2018 was my year of reading for #resistance. I’m grateful that there were so many amazing books that nourished my soul in more ways than one—I needed artistry to give me beauty, I needed social consciousness to give me fire, and I needed the innovations in craft and storytelling to inspire my own writing.
I started off reading Tayari Jones’s masterpiece, An American Marriage, which explores the effects of racism in the American “justice” system on a young African-American couple’s relationship after the husband is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. The novel isn’t just politically relevant; it’s also beautiful in its telling of the love story of Celestial and Roy. The emotional repercussions of Roy’s incarceration had me crying the last 100 pages.
Another deeply inspiring work was Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, about “urban Indians” gathering for a pow wow in Oakland, California. This novel has it all—great characters, compelling plot, lyrical language, and innovative storytelling that made my heart race. It also shows the way U.S. government policy, symbols, and even popular culture have worked to erase Native Americans. This innovative novel fights that erasure in indelible ways.
There were a number of exciting debuts by Asian-American writers, including first novels by R.O. Kwon and Vanessa Hua. Kwon’s The Incendiaries uses innovative jumps in point of view to tell the story of religious extremists who turn to terrorism—that is, a fundamentalist North Korean-backed Christian cult that bombs an abortion clinic. And Hua’s novel A River of Stars puts human faces to headlines about “birth tourism” and anchor babies. Hua’s deeply empathetic storytelling kept me turning the pages.
I was inspired, too, by poets, including Julian David Randall, whose debut collection, Refuse, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. His poems show empathy and fire from the point of view of a queer Black Latinx man making his way in the world. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s fourth collection Oceanic left me breathless reading her love songs for Earth’s many creatures. I also reread Tanaya Winder’s Words Like Love, which addresses with fire and fury and, yes, even love, the poet’s grappling with cultural loss and attempts at reconstruction of her multi-tribe Indigenous heritage. Poet Norman Antonio Zelaya’s debut short story collection, Orlando and Other Stories, offers resistance in the face of gentrification in the Mission district of San Francisco with prose that echoes the voices of the uncles and “old heads” and other Nicaraguan-American protagonists of Zelaya’s world.
Memoirists and essayists gave me hope and words for resistance. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel packed equal measures of historical heft and wit. The beauty of the sentences in Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries took my breath away. Poet Camille T. Dungy’s first essay collection, Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, delves into the fears and joys of an African-American woman adjusting to motherhood with language that sings. And I reread Luis Alberto Urrea’s searing memoir, Nobody’s Son, which offers a welcome look at hybridity in the United States—from families and blood lines to the very language we speak.
Meanwhile, I found much to savor in speculative fiction. For example, Nona Caspers’s novel The Fifth Woman uses the tropes of spec fic to highlight the grieving process of a young queer woman in San Francisco mourning the loss of her partner. In precise and glowing prose, Caspers describes mysteriously animated shadow dogs, bosses who disappear or hide under desks, and a gathering of the dead at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut short story collection, Friday Black, blew me away with its trenchant depictions of racist and capitalist-inspired violence. There are many standout stories, from “Zimmer Land” where a black employee of an amusement park faces patrons who kill virtually to the horrors of the titular story in which a clerk faces zombie-like patrons infected with a virus that makes them ravenous for sales.
Finally, I devoured all three volumes of Liu Cixin’s science fiction epic, Three Body Trilogy (translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen), which imagines the many ways that humanity might be destroyed, destroy ourselves, or pull back from the brink of galactic destruction. The books are filled with examples of human folly and treachery as well as hope and rebirth. The imagery in the last part of the third volume is stunning, but I can’t even mention examples without giving away major spoilers.
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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. (“Phew, it’s a hot one,” etc.) Find more August titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua: A factory worker named Scarlett Chen is having an affair with Yeung—her boss—when her life is suddenly turned upside down. After she becomes pregnant with Yeung’s son, Scarlett is sent to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles so that the child will be born with the privileges of American citizenship. Distressed at her isolation, Scarlett flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with a teenage stowaway named Daisy. Together, they disappear into a community of immigrants that remains hidden to most Americans. While they strive for their version of the American dream, Yeung will do anything to secure his son’s future. In a time when immigration policy has returned to the center of our national politics, Bay Area author Vanessa Hua delivers a book that explores the motivations, fears, and aspirations that drive people to migrate. (Ismail)
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga: Set in Zimbabwe, this novel follows Tambudzai—the protagonist of Dangarembga’s previous novel, Nervous Conditions–as she navigates her position as a schoolteacher, with traumatic results. Kirkus calls this “a difficult but ultimately rewarding meditation on the tolls that capitalism and misogyny take on a fledgling nation’s soul.” (Lydia)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft): The 116 vignettes that make up this collection have been called digressive, discursive, and speculative. My adjectives: disarming and wonderfully encouraging. Whether telling the story of the trip that brought Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw or of a euthanasia pact between two sweethearts, Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018. (Il’ja)
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: Kim, a Columbia MFA graduate and contributing editor of Apogee Journal, is drawing rave advance praise for her debut novel. If You Leave Me is a family saga and romance set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Though a historical drama, its concerns—including mental illness and refugee life—could not be more timely. (Adam)
Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden: On the heels of her American Book Award- and NAACP Image Award-winning novel The Book of Harlan, McFadden’s 10th novel, Praise Song for theButterflies, gives us the story of Abeo, a privileged 9-year-old girl in West Africa who is sacrificed by her family into a brutal life of ritual servitude to atone for the father’s sins. Fifteen years later, Abeo is freed and must learn how to heal and live again. A difficult story that, according to Kirkus, McFadden takes on with “riveting prose” that “keeps the reader turning pages.” (Sonya)
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: When Clare arrives in Havana, she is surprised to find her husband, Richard, standing in a white linen suit outside a museum (surprised, because she thought Richard was dead). The search for answers sends Clare on a surreal journey; the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Her role in Richard’s death and reappearance comes to light in the streets of Havana, her memories of her marriage, and her childhood in Florida. Lauren Groff praises the novel as “artfully fractured, slim and singular.” (Claire)
The Devoted by Blair Hurley: Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Hurley’s debut explores the complex relationship between a young woman and her Buddhist teacher. Publishers Weekly writes, “this thoughtful novel carefully untangles the often knotty interconnection between romantic and religious love, revealing the dangers inherent in each without denying their value.” (Lydia)
Severance by Ling Ma: In this funny, frightening, and touching debut, office drone Candace is one of only a few New Yorkers to survive a plague that’s leveled the city. She joins a group, led by IT guru Bob, in search of the Facility, where they can start society anew. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch. (Adam)
Night Soil by Dale Peck: Author and critic Dale Peck has made a career out of telling stories about growing up queer; with Night Soil, he might have finally hit upon his most interesting and well-executed iteration of that story since his 1993 debut. The novel follows Judas Stammers, an eloquently foul-mouthed and compulsively horny heir to a Southern mining fortune, and his mother Dixie, a reclusive artist famous for making technically perfect pots. Living in the shadow of the Academy that their ancestor Marcus Stammers founded in order to educate—and exploit—his former slaves, Judas and Dixie must confront the history of their family’s complicity in slavery and environmental degradation. This is a hilarious, thought-provoking, and lush novel about art’s entanglement with America’s original sin. (Ismail)
How Are You Going to Save Yourself by JM Holmes: A collection of stories featuring four young men living in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In a starred review, Kirkus writes “these stories of young working-class black men coming into their dubious inheritances mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling.” Read Holmes discuss one of the stories at the The Paris Review here. (Lydia)
Cherry by Nico Walker: A medic in the Iraq War returns home to America to his wife, residual trauma, and a burgeoning drug addiction. The novel was written while the author was doing time in federal prison for armed robbery. New York Magazine says “it was probably inevitable that a book like this would emerge from these twin scourges on American life abroad and at home, but it wasn’t necessary that it be a novel of such searing beauty as Cherry.” (Lydia)
The Fifth Woman by Nona Caspers: A novel in stories following the aftermath of a death of a woman named Michelle in a bike accident. Kirkus says the book “tracks grief through all its painful stages, from the surreal collapse of memory to the bittersweet tug of letting go.” (Lydia)
Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine by Kevin Wilson: The first story collection in a decade from the author of The Family Fang, Kirkus says “Wilson triumphantly returns to short stories… ruminating once more on grief, adolescence, and what it means to be a family… Evocative, compassionate, and exquisitely composed stories about the human condition.”(Lydia)
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher: The sequel to Dear Committee Members, a novel that swiftly achieved status among academics, Schumacher’s latest tracks the foibles of the Chair of English at Payne University. In a starred review, Kirkus called it “A witty but kindhearted academic satire that oscillates between genuine compassion and scathing mockery with admirable dexterity.” (Lydia)
Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: After the success of his six-part autofiction project My Struggle, Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard embarked on a new project: a quartet of memoiristic reflections on the seasons. Knausgaard wraps up the quartet with Summer, an intensely observed meditation on the Swedish countryside that the author has made a home in with his family. (Ismail)
French Exit by Patrick deWitt: In this new novel by Patrick deWitt, bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, a widow and her son try to escape their problems (scandal, financial ruin, etc.) by fleeing to Paris. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a bright, original yarn with a surprising twist,” and Maria Semple says it’s her favorite deWitt novel yet, its dialogue “dizzyingly good.” According to Andrew Sean Greer the novel is “brilliant, addictive, funny and wise.” (Edan)
Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus: If you’ve read Marcus before, you know what you’re in for: a set of bizarre stories that are simultaneously terrifying and hysterical, fantastical and discomfortingly realistic. For example, in “The Grow-Light Blues,” which appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, a corporate employee tests a new nutrition supplement—the light from his computer screen. The results are not pleasant. With plots that seem like those of Black Mirror, Marcus presents dystopian futures that are all the more frightening because they seem possible. (Ismail)
Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey: Called “a dark star of a book, glittering with mordant humor and astonishing, seductive strangeness and grace” by Lauren Groff, this is the story of Pony Darlene Fontaine. She lives in “the territory,” a sinister town run on a scarce economic resource. One night, Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, bolts barefoot into cold of the wider world—a place where the townspeople have never been. Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a “word-for-word triumph.” (Claire)
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Every news event, policy decision, and cultural moment now draws parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s Gilead, we’re in Gilead,” Twitter tells us, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” But Shah’s novel is both explicitly connected to Atwood’s marvel and working to expand it by imagining what a secular, Middle Eastern Gilead might look like. In a near future, war and disease have wiped out the women of what is currently Pakistan and Iran, and those who survived are now the forced breeders of a dystopian society. But there’s resistance, secrets, and risk; the result, Kirkus writes, is a kind of spy-genre-cum-soap-opera update on a modern classic. (Kaulie)
Open Me by Lisa Locascio: If you’re looking for a sexy and smart summer read, look no further. In this erotic coming-of-age story, Lisa Locascio explores the female body, politics, and desire. Aimee Bender writes that this debut novel is “a kind of love letter to the female body and all its power and visceral complexity. This is a story of many important layers, but one of the many reasons it remains distinct in my mind is because of its honesty about our complicated, yearning physical selves.” (Zoë)
Housegirl by Michael Donkor: In this debut novel, Donkor follows three Ghanaian girls: Belinda, the obedient; Mary, the irrepressible; and Amma, the rebel. For her part, Amma has had about enough of the tight-laced life in London that her parents want for her and begins to balk at the strictures of British life. But when she is brought to London to provide a proper in-house example for willful Amma, sensible Belinda begins to experience a cultural dissociation that threatens her sense of self as nothing before ever had. (Il’ja)