapples with approaching middle age in the modern era in her latest, which follows thirty-something Moddie Yance as she ditches city life and ends her longterm relationship to move back to her Midwestern hometown. Banal Nightmare has "the force of an episode of marijuana psychosis and the extreme detail of a hyperrealistic work of art," per Jia Tolentino. —SMS A Passionate Mind in Relentless Pursuit by Noliwe Rooks [NF] In this slim volume on the life and legacy of the trailblazing civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune—the first Black woman to head a federal agency, to serve as a college president, and to be honored with a monument in the nation's capital—Rooks meditates on Bethune's place in Black political history, as well as in Rooks's own imagination. —SMS Modern Fairies by Clare Pollard [F] An unconventional work of historical fiction to say the least, this tale of the voluble, voracious royal court of Louis XIV of France makes for an often sidesplitting, and always bawdy, read. —JHM The Quiet Damage by Jesselyn Cook [NF] Cook, a journalist, reports on deepfake media, antivax opinions, and sex-trafficking conspiracies that undermine legitimate criminal investigations. Having previously written on children trying to deradicalize their QAnon-believing parents and social media influencers who blend banal content with frightening Q views, here Cook focuses on five families whose members went down QAnon rabbit holes, tragically eroding relationships and verifiable truths. —Nathalie Op de Beeck In the Shadow of the Fall by Tobi Ogundiran [F] Inspired by West African folkore, Ogundiran (author of the superb short speculative fiction collection Jackal, Jackal) centers this fantasy novella, the first of duology, on a sort-of anti-chosen one: a young acolyte aspiring to priesthood, but unable to get the orishas to speak. So she endeavors to trap one of the spirits, but in the process gets embroiled in a cosmic war—just the kind of grand, anything-can-happen premise that makes Ogundiran’s stories so powerful. —Alan Scherstuhl The Bluestockings by Susannah Gibson [NF] This group biography of the Bluestockings, a group of protofeminist women intellectuals who established salons in 18th-century England, reminded me of Regan Penaluna's wonderful How to Think Like a Woman in all the best ways—scholarly but accessible, vividly rendered, and a font of inspiration for the modern woman thinker. —SMS Liars by Sarah Manguso [F] Manguso's latest is a standout addition to the ever-expanding canon of novels about the plight of the woman artist, and the artist-mother in particular, for whom creative life and domestic life are perpetually at odds. It's also a more scathing indictment of marriage than any of the recent divorce memoirs to hit shelves. Any fan of Manguso will love this novel—her best yet—and anyone who is not already a fan will be by the time they're done. —SMS On Strike Against God by Joanna Russ [F] Flashbacks to grad school gender studies coursework, and the thrilling sensation that another world is yet possible, will wash over a certain kind of reader upon learning that Feminist Press will republish Russ’s 1980 novel. Edited and with an introduction by Cornell University Ph.D. candidate Alec Pollak, this critical edition includes reminiscences on Russ by her longtime friend Samuel R. Delany, letters between Russ and poet Marilyn Hacker, and alternative endings to its lesbian coming-out story. —NodB Only Big Bumbum Matters Tomorrow by Damilare Kuku [F] The debut novel by Kuku, the author of the story collection Nearly All the Men in Lagos Are Mad, centers on a Nigerian family plunged into chaos when young Temi, a recent college grad, decides to get a Brazillian butt lift. Wahala author Nikki May writes that Kuku captures "how complicated it is to be a Nigerian woman." —SMS The Missing Thread by Daisy Dunn [NF] A book about the girls, by the girls, for the girls. Dunn, a classicist, reconfigures antiquity to emphasize the influence and agency of women. From the apocryphal stories of Cleopatra and Agrippina to the lesser-known tales of Atossa and Olympias, Dunn retraces the steps of these ancient heroines and recovers countless important but oft-forgotten female figures from the margins of history. —DF August Villa E by Jane Alison [F] Alison's taut novel of gender and power is inspired by the real-life collision of Irish designer Eileen Gray and Swiss architect Le Corbusier—and the sordid act of vandalism by the latter that forever defined the legacy of the former. —SMS The Princess of 72nd Street by Elaine Kraf [F] Kraf's 1979 feminist cult classic, reissued as part of Modern Library's excellent Torchbearer series with an introduction by Melissa Broder, follows a young woman artist in New York City who experiences wondrous episodes of dissociation. Ripe author Sarah Rose Etter calls Kraf "one of literature's hidden gems." —SMS All That Glitters by Orlando Whitfield [NF] Whitfield traces the rise and fall of Inigo Philbrick, the charasmatic but troubled art dealer—and Whitfield's one-time friend—who was recently convicted of committing more than $86 million in fraud. The great Patrick Radden Keefe describes this as "an art world Great Gatsby." —SMS The Bookshop by Evan Friss [NF] Oh, so you support your local bookshop? Recount the entire history of bookselling. Friss's rigorously researched ode to bookstores underscores their role as guardians, gatekeepers, and proprietors of history, politics, and culture throughout American history. A must-read for any bibliophile, and an especially timely one in light of the growing number of attempts at literary censorship across the country. —DF Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia [F] Valencia's debut short story collection is giving supernatural Southwestern Americana.  Subjects as distinct as social media influencers, ghost hunters, and slasher writers populate these stories which, per Kelly Link, contain a "deep well of human complexity, perversity, sincerity, and hope." —DF Mourning a Breast by Xi Xi, tr. Jennifer Feeley This 1989 semi-autobiographical novel is an account of the late Hong Kong author and poet Xi's mastectomy and subsequent recovery, heralded as one of the first Chinese-language books to write frankly about illness, and breast cancer in particular.—SMS Village Voices by Odile Hellier [NF] Hellier celebrates the history and legacy of the legendary Village Voice Bookshop in Paris, which he founded in 1982. A hub of anglophone literary culture for 30 years, Village Voice hosted everyone from Raymond Carver to Toni Morrison and is fondly remembered in these pages, which mine decades of archives. —SMS Dinosaurs at the Dinner Party by Edward Dolnick [NF] Within the past couple of years, three tweens found the fossilized remains of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex in North Dakota and an 11-year-old beachcomber came upon an ichthyosaur jaw in southwestern England, sparking scientific excitement. Dolnick’s book revisits similar discoveries from Darwin’s own century, when astonished amateurs couldn’t yet draw upon centuries of paleontology and drew their own conclusions about the fossils and footprints they unearthed. —NodB All the Rage by Virginia Nicholson [NF] Social historian Nicholson chronicles the history of beauty standards for women from 1860 to 1960, revealing the fickleness of fashion, the evergreen pressure put on women's self-presentation, and the toll the latter takes on women's bodies. —SMS A Termination by Honor Moore [NF] In her latest memoir, Moore—best known for 2008's The Bishop's Daughter—reflects on the abortion she had in 1969 at the age of 23 and its aftermath. The Vivian Gornick calls this one "a masterly account of what it meant, in the 1960s, to be a woman of spirit and intelligence plunged into the particular hell that is unwanted pregnancy." —SMS Nat Turner, Black Prophet by Anthony E. Kaye with Gregory P. Downs [NF] Kaye and Downs's remarkable account of Nat Turner's rebellion boldly and persuasively argues for a reinterpretation of the uprising's causes, legacy, and divine influence, framing Turner not just as a preacher but a prophet. A paradigm-shifting work of narrative history. —SMS An Honest Woman by Charlotte Shane [NF] As a long-time reader, fan, and newsletter subscriber of Shane's, I nearly dropped to my knees at the altar of Simon & Schuster when her latest book was announced. This slim memoir intertwines her experience as a sex worker with reflections on various formative relationships in her life (with her sexuality, her father, and her long-time client, Roger), as well as reflections on the very nature of sex, gender, and labor. —DF Mina's Matchbox by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen B. Snyder [F] Mina's Matchbox is an incredible novel that affirms Ogawa's position as the great writer of fantastical literature today. This novel is much brighter in tone and detail than much of her other, often brutal and gloomy, work, but somehow the tension and terror of living is always at the periphery. Ogawa has produced a world near and tender, but tough and bittersweet, like recognizing a lost loved one in the story told by someone new. —Zachary Issenberg Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Reuben Woolley [F] The Grey Bees author's latest, longlisted for last year's International Booker Prize, is an ode to Lviv, western Ukraine's cultural capital, now transformed by war. A snapshot of the city as it was in the early aughts, the novel chronicles the antics of a cast of eccentrics across the city, with a dash of magical realism thrown in for good measure. —SMS The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya [F] I loved Hamya's 2021 debut novel Three Rooms, and her latest, a sharp critique of art and gender that centers on a young woman who pens a satirical play about her sort-of-canceled novelist father, promises to be just as satisfying. —SMS A Complicated Passion by Carrie Rickey [NF] This definitive biography of trailblazing French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda tells the engrossing story of a brilliant artist and fierce feminist who made movies and found success on her own terms. Film critic and essayist Phillip Lopate writes, "One could not ask for a smarter or more engaging take on the subject." —SMS The Italy Letters by Vi Khi Nao [F] This epistolary novel by Nao, an emerging queer Vietnamese American writer who Garielle Lutz once called "an unstoppable genius," sounds like an incredible read: an unnamed narrator in Las Vegas writes sensual stream-of-consciousness letters to their lover in Italy. Perfect leisure reading on a sultry summer’s afternoon while sipping a glass of prosecco. —CK Survival Is a Promise by Alexis Pauline Gumbs [NF] Gumbs's poetic, genre-bending biography of Audre Lorde offers a fresh, profound look at Lorde's life, work, and importance undergirded by an ecological, spiritual, and distinctly Black feminist sensibility. Eloquent Rage author Brittany Cooper calls Gumbs "a kindred keeper of [Lorde’s] lesbian-warrior-poet legacy." —SMS Planes Flying Over a Monster by Daniel Saldaña París, tr. Christina MacSweeney and Philip K. Zimmerman [NF] Over 10 essays, the Mexican writer Daniel Saldaña Paris explores the cities he has lived in over the course of his life, using each as a springboard to ponder questions of authenticity, art, and narrative. Chloé Cooper Jones calls Saldaña Paris "simply one of our best living writers" and this collection "destined for canonical status." —SMS The Unicorn Woman by Gayl Jones [F] The latest novel from Jones, the Pulitzer finalist and mentee of Toni Morrison who first stunned the literary world with her 1975 novel Corregida, follows a Black soldier who returns home to the Jim Crow South after fighting in World War II. Imani Perry has called Jones "one of the most versatile and transformative writers of the 20th century." —SMS Becoming Little Shell by Chris La Tray [NF] When La Tray was growing up in western Montana, his family didn’t acknowledge his Indigenous heritage. He became curious about his Métis roots when he met Indigenous relatives at his grandfather’s funeral, and he searched in earnest after his father’s death two decades later. Now Montana’s poet laureate, La Tray has written a memoir about becoming an enrolled member of the Chippewa Little Shell Tribe, known as “landless Indians” because of their history of forced relocation. —NodB Wife to Mr. Milton by Robert Graves (reissue) [F] Grave's 1943 novel, reissued by the great Seven Stories Press, is based on the true story of the poet John Milton's tumultuous marriage to the much younger Mary Powell, which played out amid the backdrop of the English Civil War. E.M. Forster once called this one "a thumping good read." —SMS Euphoria Days by Pilar Fraile, tr. Lizzie Davis [F] Fraile's first novel to be translated into English follows the lives of five workers approaching middle age and searching for meaning—turning to algorithms, internet porn, drugs, and gurus along the way—in a slightly off-kilter Madrid of the near future. —SMS September Colored Television by Danzy Senna [F] Senna's latest novel follows Jane, a writer living in L.A. and weighing the competing allures of ambition versus stability and making art versus selling out. The perfect read for fans of Lexi Freiman's Book of Ayn, Colored Television is, per Miranda July, "addictive, hilarious, and relatable" and "a very modern reckoning with the ambiguities triangulated by race, class, creativity and love."—SMS We're Alone by Edwidge Danticat [NF] I’ve long been a big fan of Danticat, and I'm looking forward to reading this essay collection, which ranges from personal narratives to reflections on the state of the world to tributes to her various mentors and literary influences, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. That the great Graywolf Press published this book is an added bonus. —CK In Our Likeness by Bryan VanDyke [F] Millions contributor Bryan VanDyke's eerily timely debut novel, set at a tech startup where an algorithm built to detect lies on the internet is in the works, probes both the wonders and horrors of AI. This is a Frankenstein-esque tale befitting the information (or, perhaps, post-information) age and wrought in VanDyke's typically sparkling prose. —SMS Liontaming in America by Elizabeth Willis [NF] Willis, a poet and professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, plumbed personal and national history for last year’s Spectral Evidence: The Witch Book, and does so again with this allusive hybrid work. This ambitious project promises a mind-bending engagement with polyamory and family, Mormonism and utopianism, prey exercising power over predators, and the shape-shifting American dream. —NodB Creation Lake by Rachel Kushner [F] I adore Kushner’s wildly offbeat tales, and I also enjoy books and movies in which people really are not who they claim to be and deception is coming from all sides. This novel about an American woman who infiltrates a rural commune of French radicals and everyone has their private agenda sounds like the perfect page-turner. —CK Under the Eye of the Big Bird by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Asa Yoneda [F] Kawakami, of Strange Weather in Tokyo and People in My Neighborhood fame, returns with a work of speculative fiction comprising 14 interconnected stories spanning eons. This book imagines an Earth where humans teeter on the brink of extinction—and counts the great Banana Yoshimoto as a fan. —SMS Homeland by Richard Beck [NF] Beck, an editor at n+1, examines the legacy of the war on terror, which spanned two decades following 9/11, and its irrevocable impact on every facet of American life, from consumer habits to the very notion of citizenship. —SMS Herscht 07769 by László Krasznahorkai, tr. Ottilie Muzlet [F] Every novel by Krasznahorkai is immediately recognizable, while also becoming a modulation on that style only he could pull off. Herscht 07769 may be set in the contemporary world—a sort-of fable about the fascism fermenting in East Germany—but the velocity of the prose keeps it ruthilarious and dreamlike. That's what makes Krasznahorkai a master: the world has never sounded so unreal by an author, but all the anxieities of his characters, his readers, suddenly gain clarity, as if he simply turned on the light. —ZI Madwoman by Chelsea Bieker [F] Catapult published Bieker’s 2020 debut, Godshot, about a teenager fleeing a religious cult in drought-stricken California, and her 2023 Heartbroke, a collection of stories that explored gender, threat, and mother-and-child relationships. Now, Bieker moves over to Little, Brown with this contemporary thriller, a novel in which an Oregon mom gets a letter from a women’s prison that reignites violent memories of a past she thought she’d left behind. —NodB The World She Edited by Amy Reading [NF] Some people like to curl up with a cozy mystery, while for others, the ultimate cozy involves midcentury literary Manhattan. Amy Reading—whose bona fides include service on the executive board of cooperative indie bookstore Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, N.Y.—profiles New Yorker editor Katharine S. White, who came on board at the magazine in 1925 and spent 36 years editing the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Janet Flanner, and Mary McCarthy. Put the kettle on—or better yet, pour a classic gin martini—in preparation for this one, which underscores the many women authors White championed. —NodB If Only by Vigdis Hjorth, tr. Charlotte Barslund [F] Hjorth, the Norwegian novelist behind 2022's Is Mother Dead, painstakingly chronicles a 30-year-old married woman's all-consuming and volatile romance with a married man, which blurs the lines between passion and love. Sheila Heti calls Hjorth "one of my favorite contemporary writers." —SMS Fierce Desires by Rebecca L. Davis [NF] Davis's sprawling account of sex and sexuality over the course of American history traverses the various behaviors, beliefs, debates, identities, and subcultures that have shaped the way we understand connection, desire, gender, and power. Comprehensive, rigorous, and unafraid to challenge readers, this history illuminates the present with brutal and startling clarity.  —SMS The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo, tr. Douglas Weatherford [F] Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, so it's no surprise that his 1953 story collection The Burning Plain—which depicts life in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and Cristero Revolt—is widely seen as Mexico's most significant (and, objectively, most translated) work of short fiction. —SMS My Lesbian Novel and TOAF by Renee Gladman [F/NF] The perpetually pitch perfect Dorothy, a Publishing Project is putting out two books by Renee Gladman, one of its finest regular authors, on the same day: a nigh uncategorizable novel about an artist and writer with her same name and oeuvre who discusses the process of writing a lesbian romance and a genre-smashing meditation on an abandoned writing project. What's not to love? —JHM Dear Dickhead by Virginie Despentes, tr. Frank Wynne [F] I'm a big fan of Despentes's caustic, vigorous voice: King Kong Theory was one of my favorite reads of last year. (I was late, I know!) So I can't wait to dig into her latest novel—purported to be taking France by storm—which nods to #MeToo in its depiction of an unlikely friendship that brings up questions of sex, fame, and gendered power. —SMS Capital by Karl Marx, tr. Paul Reitter [NF] In a world that burns more quickly by the day—after centuries of industrial rapacity, and with ever-increasing flares of fascism—a new English translation of Marx, and the first to be based on his final revision of this foundational critique of capitalism, is just what the people ordered. —JHM Fathers and Fugitives by S.J. Naudé, tr. Michiel Heyns [F] Naudé, who writes in Afrikaans, has translated his previous books himself—until now. The first to be translated by Heyns, a brilliant writer himself and a friend of Naudé's, this novel follows a queer journalist living in London who travels home to South Africa to care for his dying father, only to learn of a perplexing clause in his will. —SMS Men of Maize by Miguel Ángel Asturias, tr. Gerald Martin [F] This Penguin Classics reissue of the Nobel Prize–winning Guatemalan writer's epic novel, just in time for its 75th anniversary, throws into stark relief the continued timeliness of its themes: capitalist exploitation, environmental devastation, and the plight of Indigenous peoples. Héctor Tobar, who wrote the forward, calls this "Asturias’s Mayan masterpiece, his Indigenous Ulysses." —SMS Good Night, Sleep Tight by Brian Evenson [F] It is practically impossible to do, after cracking open any collection of stories by the horror master Evenson, what the title of this latest collection asks of its readers. This book is already haunting you even before you've opened it. —JHM Reservoir Bitches by Dahlia de la Cerda, tr. Julia Sanches and Heather Cleary [F] De la Cerda's darkly humorous debut story collection follows 13 resilient, rebellious women navigating life in contemporary Mexico. Dogs of Summer author Andrea Abreu writes, "This book has the force of an ocean gully: it sucks you in, drags you through the mud, and then cleanses you." —SMS Lost: Back to the Island by Emily St. James and Noel Murray [NF] For years, Emily St. James was one of my favorite TV critics, and I'm so excited to see her go long on that most polarizing of shows (which she wrote brilliantly about for AV Club way back when) in tandem with Noel Murray, another great critic. The Lost resurgence—and much-deserved critical reevaluation—is imminent. —SMS Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin [F] Who could tire of tales of Parisian affairs and despairs? This one, from critic and Art Monsters author Elkin, tells the story of 40 years, four lives, two couples, one apartment, and that singularly terrible, beautiful thing we call love. —JHM Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro [F] The bold first entry in Miro’s sweeping Victorian-era fantasy was a novel to revel in. Ordinary Monsters combined cowboys, the undead, a Scottish magic school, action better than most blockbuster movies can manage, and refreshingly sharp prose astonishingly well as its batch of cast of desperate kids confused by their strange powers fought to make sense of the world around them—despite being stalked, and possibly manipulated, by sinister forces. That book’s climax upended all expectations, making Bringer of Dust something rare: a second volume in a fantasy where readers have no idea where things are heading. —AS Frighten the Horses by Oliver Radclyffe [NF] The latest book from Roxane Gay's eponymous imprint is Radclyffe's memoir of coming out as a trans man in his forties, rethinking his supposedly idyllic life with his husband and four children. Fans of the book include Sabrina Imbler, Sarah Schulman, and Edmund White, who praises Radclyffe as "a major writer." —SMS Everything to Play For by Marijam Did [NF] A video game industry insider, Did considers the politics of gaming in this critical overview—and asks how games, after decades of reshaping our private lives and popular culture, can help pave the way for a better world. —SMS Rejection by Tony Tulathimutte [F] Tulathimutte's linked story collection plunges into the touchy topics of sex, relationships, identity, and the internet. Vauhini Vara, in describing the book, evokes both Nabokov and Roth, as well as "the worst (by which I mean best) Am I the Asshole post you’ve ever read on Reddit." —SMS Elizabeth Catlett by Ed. Dalila Scruggs [NF] This art book, which will accompany a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum organized by Scruggs, spotlight the work and legacy of the pioneering printmaker, sculptor, and activist Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), who centered the experiences of Black and Mexican women in all that she did and aspired "to put art to the service of the people." —SMS The Repeat Room by Jesse Ball [F] I often credit Jesse Ball's surrealist masterpiece A Cure for Suicide with reviving my love of reading, and his latest got me out of my reading slump once again. Much like ACFS, The Repeat Room is set in a totalitarian dystopia that slowly reveals itself. The story follows Abel, a lowly garbageman chosen to sit on a jury where advanced technology is used to forcibly enter the memories of "the accused." This novel forces tough moral questions on readers, and will make you wonder what it means to be a good person—and, ultimately, if it even matters. —DF Defectors by Paola Ramos [NF] Ramos, an Emmy Award–winning journalist, examines how Latino voters—often treated as a monolith—are increasingly gravitating to the far right, and what this shift means America's political future. Rachel Maddow calls Defectors "a deeply reported, surprisingly personal exploration of a phenomenon that is little understood in our politics." —SMS Monet by Jackie Wullshläger [NF] Already available in the U.K., this biography reveals a more tempestuous Claude Monet than the serene Water Lilies of his later years suggest. Wullschläger, the chief art critic of the Financial Times, mines the archives for youthful letters and secrets about Monet’s unsung lovers and famous friends of the Belle Époque. —NodB Brooklynites by Prithi Kanakamedala [NF] Kanakamedala celebrates the Black Brooklynites who shaped New York City's second-largest borough in the 19th century, leaving a powerful legacy of social justice organizing in their wake. Centering on four Black families, this work of narrative history carefully and passionately traces Brooklyn's activist lineage. —SMS No Ship Sets Out to Be a Shipwreck by Joan Wickersham [NF] In this slim nonfiction/poetry hybrid, Wickersham (author of National Book Award finalist The Suicide Index) meditates on a Swedish warship named Vasa, so freighted with cannons and fancy carvings in honor of the king that it sank only minutes after leaving the dock in 1682, taking 30 lives with it. After Wickersham saw the salvaged Vasa on display in Stockholm, she crafted her book around this monument to nation and hubris. —NodB Health and Safety by Emily Witt [NF] I loved Witt's sharply observed Future Sex and can't wait for her latest, a memoir about drugs, raves, and New York City nightlife which charts the New Yorker staff writer's immersion into the city's dance music underground on the cusp of the pandemic—and the double life she began to lead as a result. —SMS [millions_email]

Mark O’Connell’s Intimate Portrait of a Murderer

There’s a moment midway through Mark O’Connell’s latest book, A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder, in which O’Connell is lounging on his young daughter’s bed shortly before her bedtime. He’s watching her thumb through her baby pictures on his phone when the phone begins vibrating. The pictures disappear and the name Macarthur appears onscreen. O’Connell takes the phone from his daughter and allows it to ring out before handing it back to her. The caller was Malcolm Macarthur, a man who had spent three decades in jail for double murder, and whose life and likeness the Irish novelist John Banville had used as the basis for the protagonist of three of his novels. O’Connell knew these novels intimately—he had written his dissertation on Banville’s fiction. He’d quite literally spent thousands of hours thinking, reading, and writing about the fictionalized version of the man who was now calling him. Macarthur was calling, as he occasionally did, for a chat, or to clarify a detail he had previously provided O’Connell, who was interviewing him for the book he was writing on Macarthur. O’Connell is unsettled, but his daughter is oblivious. The moment’s purity has been tainted by the intrusion. “There was this strange sense of the subject seeping into my life,” O’Connell explained over Zoom, from his home in Dublin. O’Connell, 44, is thoughtful when he speaks, occasionally running a hand through his shock of greying hair. When we spoke, it was still several weeks away from publication day and he seemed calmly concerned about how his subject would interpret the book—itself an interpretation of Macarthur’s life and crimes—and how that might further complicate their already awkward relationship. “If anything,” he says with a look of genuine surprise, “my relationship has become even stranger since I stopped interviewing him.” I get the distinct impression that O’Connell couldn’t have imagined, when he first began the book over three years ago, that he would still be speaking to Macarthur several months after he finished it. “It’s the most complicated relationship I’ve ever had.” * O’Connell was born in 1979 in Kilkenny, a small city in south-eastern Ireland, a hundred or so miles from Dublin. Born into a family of pharmacists (his brother runs the pharmacy founded by his grandfather), O’Connell jokingly calls himself as the black sheep of the family. He attended Kilkenny College and was a dedicated classical musician throughout his adolescence. As the lead pianist of the Kilkenny Youth Orchestra, many of his evenings and weekends were taken up with piano and violin practice. Kilkenny also had a lively punk scene, of which O’Connell was an enthusiastic follower: “I had this two-pronged thing going where I would go to orchestra practice with my violin, at 16 or 17, and be there all day, and then my friends with their mohawks would be waiting for me on the bench outside.” After studying English at Trinity, O’Connell began writing for Mongrel, a magazine founded by two other Trinity graduates, which he calls “a real crucible for me and lots of other writers and photographers.” Before the magazine called it quits in 2008 (not before turning down a deal to be absorbed by a then-ascendant Vice), O’Connell toured with a rock band and was commissioned to travel to Arizona to write about Joe Arpaio, the notorious Sheriff and jail-owner who was later pardoned by Donald Trump. “It wasn’t like there was a lot of money,” O’Connell explains, “but there was enough money for me to get sent to Arizona to write a story, which The Irish Times never would have done.” By 2006, O’Connell returned to Trinity for his masters, for which he wrote a comparative study of Flann O’Brien and Jorge Luis Borges. Both of these writers’ presences can be felt in O’Connell’s writing—the former, for his gleeful and wry humor; the latter for the analytical approach to the interpretation of stories. “I started writing and thinking through reading fiction and being interested in how it operates and that, I feel, may have seeped into my reading of the world,” he told me. O’Connell then spent several years writing a PhD on John Banville’s fiction. It’s worth pointing out here that anyone seeking a better appreciation of O’Connell’s style—its trenchantly observed ironies and exactingly austere prose—could find worse starting points than Banville’s writing. A wonderful account of O’Connell’s not infrequent encounters with the subject of his PhD was featured in this very publication in 2011. Here he is on encountering Banville at lunch: When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist. A year after his doctorate, he was awarded a postdoctoral bursary—money, an office, and a year-long stipend—to help him turn his thesis into a book. He says he mostly used the year to do a lot of nothing, and quite a bit of his own writing: “I think even when I was safely ensconced within the School of English at Trinity, I was always distracted by the work of writing.” Examiners remarked that he seemed more interested in the business of style and sentences than with communicating his argument and ideas. “I was a frustrated writer as a PhD student.” The academic book was published a year later, by which point he had begun making a name for himself as a prolific writer of literary and cultural criticism for websites such as The Millions, Slate, and In 2013, The Millions made a brief foray in the world of ebook publishing, and O’Connell was commissioned to write its first. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever examined the stories behind some of the most cringingly amusing things the internet has given us: Monkey Jesus, Rebecca Black—that sort of stuff. Epic Fail caught the attention of Molly Atlas, a literary agent. It was during one of his early conversations with Atlas about potentially writing a book that O’Connell mentioned an essay on transhumanism he’d written for Mongrel Magazine years earlier. That conversation led to his first book deal. “I had a really strong sense that she understood what I wanted to do as a writer in a way that I didn’t explicitly understand myself—and also what I could do that could be marketable,” he recalls. “I had all kinds of hair-brained schemes for books—unworkable—and she would politely say ‘Maybe your second or third book after you’ve established yourself.’” O’Connell was publishing other pieces around this time which were much more directly personal in tone. It’s in these pieces you can begin to see emanations of the obsessions to which he would later return in his books—mortality, parenthood, technology. Among the most personal and beautiful is “Can Parenthood and Pessimism Live Side by Side?”, published in The New York Times in 2014, shortly after the birth of his first child. It begins by recounting how, as a 10-year-old, O’Connell accompanied his dad (a pharmacist) to visit one of his patients in hospital. While there, an old and possibly infirm woman showed O’Connell her vagina. “I was in shock, I think, as much from the fleeting revelation of the old woman’s private misery as of her private anatomy, " he writes. “I think of the experience now as a strange intrusion into my happy innocence, a weird emissary of the suffering and senselessness of an adult world, a world of aging and grief, that lay beyond the little shelter of my childhood.” He blocked the event out until many years later, and mentions how, in college, reading Beckett’s abject characters reminded him of her. The image is the starting point for a sobering and meditative account of his attempt to reconcile the dour, pessimistic philosophers towards whom he feels drawn—E.M. Cioran, Schopenhauer, and the like—and the need, when his son was born, to be open to the possibility of optimism: In those first days, when my wife and he were still in the hospital and I was spending a lot of time slumped in a rickety leatherette chair between bed and cot as they slept, I did a thing that you should probably never do when you have just become responsible for a new life in the world: I read the papers. As I sat there turning the pages of The Irish Times in quietly accumulating horror, my infant son sleeping beside me, I had never quite felt with such blunt and insistent force the truth of Schopenhauer’s view of life: massacres, rapes, recurrent outbursts of savage recreational violence, a world built on a seemingly unshakable foundation of economic cruelty and injustice, the continuing project of environmental destruction. The whole paper was a dispassionate catalog of brutality, perversity, stupidity and greed, capped off with a couple of pages of TV listings—and there was nothing much good there either. What a world. What a species. What a raw deal for the poor little guy. This passage is representative of the best of O’Connell’s writing: the prose is lean; its exactness and choice of imagery deliver the reader right to heart of the matter; and the reference to TV listings brings a dash of levity. The primary concern invoked in that essay—namely, how to reconcile having and caring for a child on a cold, unfeeling planet whose inhabitants and ways of living seem ineluctably geared towards their mutual destruction—is the bedrock upon which O’Connell sets down his first two books, To Be A Machine and Notes from An Apocalypse. Though both books deal with different subjects, they are both filled with beautiful, deeply personal moments shared with his family as O’Connell comes to terms with his real subject: mortality. 2017’s To Be A Machine saw O’Connell travel across America meeting the transhumanists who believe, for a variety of reasons, that we should live forever. To do this, they argue, we should use everything at our disposal to fund any research or inventions that could make this happen. The result is part-gonzo journalism, part-meditation on the threat that artificial intelligence (and its zealots) pose to humanity, streaked with sharp observations about Silicon Valley’s role in our evolving and increasingly problematic relationship with technology. All of these thoughts swirl about in O’Connell’s mind as he and his wife go about the business of raising their first child together. Then, in April 2020, O’Connell published Notes from An Apocalypse, a quest to understand those preparing for societal collapse and life post-civilization. He travels to: the Mars Conference in Los Angeles to listen to the specialists, lobbyists, and enthusiasts trying to make life of Mars a reality; Ukraine, where he spends time in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; and he even visits New Zealand to explore why people like Peter Thiel (read: the ultra-rich) are preemptively buying citizenship and land in anticipation of some nearing doomsday scenario. O’Connell’s concern for (and obsession with) his subject permeates the narrative until the birth of his daughter, whose innocence and simple needs brings the book’s central concerns into sharp relief. It was a strange time to publish a book about the world ending, just as the world began to shut down. Ireland had one of the strictest and longest lockdowns anywhere on the planet. I happened to live in Dublin during lockdown. Early on in the pandemic, the city was a ghost town; you could walk the entire length of a street without meeting a soul. It was around that time that O’Connell, who had had an interest in Macarthur’s case for decades, decided he would like to finally write about him. He began pacing the city in the hopes of seeing him. One afternoon while out walking the empty city, O’Connell spotted Macarthur, made his way towards him, and gave him his pitch. * A Thread of Violence is O’Connell’s most personal book yet. It begins with an explanation of the author’s own connection to a series of particularly grisly and senseless murders that took place in the summer of 1982. Though O’Connell was a toddler when the murders took place, the murderer, Malcolm Macarthur, had hidden out in the apartment next door to O’Connell’s grandmother in an affluent suburb of South Dublin. That the apartment belonged to Patrick Connolly, the Attorney General—then the most senior officer of the law of Taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey’s already embattled government—is just one of the many bizarre and improbable details of the case. Though he had known the story since he was a child, O’Connell first wrote about this fascination in an essay for The Millions in 2012, after encountering Macarthur one evening shortly after his release. Macarthur was born in 1945 on a sprawling estate in County Meath to a wealthy landowning family. His paternal grandfather had come from Scotland, and his maternal ancestors from England. Despite living a life that looked a lot like the Anglo-Irish (read: Protestant) lifestyle, Macarthur was Catholic. He attended UC Davis at the height of the sixties (wonderfully rendered by Banville in The Book of Evidence) before returning to Dublin where he socialized in the city’s bohemian bars and spent his time pursuing everything a man of leisure, learning, and means might. Though he came from money, Macarthur wasn’t good with it. He lent too widely and too deeply, and, more consequently, was pathologically averse to labor of any description. What was, for its time, a very considerable inheritance, had dwindled almost to nothing by his mid-30s. Macarthur committed the crimes, in his own words, to be master of his own time. “No matter what frame he (or anyone else) might attempt to put on it,” O’Connell writes, “the fact is that he committed two murders because he wanted to protect his own free time.” That the crime Macarthur was locked up for would go on to cost him 30 years of freedom—during which he would have quite a bit of free time, though be master of none of it—was an irony that was likely not lost on him. Inspired by the spate of robberies that the IRA had been carrying out for much of the past decade, Macarthur—a ludicrously impractical man—decided he would rob a bank. He searched the national papers and found a gun for sale in a small town named Edenderry in rural Ireland. To get there, he decided to steal a car in Phoenix Park, a large park at the edge of the city center. When a young woman sunbathing noticed a man trying to get into her car, she intervened, only to have a fake gun pointed at her, and was bundled into her car. “Is this for real?” she asked. Then, using a lump hammer, Macarthur proceeded to violently beat the young woman, before driving out of the park across town, and dumping the car, with her unconscious body inside, down a lane. Her name was Bridie Gargan. She was 27 and training to be a nurse at Richmond Hospital. She would die of her injuries at that same hospital several days later. The allegedly unplanned murder set Macarthur’s plans back a day or two, but he managed to make his way to Offaly. Macarthur arranged to buy the gun from Donal Dunne, a 27-year-old farmer, at the edge of town. While examining the shotgun, Macarthur took a step back, and said “Sorry, old chap” before shooting him in the face. Macarthur dragged the body away and half-heartedly hid it in the bushes. After the murders, he sought refuge in his girlfriend’s friend’s home in South Dublin. Rather unfortunately, his girlfriend’s friend was Patrick Connolly, the Attorney General, under whose auspices the manhunt for a suspected serial killer was continuing. Caught within weeks, he pleaded guilty and received 30 years in prison. No evidence was heard in court. The double murder didn’t just rile the nation—the Attorney General’s seemingly inexplicable connection to the case almost brought down the government. * Not infrequently whilst reading this book I was reminded of the famous opening lines from Janet Malcolm’s masterful 1989 study on the ethics of journalism, The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she summarizes the journalist’s relationship to their subject: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confident man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The subject, Malcolm writes, is forced to confront that the journalist, who appeared so understanding and willing to listen, “never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.” I am unsure what exactly Macarthur believed he would get out of having a writer of literary nonfiction writing about his life and crimes. Sympathy? Exoneration? A reexamination of his character? The resultant work is a masterpiece—a complex, compelling, and not exactly flattering account of the author’s attempt to understand the 77-year-old man who served three decades in jail for the cruel and senseless murder of two perfect strangers. Macarthur, who considers himself an intellectual and a “private scholar,” plays the role of reluctant but dutiful subject, telling O’Connell that if a writer is going to write about him, they may as well have the right facts at hand. It becomes quite apparent that Macarthur is intensely lonely and doesn’t often have people to speak to. He seems flattered that someone—particularly a writer—such as O’Connell took an interest in him. “No one really realized how unlikely it was that he would agree to speak, least of all to me,” O’Connell tells me. “It was sheer dumb luck—a little bit of wiliness on my part, and a leap of faith on his.” When O’Connell decided to finally approach him that day on the street, he gave him a handwritten note, one of his books, and a copy of The New York Review of Books (containing a recent piece written by him)—in a direct appeal to Macarthur’s vanity. O’Connell’s position within the literary world was enough to set him apart from the other crime journalists and sensationalist TV people who had been chasing him down and offering him money. Macarthur agreed to speak to O’Connell about his life on the condition that the details of the crimes would be off limits. Discussing that would violate his parole and immediately result in his being sent back to jail. O’Connell spent close to two years interviewing him on and off, usually at Macarthur’s apartment, though sometimes on walks around the city. “I prefer facts,” Macarthur told O’Connell during one of their first meetings, when asked if he read much fiction. He might prefer facts, but he certainly has a strange relationship to them. Early in the project, O’Connell realized that he would be on shifting ground with his subject’s mercurial approach to the truth. For example, O’Connell might bring up a detail that was mentioned in the press, only for Macarthur to insist that such a detail was in fact untrue and proceed to tell a different version of events. O’Connell would then check this against the police records—which included Macurthur’s deposition—and find a completely different version of events. When O’Connell would re-present this information to Macarthur during their next visit, Macarthur would contradict and maintain that his current version of the story was the truth. Macarthur’s fabulation is made even more complicated by the fact that he seems to believe his own distorted versions of certain events and details. If this wasn’t labyrinthine enough, O’Connell had already spent years of life studying a fictionalized version of Macarthur—Freddie Montgomery—before he’d even met him. Details about Macarthur’s personality, as O’Connell points out in the book, had bled off the page, shaping O’Connell’s vision of Macarthur before they had ever met. “He was completely confused and enmeshed with this fictional character that I had spent a lot of time thinking and writing about,” he remembers. “There was something in that that provoked me into wanting to write about him as well.” Macarthur has not yet read the book. “I’ve warned him numerous times—he knows exactly what he has said to me, and what of those things I have included in the book,” O’Connell explains. “That’s a different thing from his seeing the result of what you’ve spent, on and off, two years doing and thinking about.” A Thread of Violence is a book about stories—specifically, how we tell and interpret them, regardless of their relationship to the truth. “In a way, this subject felt perfect for me,” O’Connell explains. “Obviously, the story is pretty wild and compelling in itself, but there’s something about it that—at least in the way I felt compelled to approach it—is not just a compelling story but is also about stories themselves and about the relationship between reality and fiction.” There's a moment midway through where a friend of O’Connell’s, who knows about the book, reprimands him for talking about Macarthur as though he were a fictional character whose intentions could be parsed the way one might approach a literary text. Reading A Thread of Violence is to watch Macarthur simultaneously develop and contradict his story in real time, and it reminded me of that Joan Didion quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That much-abused quote is often used cheerily to get at the idea that storytelling is our way of interpreting our experiences and connecting with one another; read it another way, it seems to hint at the less life-affirming, but more interesting notion that there is no end to our capacity for self-delusion, for telling ourselves whatever we have to if it makes living that bit more bearable. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Macarthur reveals to O’Connell that it is only if he views himself as a fictional character—and the event one singular, if life-changing, scene in the story of his life—that he can then begin to comprehend the motivations that led to the murders. Macarthur’s nebulous relationship to the truth aside, O’Connell’s connections to Macarthur and his likeness to Freddie Montgomery only deepen his “long-standing belief that reality itself was a niche subgenre of fiction.” What O’Connell is after—acknowledgment, emotion, contrition—remains elusive and out of reach until the end. Instead, we are left with an image of Macarthur sitting alone in a darkening room and the sense that if we now know everything, we also know nothing. I wonder what story Macarthur will be able to tell himself after he has read the book. [millions_email]