The Compromise

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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]

Sergei Dovlatov: Gravity, Levity, and Love

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In response to being dubbed “troubadour of honed banality,” Sergei Dovlatov wrote, in 1982, to his friend and publisher Igor Yefimov: “I am not offended.  For truisms are in unusually short supply these days.”  Of his childhood, he claimed, “I didn’t collect stamps, didn’t operate on earthworms and didn’t build model airplanes.  What’s more, I didn’t even particularly like to read.  I liked going to the movies and loafing.”  On the relationship between body and soul, he wrote: “It seems to me that it is precisely the physically healthy who are most often spiritually blind...I myself was a very healthy person, and don’t I know about spiritual weakness!” It is typical of Dovlatov to riff on his all-around underachievement. In a chapter in his novel The Suitcase called “The Finnish Crêpe Socks,” about his student years in Leningrad, he wrote, “The university campus was in the old part of town.  The combination of water and stone creates a special, majestic atmosphere there.  It’s hard to be a slacker under those circumstances, but I managed.”  In relation to Soviet bureaucracy, he affected a remedial disconnect from reality: “No point in arguing.  But of course I argued.’’  Time and again throughout his nonfictional fiction, Dovlatov’s stand-ins deprecate the writer’s path: “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is”; “I gave [my books] out to my friends, along with my so-called archives”; “Generally speaking one should avoid the artistic professions.” And in the family-life realm, he describes his relationship with his wife thus: “We were both chronic failures, both at odds with reality” and “We didn’t raise our daughter, we merely loved her.” This last comment is perhaps most revealing of Dovlatov’s modus operandi: the “merely” is both superciliously ironic and earnestly regretful. A few years ago, when I first starting reading and writing about Dovlatov, I focused on the wickedly humorous side of Dovlatov’s deadpan -- “a Russian David Sedaris,” as David Bezmozgis put it.  But a few years later, and a few more books into his body of work, I find myself more interested in that earnestness and regret -- in Dovlatov the evolving man and artist, who crafted and, yes, honed a version of himself in his fiction that was just distorted enough to be true.  And truth -- moral, spiritual, artistic -- was in the end for Dovlatov no laughing matter. As easily as he mocked the writer’s profession, for example, writing for him was both a matter of compulsion and survival, born -- as we learn in The Zone, his autobiographical novel about working as a prison guard in a Soviet camp -- out of near-despair: Awful things happened around me.  People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect -- being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear. My physical constitution became weak.  But my consciousness remained undisturbed.  This was evidently a defence mechanism.  Otherwise I would have died of fright. When a camp thief was strangled before my eyes outside of Ropcha, my consciousness did not fail to record every detail... If I faced a cruel ordeal, my consciousness quietly rejoiced.  New material would now be at its disposal... In fact, I was already writing.  My writing became a complement to life.  A complement without which life would have been completely obscene. 2. With the release this month of the first English translation of Dovlatov’s 1983 novel Pushkin Hills, it seems especially important to have read The Zone -- to retain a sense of Dovlatov’s more direct tone, uninflected by irony or absurdism, in one’s “consciousness,” to use his own word.  “Like everything Dovlatov wrote,” James Wood writes in the Afterword to the new translation, “Pushkin Hills is funny on every page.”  This is certainly true of Pushkin Hills, but The Zone, I would argue, is an exception.  The absurdity of life in a Soviet prison camp is reported via Dovlatov’s signature sharp eye and ear but is markedly absent the levity.  Constructed as a metafiction in which Dovlatov the author, now an émigré in New York City, delivers the novel to the publisher Igor Yefimov piecemeal, as a result of censorship (“a few courageous French women...were able to smuggle my work through customs borders”) -- The Zone alternates between camp narratives and personal letters to Igor; and in it, we find a level of existential seriousness unmatched in his other work.  In a letter to Igor about halfway through the book, he declares: I am sure now that evil and good are arbitrary.  The same people can display an equal ability for virtue or villainy... For this reason, any categorical moral position seems ridiculous to me... Man is to man -- how shall I put it best? -- a tabula rasa To put it another way -- anything you please, depending on the conjunction of circumstances. For this reason, may God give us steadfastness and courage and, even better -- circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good. In the most chilling, and in my opinion most personally revealing of the narratives in The Zone, or any of his work for that matter, Dovlatov (the character is called “Bob” by the other guards) encounters a prisoner named Kuptsov, a tough-guy drifter. Dovlatov is both enraged by and drawn to Kuptsov: “You’re going to work, or you’ll perish in the isolator.  You’re going to work, I give you my word.  Otherwise, you’ll croak.” The zek looked at me as though I were a thing, a foreign car parked across from the Hermitage.  He followed the line from the radiator to the exhaust pipe.  Then he said distinctly, “I like to please myself.” And that instant: a mirage of a ship’s bridge above the waves. Then later: “You’re one man against everyone.  Which means you’re wrong.” Kuptsov said slowly, distinctly and severely: “One is always right.” And suddenly I understood that this zek who wanted to kill me made me glad, that I was constantly thinking of him, that I couldn’t live without Kuptsov...that he was dear and necessary to me, that he was dearer to me than the camaraderies of the soldiers which had swallowed the last pitiful crumbs of my idealism, that we were one.  Because the only person you could hate that much was yourself. And I also felt how tired he was. The story ends with Dovlatov encountering an emaciated Kuptsov yet again, squatting by a campfire, not working.  By then, Kuptsov has been in extended solitary confinement.  Dovlatov browbeats him again about working, then forces him to hold an axe and swing at a tree trunk.  Instead: Kuptsov stepped to the side.  Then he slowly got down on his knees beside a tree stump, set his left hand on the rough, gleaming yellow cut wood, then raised the axe and let it fall in one swift blow. The story ends with a prisoner shouting at Dovlatov: “What are you standing there for, you dickwad?  You win -- call the medic!”  Dovlatov is stunned by his own capacity for sadism as well as Kuptsov’s purity of conviction, “one man against everyone.” Who is prisoner, who is guard?  Who is protector, who is criminal?  In a letter to Igor, he writes, “Anyhow, I don’t write about prison and zeks.  What I wanted to write about was life and people.” Ridiculous things do happen in prison camp, but in The Zone, Dovlatov is more interested in the poignancy of that absurdity than the humor. 3. All this is crucial background to Dovlatov’s more humorous work.  In the story “The Driving Gloves,” Dovlatov is recruited by a second-rate Swedish journalist to perform the role of Tsar Peter the Great in a satirical underground film.  At the film studio, the props guy turns out to be someone who remembers Dovlatov from the camps. “Remember the isolation cell in Ropcha?” “Yeah.” “Remember the convict who strung himself up on his belt?” “Vaguely.” “That was me.  They pumped me for two hours, the bastards. “ The former prisoner furnishes Dovlatov with a kitschy Tsar outfit, and then as they part ways, he says, “When I was inside, I wanted out.  But now, if I have a few drinks, I start missing the camp. What people!  Lefty, One-Eye, Diesel!” Out of context, it’s a quirky one-liner delivered by a ridiculous minor character, but as readers of The Zone, we feel the chilly implications:  what is freedom, anyway?  The film intends to take up the same question, its climax showing Peter the Great melodramatically dismayed by modern Leningrad: “What have I done?...Why did I ever build this whorish city?”  And Dovlatov himself is contending with his own post-prison imprisonment: his agreeing to the role in the first place has to do with his aimless ways, his alcoholism, and his wife’s perpetual disapproval. Dovlatov’s darker experiences and depths also help us to understand his “bloomer” journey. If his comfortable childhood made him a loafer, and his years as a prison guard woke him up to his writer’s call, then the years following unfolded as a period of delays and false starts as he struggled to make good on that calling.  These were years characterized by heavy drinking and lack of money, piles of unpublished writing, and eventually “intense harassment” by Soviet authorities.  Finally, at age 40, reunited in Queens, N.Y., with his wife and daughter who had emigrated without him, The Compromise was published in the U.S., by a small Russian émigré press. In the mid-1980s, The New Yorker ran several of his stories in English, and English translations of his books began appearing, including A Foreign WomanOurs: A Russian Family Album, and The Suitcase.  None of his work was published in Russia until after his death in 1990 (after the fall of the Soviet Union). 4. But I don’t mean to be a killjoy.  The “sparkling” humor that Wood references, “jokes, repartee, and this writer’s special savage levity,” are what excited me about Dovlatov’s work in the first place. Indeed, hilarity -- in the form of both drunken and sober dialogue, along with deadpan one-liners -- splashes every scene in Pushkin Hills.  I only want to alert readers to the additional dimensions of Dovlatov’s oeuvre, numerous and equally rewarding.  There are, for example, his powers of physical description -- most often in the form of short, clipped sentences, wry and sharp. But then every so often we get a feast of Dovlatovian observation: He had taken a seat in the way police officers, provocateurs and midnight guests do, with his side to the table. The lad looked strong. A brick-brown face towered over a wall of shoulders.  Its dome was crowned with a brittle and dusty patch of last year’s grass.  The stucco arches of his ears were swallowed up by the semi-darkness.  The bastion of his wide solid forehead was missing embrasures.  The gaping lips gloomed like a ravine.  The flickering small swamps of his eyes, veiled by an icy cloud, questioned.  The bottomless, cavernous mouth nurtured a threat. The cousin got up and extended his left hand like a battleship. There is also his fine attention to the natural world -- the ways in which nature both enacts and reflects human fate, simply, directly -- which I noticed especially in Pushkin Hills: Morning.  Milk with a bluish skin.  Dogs barking, buckets jangling... and Jackdaws flew through the clear skies. Fog spread over the marsh, at the foot of the mountain.  Sheep reposed in grey clumps on the green grass...Yellow sand stuck to my boots, wet from the morning dew.  The air from the grove carried chill and smoke. Last but not least: the more you read Dovlatov, the more you appreciate his particular romanticism -- most frequently expressed in his obsession with his wife, Lena (pronounced “Yenna”).  In Pushkin Hills, the Dovlatov persona, Boris Alikhanov, has become confused about both his family life and his writer’s vocation. He drinks too much and his debts have piled up, so he escapes to the Pushkin Hills Preserve, where he works as a tour guide, paying (humorously false) homage to the great poet Alexander Pushkin for the benefit of pilgrimaging tourists.  The place is a sort of island of misfits, replete with memorably eccentric characters (including a depressive tour guide whose storytelling is so robust that “tourists fainted from the strain”), and Boris begins to settle in nicely. But just as he begins to return to his writing, own up to his creditors, and detox from vodka, his wife (technically former wife, but it matters little), named Tatyana in this version of events, shows up. By “this version of events,” I refer to Dovlatov’s notable revisiting and revising, through his metafictions, of the story of how he met his wife; how they came to be married; and the ways in which her almost supernaturally unflappable temperament, and their life together, perplex him utterly.  Pushkin Hills offers yet another version of their relationship -- two others appear in “The Colonel Says I Love You” (from Ours) and “A Poplin Shirt” (from The Suitcase) -- in which they meet at an artist’s party.  Here’s how Boris tells it: Tatyana rose over my life like the dawn’s morning light.  That is, calmly, beautifully, without encouraging excessive emotions.  Excessive was only her indifference.  Her limitless indifference was comparable to a natural phenomenon. They leave the party together, she invites him up to her apartment, they talk, she serves wine. There was a pause, which in a situation like this could be fatal... As strange as it may seem, I was feeling something like love. Where did it come from?  From what pile of garbage?  From what depths of this wretched, miserable life?  In what empty, barren soil do these exotic flowers bloom?  Under the rays of which sun? Some art studios full of junk, vulgarly dressed young ladies… Guitar, vodka, pathetic dissidence...And suddenly -- dear God! -- love. Tatyana suggests they “just talk.”  Boris says, “In theory, it’s possible.  In practice -- not really.”  And then, we get: Then it was cramped, and there were words that were painful to think about in the morning...And that’s how it all began. And lasted ten years. In “A Poplin Shirt,” Lena appears on his doorstep as an election canvasser.  He invites her in for tea, then they go to the movies (neither feels like voting), and then off to meet some writers and eat dinner. Elena Borisovna astonished me by her docility.  Or not docility, exactly -- more a kind of indifference to the realities of life...Deciding that Mother was asleep by now, I turned home.  I didn’t even say, “Come with me,” to Elena Borisovna.  I didn’t even take her by the hand.  We simply found ourselves at home.  That was twenty years ago. And finally, in “The Colonel Says I Love You,” Lena appears in his life almost magically.  He wakes up in the middle of the night after a drunken evening and finds someone sleeping on his couch: “Who’s there?" “Suppose it’s Lena.” As it turns out, one of Dovlatov’s buddies had brought her to the communal apartment and then forgot about her.  Dovlatov showers, Lena gets dressed, they have breakfast.  Lena leaves, but first she says, “I’ll be here around six.”  She returns that evening; and she never leaves. In all three versions, his wife’s “limitless indifference” (also referred to as “extreme imperturbability”) puzzles him to the point of exasperation and sometimes rage.  But then there are moments, mysterious and ecstatic, like the “dear God!” revelation above, or in “A Poplin Shirt,” when he finds a picture of himself in her photo album: I suddenly realized the seriousness of everything.  If I was only now feeling this for the first time, then how much love had been lost over the long years? I didn’t have the strength to think it through.  I never knew that love could be so strong and so sharp. There is just one instance, a real-life event that is also repeatedly revisited in Dovlatov’s work, when his wife sheds her indifference: she decides that she and their daughter must emigrate to America.  In Pushkin Hills, when Tanya announces this to Boris, it undoes him. Boris drinks alone in his locked room for 11 days.  He begins to hallucinate; then runs out of money and booze; then pulls the blankets up over his head.  Finally Lena calls, from Austria, saying they are fine.  Boris asks if they will see each other again, to which she replies, “Yes...if you love us...” Dovlatov ended “The Colonel Says I Love You” with essentially the same exchange. And in both endings, both stories, the same rejoinder from Dovlatov:  “What has love got to do with it?  Love is for the young...It’s beyond love.  It’s fate...” Lena remains mysterious to both Dovlatov and to the reader. And yet the reiterations and re-explorations of her presence in his life speak to something as real as a jackdaw in the sky, an exotic flower, or even yellow sand stuck to a boot.  Lena keeps Dovlatov both honest and on his toes: “You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being...These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words...I’ve had enough.” (Pushkin Hills) Lena was not interested in my stories. I’m not even sure she had a clear idea of where I worked...My wife would just pick up the nearest book and read from wherever it opened.  That used to anger me.  Then I realized that she always ended up reading good book...(“A Poplin Shirt”) “To love publicly is obscene!” Dovlatov shouts at his colleague on the Preserve, who is needling him to explain why he loves Pushkin. And while Dovlatov does not attempt to “explain” love, his efforts to understand it -- not to mention the novel’s epigraph, To my wife, who was right -- evidence a singular and permanent homage to Lena. 5. Comparisons to Hemingway are not unfounded: Dovlatov was a big, burly man, dark-haired and mustachioed.  He was physically driven (a boxer in his younger years), a heavy drinker, a journalist.  Both served in the army and saw unimaginable violence.  “With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…,” Tanya says to Boris in their last argument before he heads for Pushkin Hills.  Boris claims to disdain Hemingway’s writing, and yet, among his very few possessions is “a picture of Hemingway.” [caption id="" align="alignright" width="98"] Hemingway.[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignright" width="102"] Dovlatov.[/caption] But the differences are marked: to my mind, those years in the prison camp -- where he confronted (and eventually recorded) the humanity he found in the darkest corners of existence, including his own -- along with his lifelong union with the imperturbable Lena, set him apart from the more unmoored Hemingway.  By the time he produced the work that brought him critical acclaim, Dovlatov’s moral center -- that is, his way of seeing and rendering human failure -- was fully developed: he knew what he was capable of, and he knew his limitations. He had a closeknit community in Russian American New York, and a family he did love.  Perhaps, like Boris, he wrestled with spectres of “unrecognized genius,” but he was also able to poke fun at the idea of genius itself, along with the rest of life’s disappointments and absurdities.  Hemingway grew darker and more tormented in later life; Dovlatov died young, of heart failure, but he wrote 12 books in the last 12 years of his life. A more apt comparison would be Chekhov, from whom some critics say the clarity and detachment of his narrative voice was descended. If Chekhov believed that “Man will become better when you show him what he is like,” Dovlatov was perhaps murkier on what “better” meant or looked like. Yet still he observed and rendered his fellow man with the same unflinching equanimity: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or will do, you are worth my attention, my consciousness, on the deepest spiritual level. And what has love got to do with it? In an interview at the Paris Review with Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine -- “Katya,” who beautifully translated Pushkin Hills -- she reveals: It had to be perfect. And my English is nowhere near my father’s use of the Russian. He honed his craft. He wrote slowly and painstakingly...It was a huge responsibility. I did not want to let Dad down. As for Lena, her mystique remains intact.  When asked what her mother thought of the translation, Katherine says: “She tells me she liked it. She thought it read well and was funny.”  You can just see Lena’s face: in Dovlatov’s words,  “untroubled as a dam,” serenely holding back the flood of lives lived.

Sergei Dovlatov, Funny Families, and That Tall Brown Fence

- | 11
This is going to have to be quick and dirty, because my library copy of Sergei Dovlatov’s Ours: A Russian Family Album is already five days overdue—already twice renewed, and with two holds requested (my sincere apologies, ye law-abiding library patrons!).  It is the single circulating copy at the New York Public Library. A search of two other library systems, a multi-county system upstate, and a major university, yielded just one copy, which is unavailable until February 2010, held by the university. At Amazon, used copies from partner sellers are going for $24.39 - $139.22, and the three new copies go for $83.99, $101.59, and $141.13.  There are no English translations of Dovlatov’s books currently available for preview on Google Books.  The English language hardcover was originally published by Weidenfield & Nicolson in 1989; shortly after, in 1991, W&F was acquired by Orion, who was later (1998) acquired by France’s Hachette Livre. Needless to say, the book is out of print. This is a terrible state of affairs. Dovlatov himself, whose literary success came so belated, and whose life and work were born of thwarted aspirations, dark comedy, and totalitarian absurdity, may have shrugged his shoulders: par for the course.  He was a great humorist, and if he were with us today (he died in 1990), he would certainly find it amusing that a copy of his slim, “trifle” of an autobiographical story collection could sell on the American market for over $100.  And yet, if you ask me, 100 bucks for a fresh, all-mine copy of Ours, might just be a bargain. Sergei Dovlatov was born in the Republic of Bashkiria in 1941 but spent most of his childhood and pre-émigré adult life in Leningrad (St. Petersburg).  He was a university flunky, worked as a prison guard in high-security camps for the Soviet Army, then eventually scraped together a living as a minor journalist in Leningrad and Estonia.  He failed to publish his creative work in Russia, but began to find an audience among Russians in the West beginning in 1976; after which, a period of intense harassment by Soviet authorities, including expulsion from the Union of Journalists, ensued.  In 1978, he emigrated to Forest Hills, NY.  He published 12 books in the US and Europe, including The Suitcase, The Zone, The Compromise, A Foreign Woman, and Ours.  His work was finally published and recognized in Russia following his death (after the fall of the Soviet Union).  The New Yorker published nine of his stories—one published as nonfiction—between 1981 and 1989, five of which are collected in Ours. Why is Dovlatov so little known or read in the West today?  Fiction Editor Deborah Triesman asked David Bezmogis this question on a New Yorker podcast. “I have no idea,” he said.  “It’s hard to understand these things.” Dovlatov couldn’t have said it better himself. Ours is composed of 13 stories, each about a different Dovlatov family member (the collection was published as fiction but is quite evidently based on Dovlatov’s real-life family). There is Grandpa Isaak, a Jew of enormous physical stature, who was mysteriously arrested for espionage and killed in a prison camp; Grandfather Stepan, an Armenian Georgian, who threw himself into a ravine; Dovlatov’s bastard cousin Boris, handsome and talented, who courted danger and whom “life turned into a criminal”; Uncle Leopold, a “hustler,” who disappeared from their lives for over 30 years before being rediscovered in Belgium. Mother and Father, an actress and a theatre director, “often quarreled,” and divorce when Dovlatov is eight years old.  And of course there is Lena (pronounced “Yenna”)—more on Lena later—Dovlatov’s wife, who emigrates with their daughter Katya years before Dovlatov joins them.  In the opening of the story that describes their courtship and marriage, the narrator Sergei Dovlatov tells us, “I emigrated to America dreaming of divorce.” Would you guess that Ours is essentially a comedy?  The humor is exhilarating, in a specific way that I find hard to describe.  It’s likely there is something that Russians who experienced the Stalinist and Soviet eras first-hand recognize as “Russian humor,” and as a Westerner I am just an enthusiastic tourist, smitten by an approach to the terrors and darkness of life that is both sharp and silly.  I suspect my receptiveness to Dovlatov is also related to a bit of miserable-family-memoir fatigue.  A quick perusal of the memoir section of a bookstore (McCourt, Karr, Walls, Burroughs, Pelzer, et alia—all fine and important writers, no argument there) might illustrate for you what I mean. Dovlatov has plenty to boo-hoo about.  Instead, Stalin appears as an unnamed throwaway understatement here and there (“Under dictators, people who stand out do not fare well”), major socio-political eras are summarized briskly (“The country was ruled by a bunch of nondescript, faceless leaders…On the other hand, father would point out, people were not being shot, or even imprisoned.  Well… yes, but not so often”), the “savageness” of Russia deflected from a story’s main focus by a line like, “I’m afraid I couldn’t explain it.  Dozens of books have been written about it.”  On the subject of his own arbitrary imprisonment, Dovlatov again deflects (“Then I was suddenly arrested and put in Kalyaevski prison.  I don’t much feel like writing about it in detail. I’ll say only this about it: I didn’t like being in jail”), in this case the story being about Mother, you see, not about Soviet repression; about, in particular, her “ethical sense of spelling” (she was a copyeditor), her cheerleading when he finally became published, and about how “we’ll never part.” But I was telling you about Dovlatov’s comic talents.  The thing about laughter is that it is most real, most soul-cleansing and invigorating, when it begins and ends in tears.  “Ka-a-kem!” Grandfather Stepan shouts at his relatives for trying to convince him to leave his own home because of an earthquake warning.  “I crap on you!”  Does anyone else think that this is the most hilarious thing ever to shout at your relatives moments before a devastating earthquake?  After the quake passes, hundreds of buildings collapsed and the water supply destroyed, Stepan’s wife finds him sitting in his armchair amid the rubble and laments, “The Lord has left us without a roof!”  Stepan’s response?  “‘Eh-eh.’  Then he counted the children.” And then there's this dialogue exchange, between Dovlatov and the German proprietor of a hotel in Austria, where Dovlatov and his mother await permission to enter the US as émigrés (the German speaks first): “Did you ever belong to the Party?” “No.  In my opinion, the Party should consist of one person.” “That’s the truth.  What about the Young Communist League?” “Yes.  That happens automatically.” “I understand.  How do you like the West? “After prison I like everything.” “My father was arrested in 1940.  He called Hitler ‘das braunes Schwein.’” “Was he a Communist?” “No… He wasn’t a Commie.  He wasn’t even red.  He just stood out.  He was an educated man.  He knew Latin.  Do you know Latin?” “No.” “Neither do I.  Pity.  And my children won’t know it either, which is a pity.  I suspect Latin and Rod Stewart don’t go together.” “Who is Rod Stewart?” “A madman with a guitar.  Would you like a glass of vodka?” “I would.” “I’ll bring some sandwiches.” “Not essential.” “You’re right.” Also entertaining are Dovlatov’s wry self-deprecations regarding the writer’s vocation.  “Do you have any sort of profession?” Uncle Leopold, the long-lost rich businessman in Belgium, asks.  With characteristic unconviction, he replies, “Mainly I’m a writer.  I write.”  Relating his mother’s history as an actress, he writes: “She chose to enter the theater institute.  I myself think it was the wrong choice.  Generally speaking, one should avoid the artistic professions.”  Recounting the first writing competition he ever won, he says of the two co-winners: “In his more mature years, Lenya Dyatilov took to drink.  Makarov became a translator of the languages of the Komi people.”  Then, “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is.” There is the story about Glasha, the family’s fox terrier, who went off with a family acquaintance into the Siberian forest for a few months to be trained as a hunting dog, and about whom Dovlatov’s mother eventually says, “It’s boring without Glasha here.  There’s nobody to talk to.”  Glasha turns out to be a “born nonconformist” and thus makes the journey with Dovlatov and his mother to New York, where it becomes evident that she has “little talent for democracy,” and is “loaded with neuroses.  The sexual revolution never touched her.  A typical middle-aged woman émigré from Russia.” It’s not all fun and games, of course.  Again, we understand better than we ever have as we read Ours that the heart of the best literary comedy is tragedy.  Aunt Mara, a well-known literary editor, was privy to the ugly undersides of many famous Russian writers—political betrayals, spousal violence, felonious historical revisionism, petty crime.  “My aunt knew a great many literary anecdotes… But what my aunt remembered for the most part were the humorous instances.  I don’t fault her for this.  Our memory is selective, like a ballot box.” In the collection’s most explicitly political story, “Uncle Aron,” we get “the history of the Soviet Union itself.”  Dovlatov’s mother’s younger brother switches loyalties and affiliations like Facebook profile pictures—first adoring Stalin, then becoming infatuated with Stalin’s successor Georgi Malenkov, then Nikolai Bulganin, then Krushchev.  Eventually, he grows weary of disappointment and thwarted adoration, so he settles on Lenin, since he “had died long before and could not be removed from power…This meant the love could not decline in value.” Dovlatov quarrels often with his uncle, over the brilliance and/or idiocy of communism, until Uncle Aron falls ill, and in a fever of despair says to his nephew: “Do you know what torments me?  When we lived in Novorossisk there was a fence—a tall brown fence—near our house.  I walked by that fence every day.  And I don’t know what was behind it.  I never asked.  I didn’t think it was important.  How senselessly and stupidly I’ve lived my life!”  Uncle Aron gets well again, but then gets sick, then gets well again; the two continue to quarrel. “I was very attached to him,” Dovlatov writes. Uncle Aron eventually grows old: “Then my uncle actually did die.  A pity, and that tall brown fence gives me no peace.”  Such a benign image, and yet it gives us no peace, either; we too are haunted by what's hidden in the quotidian, our failures of perception, our deadened curiosity. The penultimate story in Ours, and arguably its emotional center, is the story about Dovlatov’s wife Lena, “The Colonel Says I Love You.”  It’s the only story not named for its main character, and once you’ve read it, you’ll recognize that it couldn’t be any other way; that the character Lena is so enigmatic, so compellingly unknowable, that to call the story “Lena” would be as flat and off-pitch as calling Ours, simply, “funny.” But it is funny.  And God knows we need funny, real funny, heartbreaking after-prison-I-like-everything funny.  In defense of my habit of staying up late for Craig Ferguson, I found myself saying to my sleep-deprived life mate (it’s a studio apartment), as authoritatively as if I held an M.D. in funny, “You have to laugh out loud, from your lower belly, at least once a day.”  Coming around again to the question of why Dovlatov is so little read today, David Bezmogis could only offer further perplexity: “He is so current, if we look at things that are popular now… my God, if he were published today, he’d be on the bestseller list, like… the Russian David Sedaris.” Godspeed in claiming your copy of Ours.  Hurry, while supplies last.
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