January Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock [NF] I first learned about the life and work of seventeenth-century writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish in Regan Penaluna's stellar study of women thinkers, and I've been dying to read a biography of Cavendish ever since. And I'm in luck (all of us are) thanks to biographer Peacock. A proto-feminist, science-fiction pioneer, and divisive public figure, Cavendish is endlessly fascinating, and Peacock's debut gives her the rigorous, in-depth treatment that she deserves. —Sophia M. Stewart Nonfiction by Julie Myerson [F] A blurb from Rachel Cusk is just about all it takes to get me excited about a book, so when I saw that Cusk called Myerson's latest novel "glitteringly painful," "steady and clear," and "the book [Myerson] was intended to write," I was sold. A tale of art, addiction, and the ties that bind mothers and daughters, Nonfiction promises to devastate. —SMS Immediacy by Anna Kornbluh [NF] Did the pandemic kill postmodernism? And what comes after the end of history? University of Illinois–Chicago professor Kornbluh dubs our contemporary style “immediacy,” characterized by same-day delivery, bingeable multimedia, and real-time news updates that spin the economic flywheel ever faster. Kornbluh names this state of emergence and emergency, and suggests potential off-ramps in the direction of calm reflection, measured art-making, and, just maybe, collective wisdom. —Nathalie op de Beeck Slow Down by Kōhei Saitō, tr. Brian Bergstrom [NF] In this internationally-bestselling treatise, Japanese philosopher Saitō argues against "sustainable growth" in favor of degrowth—the slowing of economic activity—which he sees at the only way to address the twinned crises of inequality and climate change. Saitō's proposal is simple, salient, and adapts Marx for the modern day. —SMS Relic by Ed Simon [NF] From Millions alum Simon comes a slim study of the objects we imbue with religious (or quasi-religious) meaning, from the bone of a Catholic martyr to Jimi Hendrix's guitar pick. Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series never misses, and Relic is one of the series' most unconventional—and compelling—entries yet. —SMS Filterworld by Kyle Chayka [NF] The outline of reality has become increasingly blurry as the real world melds with the digital one, becoming what Chayka, staff writer at the New Yorker, calls “Filterworld,” a society built on a foundation of ever-evolving algorithms. In his book of the same name, Chayka calls out the all-powerful algorithm, which he argues is the driving force behind current and accelerating trends in art, consumption, and ethics. —Daniella Fishman Portrait of a Body by Julie Delporte, tr. Helge Dascher and Karen Houle [NF] A gripping narrative of coming to terms with her queer identity, Canadian cartoonist Delporte's latest graphic memoir—praised by Eileen Myles and Fariha Róisín—sees Delporte learning to embrace herself in both physical and metaphysical ways. Dreamy colored pencil illustrations and gently flowing storytelling capture the beauty, trauma, and ultimate tranquility that comes with learning to exist on your own terms. —DF Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino [F] In Bertino’s latest novel, following 2020's Parakeet, the launch of Voyager 1 into space coincides with the birth of Adina Giorno, who, much like the solitary satellite, is in search of something she can't yet see. As a child, she senses that she is not of this world and struggles to make a life for herself amid the drudgery of human existence. Playing on Adina's alienness as both a metaphor and a reality, Bertino asks, “Are we really alone?” —DF The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin [NF] Martin returns ablaze in her latest memoir, pitched as "H Is for Hawk meets Joan Didion in the Pyrocene." Following an anguishing chronic pain diagnosis, Martin attempts to reconnect with her beloved Northern California wilderness in order to escape not only her deteriorating health but a deteriorating world, which has ignited around her in the worst fire season California has ever seen. Devastating and ambivalent, The Last Fire Season tries to sift through the ashes of climate change. —DF The Furies by Elizabeth Flock [NF] Violence by women—its role, its potential righteousness—is the focus of Flock's latest. Following the real-life cases of a young rape survivor in Alabama, a predator-punishing gang leader in India, and an anti-ISIS militia fighter in Syria, Flock considers how women have used lethal force as a means to power, safety, and freedom amid misogynistic threats and oppression. Is violence ever the answer? Flock looks to three parallel lives for guidance. —SMS Imagining the Method by Justin Owen Rawlins [NF] University of Tulsa professor Rawlins demystifies that most celebrated (and controversial) acting school, challenging our contemporary conceptions of screen performance. I was sold the moment I saw Rawlins received the ultimate stamp of approval from Isaac Butler, author of the definitive account of method acting: "If you care about the evolution of twentieth-century screen performance, you should read this book." —SMS We Are Free to Change the World by Lyndsey Stonebridge [NF] Famed twentieth-century philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote passionately about power, freedom, and inequality against the backdrop of fascism—a project as relevant today as it ever was. Stonebridge, a professor of humanities and human rights, revisits the lessons of Arendt's writings and applies them to the twenty-first century, creating a dialogue between past, present, and future. —DF Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea by C.D. Rose [F] In these 19 short stories, Rose meditates on philosophy, photography, and literature. Blending erudition and entertainment, Rose's fables follow writers, teachers, and artists through various situations—and in a standout story, imagines how St. Augustine would fare on Twitter. —DF Black Women Taught Us by Jenn M. Jackson [NF] Jackson's debut book foregrounds the work of Black feminist writers and leaders—from Ida B. Wells and Harriet Jacobs to Shirley Chisholm and bell hooks—throughout American history, revealing the centuries-long role that Black women have played in imagining and fighting for a more just society. Imani Perry calls Jackson "a beautiful writer and excellent scholar." —SMS The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James [F] Pitched as Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel García Márquez (yeesh!), The Bullet Swallower is the second novel (after Mona at Sea) from Elizabeth Gonzalez James, who also wrote the weird and wonderful essay/play Five Conversations About Peter Sellers. Infusing the spaghetti western with magical realism, the novel follows a Mexican bandito on a cosmic journey generations in the making. —SMS Last Acts by Alexander Sammartino [F] In Sammartino's debut novel, the owner of a gun store hatches a plan to resurrect his struggling business following his son's near-death experience. George Saunders, Mary Karr, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah have all heaped on praise, and Jenny Offill finds it "hard to believe Last Acts is a first novel." —SMS I Sing to Use the Waiting by Zachary Pace [NF] Pace fuses memoir and criticism (my favorite combination) to explore the emotional and cultural impacts of women singers across time, from Cat Power and Rihanna to Kim Gordon and Whitney Houston. A queer coming-of-age story that centers the power of music and the legacies of women artists. —SMS Dead in Long Beach, California by Venita Blackburn [F] Blackburn, the author of the stellar story collections Black Jesus and Other Superheroes and How to Wrestle a Girl, delivers a debut novel about storytelling and unreality, centering on a successful novelist who gets hold of her dead brother's phone—and starts answering texts as him. Kristen Arnett calls this one "a bonafide knockout" that "rewired my brain." —SMS Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here by Jonathan Blitzer [N] New Yorker staff writer Blitzer traces the harrowing history of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, foregrounding the stories of Central American migrants whose lives have been threatened and upended by political tumult. A nuanced, layered, and rigorously reported portrait that Patrick Radden Keefe hails as "extraordinary." —SMS The Survivors of the Clotilda by Hannah Durkin [NF] Durkin, a British historian, explores the lives of 103 Africans who were kidnapped and transported on the last slave ship to dock in the U.S., shortly before the Civil War began in 1861. Many of these captives were children, and thus lived their lives against a dramatic backdrop, from the Civil War all the way up to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. What these people experienced and how they prevailed should intrigue anybody interested in learning more about our nation’s darkest chapter. —Claire Kirch Your Utopia by Bora Chung, tr. Anton Hur [F] Following her acclaimed sophomore novel The Cursed Bunny, Chung returns with more tales from the realm of the uncanny. Covering everything from unruly AI to the quest for immortality to the environmental destruction caused by capitalism, Chung’s story collection promises more of the mystifying, horror-filled goodness that has become her calling card. —DF The Rebel's Clinic by Adam Shatz [NF] Frantz Fanon—political philosopher, psychiatrist, and author of the trailblazing Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth—is one of the most important writers and thinkers of the postcolonial era, and his work continues to inform contemporary thinking on race, capitalism, and power. In this sprawling biography, Shatz affirms Fanon's place as a towering intellect and groundbreaking activist. —SMS You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer [F] Enrigue's latest novel, following Sudden Death, reimagines the fateful 1519 invasion of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. With exuberant style, and in a lively translation by Wimmer, Enrigue brings the Aztec capital and the emperor Moctezuma to vibrant life—and rewrites their destinies. —SMS February Love Novel by Ivana Sajko, tr. by Mima Simić [F] Croatian literature may lag behind its Russian, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian counterparts—roughly in that order—as far as stateside recognition goes, but we all make mistakes. Just like couples do in love and under capitalism. “A war between kitchen and bedroom,” as the liner notes read, would have been enough to sell me, but that war’s combatants, “an unemployed Dante scholar” and “a passable actress,” really sealed the deal. —John H. Maher The Unforgivable by Cristina Campo, tr. Alex Andriesse [NF] This new NYRB edition, introduced by Kathryn Davis, brings together all of the essays Campo published in her lifetime, plus a selection of additional essays and autofiction. The result is a robust introduction to a stylish—but largely forgotten—Italian writer whose "creativity was a vocation in the truest sense," per Jhumpa Lahiri. —SMS Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti [NF] Last year, I was enraptured by Heti's limited-run New York Times newsletter in which she alphabetized sentences from 10 years' worth of her diary entries—and this year, we can finally enjoy the sublime results of that experiment in book form. This is my favorite work of Heti's, full stop. —SMS Dinner on Monster Island by Tania De Rozario [NF] Blending film criticism, social commentary, and personal narrative, De Rozario (most recently the author of the Lambda Literary Award–nominated And the Walls Came Crumbling Down) explores her experience growing up queer, brown, and fat in Singapore, from suffering through a "gay-exorcism" to finding solace in horror films like Carrie. —SMS Wrong Norma by Anne Carson [NF] Everyone shut up—Anne Carson is speaking! This glistening new collection of drawings and musings from Carson is her first original work since the 2016 poetry collection Float. In Carson's own words, the collection touches on such disparate topics (she stresses they are "not linked") as Joseph Conrad, Roget's Thesaurus, snow, Guantánamo, and "my Dad." —DF Self-Portraits: Stories by Osamu Dazai, tr. Ralph McCarthy [F] Japanese writer Dazai had quite the moment in 2023, and that moment looks likely to continue into the new year. Self-Portraits is a collection of short autofiction in the signature melancholic cadence which so many Anglophone readers have come to love. Meditating on themes of hypocrisy, irony, nihilism—all with a touch of self-deprecating humor—Dazai’s work will either pull you out of a deep depression or crack your rose-colored glasses; there is no in-between. —DF Imagination by Ruha Benjamin [NF] Visionary imagination is essential for justice and a sustainable future, argues Benjamin, a Princeton professor of African American studies and founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. In her treatise, she reminds readers of the human capacity for creativity, and she believes failures of imagination that lead to inequity can be remedied. In place of quasi-utopian gambles that widen wealth gaps and prop up the surveillance state, Benjamin recommends dreaming collective and anti-racist social arrangements into being—a message to galvanize readers of adrienne marie brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. —SMS Literary Theory for Robots by Dennis Yi Tenen [NF] Artificial intelligence and machine-generated writing are nothing new, and perhaps nothing to fear, argues Tenen, a Columbia English professor and former software engineer. Traveling through time and across the world, Tenen reveals the labor and collaboration behind AI, complicating the knee-jerk (and, frankly, well-founded!) reactions many of us have to programs like ChatGPT. —SMS A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh [F] Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone, but what he considered his life's work was the education of deaf children—specifically, the harmful practice of oralism, or the suppression of sign language. Marsh's wonderful debut novel unearths this little-known history and follows a deaf pupil of Bell's as she questions his teachings and reclaims her voice. —SMS Get the Picture by Bianca Bosker [NF] Journalist Bosker, who took readers behind the scenes with oenophiles in her 2017 Cork Dork, turns to avid artists, collectors, and curators for this sensory deep dive. Bosker relies on experiential reporting, and her quest to understand the human passion for visual art finds her apprenticing with creators, schmoozing with galleristas, and minding canonical pieces as a museum guard. —NodB Columbo by Amelie Hastie [NF] Columbo experienced something of a renaissance during the pandemic, with a new generation falling for the rugged, irresistible charms of Peter Falk. Hastie revisits the series, a staple of 70s-era TV, with refreshing rigor and appreciation, tackling questions of stardom, authorship, and the role of television in the process. —SMS Acts of Forgiveness by Maura Cheeks [F] Cheeks's debut novel sounds amazing and so au courant. A woman is elected U.S. president and promises Black Americans that they will receive reparations if they can prove they are descended from slaves. You’d think people would jump on achieving some social justice in the form of cold cash, right? Not Willie Revel’s family, who’d rather she not delve into the family history. This promises to be a provocative read on how the past really isn’t past, no matter how much you run from it. —CK The Sentence by Matthew Baker [F] I minored in Spanish linguistics in college and, as a result, came to love that most useless and rewarding of syntactic exercises, diagramming sentences. So I'm very excited to read Baker's The Sentence, a graphic novel set in an alternate America and comprising single, 6,732-word sentence, diagrammed in full. Syntax wonks, assemble! —SMS Neighbors by Diane Oliver [F] Before her untimely death in 1966 at the age of 22, Oliver wrote stories of race and racism in Jim Crow America characterized by what Dawnie Walton calls "audacity, wit, and wisdom beyond her years." Only four of the 14 stories in Neighbors were published in Oliver's lifetime, and Jamel Brinkley calls the publication of her posthumous debut collection "an important event in African American and American letters." —SMS The Weird Sister Collection by Marisa Crawford [NF] Essayist, poet, and All Our Pretty Songs podcaster Crawford founded the Weird Sister blog in 2014, covering books and pop culture from contemporary young feminists’ and queer perspectives. The now-defunct blog offered literary reviews, Q&As with indie authors, and think pieces on film and music. For this collection, whose foreword comes from Michelle Tea, Crawford gathers favorite pieces from contributors, plus original work with a Weird Sister edge. —NodB Smoke and Ashes by Amitav Ghosh [NF] As research for his Ibis trilogy, Ghosh mapped the opium trade around the world and across centuries. This global and personal history revisits the British Empire’s dependence on Indian opium as a trade good, and how the cultivation of and profits from opium shaped today’s global economy. In his nonfiction The Great Derangement, Ghosh employs personal anecdotes to make sense of larger-scale developments, and Smoke and Ashes promises to connect his own family and identity to today’s corporate, institutional, and environmental realities. —NodB Private Equity by Carrie Sun [NF] In her debut memoir, Sun recounts her time on Wall Street, where she worked as an assistant to a billionaire hedge-fund founder and was forced to rethink everything she thought she knew about work, money, sacrifice, and living a meaningful life. This one sounds like a great read for fans of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley (e.g. me). —SMS I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both by Mariah Stovall [F] When Khaki Oliver receives a letter from her estranged former best friend, she isn’t ready for the onslaught of memories that soon cause her to unravel. A Black Bildungsroman about friendship, fandom, and sanity, I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both is an unflinching look at "what it means to be young in a hard, and nonetheless beautiful, world," per Vauhini Vara. —Liv Albright Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan [NF] I know from personal experience that anything published by Graywolf Press is going to open my eyes and make me look at the world in a completely different way, so I have high expectations for Sloan’s essays. In this clever collection, a Black creative reflects upon race, art, and pedagogy, and how they relate to one’s life in this crazy country of ours during the time period between the 2016 election and the onset of the pandemic. —CK Language City by Ross Perlin [NF] Perlin travels throughout the most linguistically diverse city on the planet—New York—to chronicle the sounds and speakers of six endangered languages before they die out. A linguist and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, Perlin argues for the importance of little-known languages and celebrates the panoply of languages that exists in New York City. —SMS Monkey Grip by Helen Garner [F] A tale as old as time and/or patriarchal sociocultural constructs: a debut novel by a woman is published and the critics don't appreciate it—until later, at least. This proto-autofictional 1977 novel is now considered a classic of Australian "grunge lit," but at the time, it divided critics, probably because it had depictions of drug addiction and sex in it. But Lauren Groff liked it enough to write a foreword, so perhaps the second time really is the charm. —JHM Ours by Phillip B. Williams [F] A conjuror wreaks magical havoc across plantations in antebellum Arkansas and sets up a Brigadoon for the enslaved people she frees before finding that even a mystic haven isn't truly safe from the horrors of the world. What a concept! And a flexible one to boot: if this isn't adapted as a TV series, it would work just as well as an RPG. —JHM Violent Faculties by Charlotte Elsby [F] A philosophy professor influenced by the Marquis de Sade designs a series of experiments to prove its relevance as a discipline, specifically with regard to life and death, a.k.a. Philip Zimbardo (Chopped and Screwed Remix): The Novel. If you ever trusted a philosophy professor with your inner self before—and you probably shouldn't have?—you probably won't after reading this. —JHM American Abductions by Mauro Javier Cárdenas [F] Plagued by data harvesting, constant surveillance, mass deportation, and incarceration, the society at the heart of Cárdenas's new novel is less speculative dystopia than realist reflection. Channeling Philp K. Dick and Samuel Delaney, Cárdenas imagines a society where Latin Americans are systematically expunged. Following the lives of two Columbian-American sisters, one who was deported and one who stayed in the U.S., American Abduction tells a new kind of immigrant story, suffused with mysticism and philosophical rigor. —DF Closures: Heterosexuality and the American Sitcom by Grace Lavery [NF] I took Lavery's class on heterosexuality and sitcoms as an undergrad, and I'm thrilled to see the course's teachings collected in book form. Lavery argues that since its inception the sitcom has depicted heterosexuality as constantly on the verge of collapse, only to be reconstituted at the end of each half-hour episode. A fascinating argument about the cultural project of straightness. —SMS Whiskey Tender by Deborah Taffa [NF] Almost a decade in the making, this memoir from Taffa details generations of Southwest Native history and the legacies of assimilationist efforts. Taffa—a citizen of the Quechan Nation and Laguna Pueblo tribe, and director of the MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts—was born on the California Yuma reservation and grew up in Navajo territory in New Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. She reflects on tribal identity and attitudes toward off-reservation education she learned from her parents’ and grandparents’ fraught formative experiences. —NodB Normal Women by Philippa Gregory [NF] This is exciting news for Anglophiles and history nerds like me: Philippa Gregory is moving from historical fiction (my guilty pleasure) about royal women and aristocrats in medieval and early modern England to focus on the lives of common women during that same time period, as gleaned from the scraps of information on them she has unearthed in various archives. I love history “from the bottom up” that puts women at the center, and Gregory is a compelling storyteller, so my expectations are high. —CK Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin, tr. Max Lawton [F] Upon its publication in 1999, Sorokin's sci-fi satire Blue Lard sparked protests across Russia. One aspect of it particularly rankled: the torrid, sexual affair it depicts between Stalin and Khruschev. All to say, the novel is bizarre, biting, and utterly irreverent. Translated into English for the first time by Lawton, Sorokin's masterwork is a must-read for anyone with an iconoclastic streak. —SMS Piglet by Lottie Hazell [F] Hazell's debut novel follows the eponymous Piglet, a successful cookbook editor identified only by her unfortunate childhood nickname, as she rethinks questions of ambition and appetite following her fiancé's betrayal. Per Marlowe Granados, Hazell writes the kind of "prose Nora Ephron would be proud of." —SMS Grief is for People by Sloane Crosley [NF] Crosley enlivens the grief memoir genre with the signature sense of humor that helped put her on the literary map. In Grief Is for People, she eulogizes the quirks and complexities of her friendship with Russell Perreault, former publicity director at Vintage Books, who died by suicide in 2019. Dani Shapiro hails Crosley’s memoir—her first full-length book of nonfiction—as “both a provocation and a balm to the soul.” —LA The Freaks Came Out to Write by Tricia Romano [NF] The freaks came out to write, and you better believe the freaks will come out in droves to read! In this history of the legendary alt-weekly the Village Voice, Romano (a former writer for the Voice) interviews some 200 members the paper’s most esteemed staff and subjects. A sweeping chronicle of the most exciting era in New York City journalism promises to galvanize burgeoning writers in the deflating age of digital media. —DF Burn Book by Kara Swisher [NF] Swisher has been reporting on the tech industry for 30 years, tracing its explosive growth from the dawn of the internet to the advent of AI. She's interviewed every tech titan alive and has chronicled their foibles and failures in excruciating detail. Her new book combines memoir and reportage to tell a comprehensive history of a troubled industry and its shortsighted leaders. —SMS Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange [F] Orange returns with a poignant multi-generational tale that follows the Bear Shield-Red Feather family as they struggle to combat racist violence. Picking up where Orange's hit debut novel, There There, left off, Wandering Stars explores memory, inheritance, and identity through the lens of Native American life and history. Per Louise Erdrich, “No one knows how to express tenderness and yearning like Tommy Orange." —LA March The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan [F] Callahan's debut novel follows a young artist as she faces sudden hearing loss, forcing to reevaluate her orientation to her senses, her art, and the world around her. Amina Cain, Moyra Davey, and Kate Zambreno are all fans (also a dream blunt rotation), with the latter recommending this one be "read alongside the novels of W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk, and Maria Gainza." —SMS The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft [F] When a group of translators arrive at the home of renowned novelist Irena Rey, they expect to get to work translating her latest book—instead, they get caught up in an all-consuming mystery. Irena vanishes shortly after the translators arrive, and as they search for clues to the author's disappearance, the group is swept up by isolation-fueled psychosis and obsession. A “mischievous and intellectually provocative” debut novel, per Megha Majumdar. —LA Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, tr. Heather Cleary [F] This isn’t your typical meet-cute. When two women—one grieving, the other a vampire, both of them alienated and yearning for more—cross paths in a Buenos Aires cemetery, romance blooms. Channelling Carmen Maria Machado and Anne Rice, Yuszczuk reimagines the vampire novel, with a distinctly Latin American feminist Gothic twist. —LA The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez [F] I'm a sucker for meticulously researched and well-written historical fiction, and this one—a sweeping story about the interconnected lives of the unsung people who lived and labored at the site of the Panama Canal—fits the bill. I heard Henríquez speak about this novel and her writing processes at a booksellers conference, and, like the 300 booksellers present, was impressed by her presentation and fascinated at the idea of such a sweeping tale set against a backdrop so larger-than-life and dramatic as the construction of the Panama Canal. —CK Bite Your Friends by Fernanda Eberstadt [NF] Melding memoir and history, Eberstadt's Bite Your Friends looks at the lives of saints, philosophers, and artists—including the author and her mother—whose abberant bodies became sites of subversion and rebellion. From Diogenes to Pussy Riot, Eberstadt asks what it means to put our bodies on the line, and how our bodies can liberate us. —SMS Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez [F] When Raquel Toro, an art history student, stumbles on the story of Anita de Monte, a once prominent artist from the '80s whose mysterious death cut short her meteoric rise, her world is turned upside down. Gonzalez's sophomore novel (after her hit debut Olga Dies Dreaming) toggles between the perspectives of Raquel and Anita (who is based on the late Ana Mendieta) to explore questions of power, justice, race, beauty, and art. Robert Jones, Jr. calls this one "rollicking, melodic, tender, and true—and oh so very wise." —LA My Heavenly Favorite by Lucas Rijneveld, tr. Michele Hutchison [F] Rijneveld, author of the International Booker Prize-winning novel The Discomfort of Evening, returns with a new take on the Lolita story, transpiring between a veterinarian and a farmer's daughter on the verge of adolescence. "This book unsettled me even as it made me laugh and gasp," gushes Brandon Taylor. "I'm in awe." Radiant by Brad Gooch [NF] Lauded biographer Gooch propels us through Keith Haring’s early days as an anonymous sidewalk chalk artist to his ascent as a vigilante muralist, pop-art savant, AIDS activist, and pop-culture icon. Fans of Haring's will not want to miss this definitive account of the artist's life, which Pulitzer-winner biographer Stacy Schiff calls "a keen-eyed, beautifully written biography, atmospheric, exuberant, and as radiant as they come." —DF The Riddles of the Sphinx by Anna Shechtman [NF] Sometimes you encounter a book that seems to have been written specifically for you; this was the feeling I had when I first saw the deal announcement for Shechtman's debut book back in January 2022. A feminist history of the crossword puzzle? Are you kidding me? I'm as passionate a cruciverbalist as I am a feminist, so you can imagine how ravenously I read this book. The Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the best books of 2024, hands down, and I can't wait for everyone else—puzzlers and laymen alike—to fall in love with it too. —SMS The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Drayluk [F] Kurkov is one of Ukraine's most celebrated novelists, and his latest book is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of WWI-era Kyiv. I'll admit what particularly excites me about The Silver Bone, though, is that it is translated by Dralyuk, who's one of the best literary translators working today (not to mention a superb writer, editor, and poet). In Drayluk's hands, Kurkov's signature humor and sparkling style come alive. —SMS Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls [NF] This multigenerational graphic memoir follows Hull, alongside her mother and grandmother, both of whom hail from China, across time and space as the delicate line between nature and nurture is strained by the forces of trauma, duty, and mental illness. Manjula Martin calls Feeding Ghosts “one of the best stories I’ve read about the tension between family, history, and self.” —DF It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over by Anne de Marcken [F] Haunting prose and a pithy crow guide readers through Marcken's novel of life after death. In a realm between reality and eternity, the undead traverse westward through their end-of-life highlight reel, dissecting memories, feelings, and devotions while slowly coming to terms with what it means to have lived once all that remains is love. Alexandra Kleeman admits that she "was absolute putty in this book's hands." —DF Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi [F] When I visited Prague, a year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech capital struck me as a magical place, where anything is possible, and Oyeyemi captures the essence of Prague in Parasol Against the Axe, the story of a woman who attends her estranged friend's bachelorette weekend in the city. A tale in which reality constantly shifts for the characters and there is a thin line between the factual and the imagined in their relationships, this is definitely my kind of a read. —CK Say Hello to My Little Friend by Jennine Capó Crucet [F] Crucet's latest novel centers on a failed Pitbull impersonator who embarks on a quest to turn himself into a modern-day Tony Montana—a quest that leads him to cross paths with Lolita, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquariam. Winking at both Scarface and Moby-Dick, Say Hello to My Little Friend is "a masterclass in pace and precision," per Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. —SMS But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu [F] Girl, a Malaysian-Australian who leaves home for the U.K. to study Sylvia Plath and write a postcolonial novel, finds herself unable to shake home—or to figure out what a "postcolonial novel" even is. Blurbs are untrustworthy, but anything blurbed by Brandon Taylor is almost certainly worth checking out. —JHM Wrong Is Not My Name by Erica N. Cardwell [NF] Cardwell blends memoir, criticism, and theory to place her own Künstlerroman in conversation with the work of Black visual artists like Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O'Grady, and Kara Walker. In interconnected essays, Cardwell celebrates the brilliant Black women who use art and storytelling to claim their place in the world. —SMS Great Expectations by Vinson Cunningham [F] A theater critic at the New Yorker, Cunningham is one of my favorite writers working today, so I was thrilled to learn of his debut novel, which cheekily steals its title from the Dickens classic. Following a young Black man as he works on a historic presidential campaign, Great Expectations tackles questions of politics, race, religion, and family with Cunningham's characteristic poise and insight. —SMS The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh [NF] In this slim volume, Throwing Muses frontwoman and singer-songwriter Hersh considers the future of her craft. Talking to friends and colleagues, visiting museums and acupuncturists, Hersh threads together eclectic perspectives on how songs get made and how the music industry can (and should) change. —SMS You Get What You Pay For by Morgan Parker [NF] Parker, a brilliant poet and author of the stellar There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, debuts as an essayist with this candid, keen-eyed collection about life as a Black woman in America. Casting her gaze both inward and onto popular culture, Parker sees everything and holds back nothing. —SMS Mother Doll by Katya Apekina [F] Following up her debut novel, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish, Apekina's Mother Doll follows Zhenia, an expectant mother adrift in Los Angeles whose world is rocked by a strange call from a psychic medium with a message from Zhenia's Russian Revolutionary great-grandmother. Elif Batuman calls this one "a rare achivement." —SMS Solidarity by Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix [NF] What does "solidarity" mean in a stratified society and fractured world? Organizers and activists Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor look at the history of the concept—from its origins in Ancient Rome to its invocation during the Black Live Matter movement—to envision a future in which calls for solidarity can produce tangible political change. —SMS The Manicurist's Daughter by Susan Lieu [NF] After her mother, a refugee of the Vietnam war and the owner of two nail salons, dies from a botched cosmetic surgery, Lieu goes looking for answers about her mother's mysterious life and untimely death. Springing from her hit one-woman show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, Lieu's debut memoir explores immigration, beauty, and the American Dream. —SMS Through the Night Like a Snake ed. Sarah Coolidge [F] There's no horror quite like Latin American horror, as any revering reader of Cristina Rivera Garza—is there any other kind?—could tell you. Two Lines Press consistently puts out some of the best literature in translation that one can come by in the U.S., and this story collection looks like another banger. —JHM Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel [F] Bullwinkel's debut collection, Belly Up, was a canful of the uncanny. Her debut novel, on the other hand, sounds gritty and grounded, following the stories of eight teenage girls boxing in a tournament in Reno. Boxing stories often manage to punch above their weight (sorry) in pretty much any medium, even if you're not versed enough in the sport to know how hackneyed and clichéd that previous clause's idiomatic usage was. —JHM Choose This Now by Nicole Haroutunian [F] Haroutunian's novel-in-stories, part of Noemi Press's Prose Series, follows a pair of inseparable friends over the years as they embark on careers, make art, fall in and out of love, and become mothers. Lydia Kiesling calls this one "a sparkling, intimate look at women's lives" that makes "for a lovely reading experience." —SMS Death by Laughter by Maggie Hennefeld [NF] Hennefeld's scholarly study explores the forgotten history and politics of women's "hysterical laughter," drawing on silent films, affect theory, feminist film theory, and more. Hennefeld, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature, offers a unique take on women's pleasure and repression—and how the advent of cinema allowed women to laugh as never before. —SMS James by Percival Everett [F] In James, the once-secondary character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn narrates his version of life on the Mississippi. Jim, who escapes enslavement only to end up in adventures with white runaway Huck, gives his account of well-known events from Mark Twain’s 1880s novel (and departs from the record to say what happened next). Everett makes readers hyperaware of code-switching—his 2001 novel Erasure was about a Black novelist whose career skyrockets when he doubles down on cynical stereotypes of Blackness—and Jim, in James, will have readers talking about written vernacular, self-awareness, and autonomy. —NodB A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen [NF] Chronicling 36 fateful encounters among 30 writers and artists—from Henry James to Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain to Zora Neal Hurston—Cohen paints a vast and sparkling portrait of a century's worth of American culture. First published in 2004, and reissued by NYRB, A Chance Meeting captures the spark of artistic serendipity, and the revived edition features a new afterword by the author. —SMS Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler [NF] Butler has had an outsized impact on how we think and talk about gender and sexuality ever since the 1990 publication of Gender Trouble, which theorized the way gender is performed and constructed. Butler's latest is a polemic that takes on the advent of "anti-gender ideology movements," arguing that "gender" has become a bogeyman for authoritarian regimes. —SMS Green Frog by Gina Chung [F] Chung, author of the acclaimed debut novel Sea Change, returns with a story collection about daughters and ghosts, divorcees and demons, praying mantises and the titular verdant amphibians. Morgan Talty calls these 15 stories "remarkable." —SMS No Judgment by Lauren Oyler [NF] Oyler is one of our sharpest and most fearless cultural critics, and No Judgement is her first essay collection, following up her debut novel Fake Accounts. Opining on gossip and anxiety, autofiction and vulnerability, and much, much more, Oyler's caustic wit and penetrating voice shine through every essay. —SMS Memory Piece by Lisa Ko [F] Following up her National Book Award–nominated debut novel The Leavers, Ko's latest follows three lifelong friends from the 1990s to the 2040s. A meditation on the meaning of a "meaningful life" and how to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable world, Memory Piece has earned praise from Jacqueline Woodson and C Pam Zhang, who calls the novel "bright with defiance, intelligence, and stubborn love." —SMS On Giving Up by Adam Phillips [NF] Psychoanalyst Phillips—whose previous subjects include getting better, wanting to change, and missing out—takes a swing at what feels like a particularly timely impulse: giving up. Questioning our notions of sacrifice and agency, Phillips asks when giving up might be beneficial to us, and which parts of our lives might actually be worth giving up. —SMS There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib [NF] Abdurraqib returns (how lucky are we!) with a reflection on his lifelong love of basketball and how it's shaped him. While reconsidering his childhood, his relationship with his father, and the meaning of "making it," Abdurraqib delivers what Shea Serrano calls "the sharpest, most insightful, most poignant writing of his career." —SMS The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones [F] The final installment of Jones's trilogy picks up four years after Don't Fear the Reaper. Jade Daniels is back from prison, and upon her release, she encounters serial killer-worshipping cults, the devastating effects of gentrification, and—worst of all—the curse of the Lake Witch. Horror maestro Brian Keene calls Jones's grand finale "an easy contender for Best of the Year." —LA Worry by Alexandra Tanner [F] This deadpan debut novel from Tanner follows two sisters on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. Heads butt, tempers flare, and existential dread creeps in as their paths diverge amid the backdrop of Brooklyn in 2019. Limning the absurdity of our internet-addled, dread-filled moment, Tanner establishes herself as a formidable novelist, with Kiley Reid calling Worry "the best thing I've read in a very long time." —DF [millions_email]
1. On a sheep farm in the high desert of Oregon, I grew up devouring books about the countryside. I recognized my world of chores, manure and dusty roads in Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. During my Dungeons & Dragons phase, I wandered the fantastic rural landscapes of The Lord of the Rings and endless Dragonlance paperbacks. Later on it was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, and the logging community of Wakonda in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I loved these books for their intoxicating sense of place. Just as people had secret histories, so did mountains, forests and rivers. During my senior year of high school, like a plucky George Willard, I went looking for the grotesque in my own hometown as a correspondent for my local paper, The Bend Bulletin. Writing about the Wild West settlement of Laidlaw, I unburied the history of violence that predated the ski resorts and golf courses in the region. Yet even as I plumbed the reservoirs of Central Oregon, I was obsessed with a distant place: Brazil, the country I was adopted from during the twilight of its military dictatorship in 1981. When it came to that story, I had little to go on but old Kodachromes and my parents’ recollections of their long, tedious journey to bring me home. Brazil was an abstraction, a heart-shaped splotch on the globe, an imaginary homeland that I filled with my own desires. I was 25 when I visited the real Brazil for the first time on a solo backpacking trip to get to know my birth country—perhaps even find my birth mother. It was 2006. I still remember the jolt of the landing gear touching the runway in São Paulo. In that moment, the Brazil of my imagination crumbled. 2. By that time in my life, I’d traded journalism for fiction, but I was still entranced by writers who could bring an entire world to life with an elixir of lived experience, research, and unbridled conjuring. The blood-soaked borderlands of Cormac McCarthy. The antebellum Virginia of Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. García Márquez’s Macondo. Richard Price’s New York City. Annie Proulx’s badlands. What I admired wasn’t just the vivid atmosphere but how these writers established a worldview, a governing intelligence that arranged the landscape in service of a story, a theme, a politics of place. When I first visited my birthplace, the story I wanted to tell myself—that the world wanted to tell about Brazil—was the triumphant tale of a country on the rise, emerging from a dictatorship to democracy. I spent that summer traveling the country by car, by bus, by boat, by plane, by foot. In my naivete, it felt as if Brazil were welcoming me home, but in retrospect I was as anonymous as any other gringo with a guidebook. Yet on an otherwise ordinary night at the bus station in downtown Belo Horizonte, I met my birth mother for the first time. She did welcome me home. In the months and years that followed, I wrote maudlin fiction about Brazil, trying to render the city where I was born, the countryside where I grew up, trying to bring into focus a worldview of how I got from there to here and back again. Even thinking about that old work makes me cringe. The desperate wanting on the page. The desire to connect with my material, as if forging those links could make up for what was lost to me in real life. Somewhere on the border between fantasy and fact, my imagination failed me. I needed to put aside the novel and return to my reporter’s notebooks. 3. Sad but true: There is only so much room in the English language for stories about non-English speaking countries. Within that shrunken universe, only so much room for Latin America. Even less room for Brazil. Despite being the world’s fifth-largest country by population and area and one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies, in the Western imagination, it remains more or less an island, roughly the shape of Rio de Janeiro, full of soccer, samba, favelas and festive costumes and cocktails. When it was announced that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014—with the Olympics to follow in 2016—I sensed an opportunity to report on my home country in hopes of enlarging that picture in some small way. By the time I started covering World Cup preparations in 2013, the wheels were beginning to come off the wagon in Brazil, which was in the throes of its largest street protests in decades. Millions demonstrated against economic inequality and social injustice, with thousands of Brazilians across the country evicted or relocated in the name of order and progress, even as the government poured billions of dollars into lavish stadiums and vanity projects to rebuild Brazil’s cities in the image of the cosmopolitan first world. When I visited in the Amazon rain forest in 2014, I saw a region transformed since my first visit eight years earlier. There is a story you can tell about the Amazon that is a tale of progress and sustainable development. This is the world of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a world of optimism and charts that trend toward prosperity. This is the world of Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, in which all of us, or at least those with the freedoms of capital and travel, are connected through the wonders of globalization. Depending on what you’re willing to ignore, that story is plain as day in the Amazon. Where once there were tribes relying on the barter system, now there are riverboats going up and down the river with ATM machines on board. Where once it was impossible to find a steady phone connection, now satellites orbit, beaming Instagram and “Pokémon Go” to tweens surrounded by 2 million square miles of rain forest. In this worldview, the history of the Amazon rain forest is one that moves from savagery to civilization, from darkness to light. [millions_ad] 4. It’s the kind of story that appeals to venture capitalists and those who believe there is no problem that cannot be solved with an app. It is a story of conquest in which this forest was discovered by Europeans who could only untap its utopian potential with guns, germs and steel. How can a writer rebuild a world that has been erased by colonists, that has been built on the bodies of the oppressed, designed to mirror the sophistication of European capitals, complete with baroque theaters and bike share kiosks? What right does an outsider have to even try telling a different story? Though I was born in Brazil, the country will always be foreign to me, and I will always be a foreigner on its streets and rivers. The foreign correspondent is tasked with translating a distant part of the world for the folks back home. Rarely does that mean bringing home good news. Joan Didion’s Salvador exposes the sinister aftereffects of U.S. interference in Latin America. Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder investigates the brutal murder of one of Central America’s leading human rights activists, Bishop Juan Gerardi, bludgeoned to death in “The Crime of the Century” in Guatemala. Telling the story of the contemporary Amazon rain forest means looking past the utopian rhetoric of presidents, generals, and captains of industry and digging for the dystopian elements they are trying to plaster over. Some kids chase monsters in “Pokémon Go”; others run from monsters in police cruisers. College kids post selfies on Instagram; death squads coordinate their movements on WhatsApp. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam brings thousands of jobs, billions of dollars and a new skate park to a tiny town on the banks of the Rio Xingu; the kids who congregate at the skate park could never afford a skateboard. They run up and down the half pipe until they are winded, left to look out over the river where they used to swim with dolphins. 5. The work of the foreign correspondent, like the work of the foreign multinational company, is extractive. Arrive, discover, return with something of value—and blood on your hands. As much as journalism has changed, if it bleeds, it still leads. In the last five years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on Brazil. Very few positive words. Yet a country can be two different countries, a world can be two different worlds, depending on where you look, who you listen to, what you choose to omit. In life and on the page, we choose what to record and what to ignore, what to amplify and what to leave behind. In Brazil, here is what doesn’t lead: my nieces’ birthday parties. The White Stripes rocking out the Teatro Amazonas. Cold beers piling up on plastic tables as the entire outdoor bar sings along to Zé Ramalho’s cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Paddleboarding on the Rio Negro as sea planes buzz off into the sunset. Grilled tambaqui with a squeeze of lemon and good conversation. A forest so enormous that it reminds you that the human world is nothing, and nothing we build will last. I blotted so many rays of light from the world I built in my book. The beauty of Brazil is so spectacular that looking directly at it can render you blind to its history of genocide, exploitation, oppression—its history of history repeating itself. The Third Bank of the River is a world built from forgotten scraps. The title is borrowed from the classic short story by João Guimarães Rosa, a fabulist tale of life, loss and death set in a riverside village. On my river, nothing is invented, but everything is chosen. It is the history of the country where I was born and the country where I was raised. In both Americas, our histories are right in front of us, reflecting each other like the river at dawn, when the water is a calm, rippling mirror of the forest. Image: Flickr/Breno Passos
I love Stranger Things, not just because it is pure nostalgia for the films that helped shaped my early childhood, but for the simple fact that in the opening scene, a young child of color is playing Dungeons & Dragons with no shame. It is hard to be a geek more often than not, and when you are a geek who also happens to be a person of color, things only become more complicated. There is a certain racial coding to geek and/or nerd culture. The required reading of geekdom, whether fantasy (Lord of the Rings, the Cthulu Mythos, or Conan) or science fiction (Hyperion, Dune, or Ender's Game) are novels that focus on predominately white characters, featuring tokenism at best and downright racial animosity at worst. The canon of fantasy and sci-fi authors is overwhelmingly white. In the classic early-'90s show, Family Matters, it is easy to see such. The uber-geek extraordinaire Steven Urkel can’t dance, lacks style and panache -- he’s the antithesis of cool. When he invents a machine to turn himself into the perfect lover, Steven creates Stefan Urquelle, a suave, handsome, stylish young man who instantly wins hearts. Really, all that happened is that Steve went from a coded “hyper-whiteness,” as Mary Bucholtz puts it, to simply being what audiences expect a young black man to be. His extreme intelligence as Steven is marked as white while his more corporeal attractions as Stefan are marked as black. It is code-switching taken to the extreme. With the expectation that geekiness is an embrace of whiteness, what happens when you are in fact not white? I am a geek, and I am Chicano. Over the course of my life I have learned to be both things proudly, but this presents a paradox. How can I justify my geek-cred while also maintaining my street-cred? Often, I cannot. I am a geek, and I am a brown man, and this has earned me a lot of shit from both sides. On the one hand, I can run a D&D campaign about how poorly certain races like half-elves are treated, and my group will rail against the injustice of it all, but if I bring up any real-world situation of inequality, I get the cold shoulder at best or at worst booed down and given “focus on the game” lectures. As Junot Díaz allegedly said: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 in Elvish, but put in two lines of Spanish and [white people] think we’re taking over.” But growing up around my more working-class family, I was teased for reading, and I was especially teased for reading books like Redwall or Lord of the Rings. That fantasy crap was for losers, gueros, and jotos. Some of my family even thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a gateway to Satanism and possession. (This was long before the Harry Potter sensation and attendant pushback.) In high school in Los Angeles, I had a hard time creating a network of geeks simply because the price of entry into the geek world was too high, or my friends simply did not want to associate themselves with something so clearly “white.” The insults that my small band of geeks endured while we played Magic: The Gathering or discussed Dragon Ball Z were pretty inventive. Even now, some of my students snicker or laugh derisively when I make fantasy or science-fiction references, simply for the fact that, and I quote: “Dragons be for white kids with money.” It's hard to argue against this reasoning when the most popular fantasy novel and TV series since Lord of the Rings features a platinum-blonde white woman saving thousands of adoring and helpless brown people. You’d think that when I found geekdom, I’d be welcomed in with open arms, but my ethnic identifiers have often caused friction. One of my favorite geeky pastimes is Warhammer 40K, a tabletop miniatures game. I have played this game off and on since I was about 12, and its sweeping background of grimdark science-fantasy hits a lot of my geek buttons. Some years ago when I was building an army, I wanted to paint my soldiers to be more reflective of me, my family, and my friends. When I asked an employee at a store how I would paint darker skin, he laughed. He both didn’t know how you’d go about doing this because he hadn’t thought about it, and he thought it was silly that I wanted to do it. I have played against armies with not so subtly painted SS symbols on the sides of tanks. When I have spoken Spanish to one of my few Latino gaming friends I have heard in response, “No speaka tha Taco” from a passerby. [millions_email] After a lot of years, I have met a good number of others like me, but even when gathered together, there is still the underlying restriction of “don’t be too ethnic.” If you want to make an observation about how something was casually or not-so-casually racist or commiserate in some shared experience of prejudice, you have to do that quietly, to the side. That is not something to be brought to the forefront of the conversation in mixed company. To some of my friends or acquaintances in the geek world, I am just too sensitive about these things, or they never really think of me as “Mexican." I am too educated, too financially secure. If I am a little too loud, have a bit too much sabor at times, it can be awkward. In short, when I violate the codes and tenets of geekdom, I am reminded of my transgression, and in some cases, ostracized for it. And to some of my friends, students, and family, I speak “too white” or “forget where I came from.” I cannot be myself without violating either of these expectations, so I must either switch between personae depending on the situation, or learn to accept the friction. And I am not alone. There are many, many non-white geeks. A lot of the standard stigma of geekdom is starting to subside as it becomes more and more mainstream and thus marketable, but some stigmas clearly die harder than others. Geekdom is now massively profitable, and so geekdom is expanding because those who profit from it understand that a larger audience is better for the bottom line. There are now celebrity geeks, although they are overwhelmingly white. But I am not alone, even if it once felt that way. I have seen how much my local game stores and comic shops have changed, and I’ve gone from being the only brownish face in a store to being one of several, and depending on the geek endeavor, one of many. Even games are changing now, and one need only compare the '70s artwork from Dungeons & Dragons to the artwork released today to see the whole shift in representation, both with women and people of color. There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino). Of course, this doesn't mean everything is awesome, as you can see the pushback against this greater representation, whether it's Gamergate or the stink over the Hugo awards. There are plenty of voices lamenting that SF and Fantasy are moving away from this paradigm, and most of them pretend that Octavia Butler didn't write “real” SF or that Ted Chiang is “just ok.” If geekdom was never coded as hyper-white, why then is there such a loud resistance to the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-binary, and non-heterosexual stories and characters? Geek culture is changing because its demographics are changing, but work has to come from all sides. We Blerds (or whatever nomenclature you prefer) need to also take an active hand in creating geek culture, especially continuing the increase in authors of color engaging in these genres. This of course is often easier said than done, since access into these worlds has not been smooth. The geek world needs to open its doors to us, giving space and visibility to non-white creators and characters. The geek world needs to stop pretending that it is only a white world. Plenty of properties are starting to do this, but white geeks need to shut their peers down when there is pushback against this inclusion. As people of color, we cannot enforce strictures of racial or cultural credibility through something as simple as our goddamn hobbies, and as geeks, we cannot tacitly accept that being geeky means embracing a rejection of racial or ethnic identity, or allowing others to dictate that non-white cultures are non-normative. In short, we need to live in the friction. Because we are awesome, even if that's hard for others to see. Image Credit: Unsplash/Alperen Yazgı.
1. I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously. This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said: My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me...is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating...a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity. Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage. 2. Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range -- subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests -- over a long career. The earlier novels -- The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star -- form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga: I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly...even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One -- inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south -- a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female -- a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts -- by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry -- of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel. What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret: He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road. Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing -- and too familiar -- in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions. Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge -- whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included -- criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology -- “cornflower” -- for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice -- acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people -- has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts. Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background -- stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life -- amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels. Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested -- as have you -- that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc? Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America. At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published. TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you -- professionally, creatively -- if anything? LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit. TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization -- are we doing better? Worse? Both? LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually -- with care and determination -- we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction. Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.” TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring? LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels. TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear. LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear. Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear. TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular -- not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns? LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right. In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same. All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at. TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one? LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation. I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it. TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors -- trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from -- is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy. LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good? Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions. TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?” LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did. I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
Let’s face it. 2016 sucked. It will go down as one of the cruddiest years in the 50 or so that I’ve walked the earth. It started sucking right away, with the death of one of my favorite musicians, David Bowie, on Jan. 10, and the death of one of my favorite poets, C.D. Wright, two days later. Maybe it’s not fair to call Bowie’s Blackstar a literary achievement, but it’s an act of deep hubris and generosity and fearlessness that I aspire to as a novelist. So it’s on my list. So too is the first of C.D. Wright’s posthumous collections of poetry, Shallcross, which shows her at the height of her astonishing powers, a book that helps me grieve and shakes me up at the same time. In February, Peter Straub, one of my literary heroes, put out a collection of his selected stories, Interior Darkness, which I recommend to anyone who thinks the “New Weird” is a new thing. I also discovered the cartoonist Michael DeForge, whose new graphic novel, Big Kids, is a trippy, disturbing, utterly original coming-of-age tale that is still haunting me today. Also in February: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. “Uptown Funk” won a Grammy. In March, there were primaries, and I read Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot, a dazzling and inventive novel about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. I also read Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, also about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. It was good but upsetting in many many ways. That Thomas Frank is too cynical!, I thought to myself, hopefully. In April, Prince died. Prince? Died? 2016, could you be more sadistic? So I read some poetry, which sometimes helps: The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, who is one of my favorite younger poets; The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, which has an amazing long poem about the childhood of Neil deGrasse Tyson; Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a very painful and sad book by Ocean Vuong. Then, I immersed myself in The People in the Castle, selected “strange stories” by Joan Aiken, published by the wonderful Small Beer Press, with an introduction by Kelly Link, and Aiken’s tales were a kind of balm for troubled times. Another balm was the novel Rich & Pretty by my former student Rumaan Alam, which is so funny and beautifully written and precisely described I almost forgot how depressed I was getting. Summer came at last, and 2016 immediately killed off Muhammad Ali, just to show us it meant business. There was a convention in my home town of Cleveland which I was trying to ignore, so I read A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, whom Joyce Carol Oates calls “…a beautifully disorienting writer, a poet in an unclassifiable genre…,” and I decided that Jeffrey Ford is an important figure who needs to be recognized more. I read Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams, who is another one of my idols, and I love that she’s still so weird and crazy, after all these years. Another of my former students, Sam Allingham, sent me his new book of stories, The Great American Songbook, and it is so good! He is super-talented and gives me hope for the future! And a kind acquaintance, Jacob M. Appel, sent me his new book of stories, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and it was also really good, very Grace Paley and smart and wise (he’s a psychiatrist and a lawyer and a professor and has, I kid you not, seven master’s degrees), and then I realized that I was supposed to blurb his book and I screwed up and forgot to do it, so I was ashamed. I’m sorry, Jacob. Your book is awesome. And then it was August. I read The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays about race, edited by the brilliant Jesmyn Ward; I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I had a panic attack, and I got some medication -- not a moment too soon, because 2016 then decided to take Gene Wilder, and if it wasn’t for Clonazepam I’d still be watching YouTube clips from Young Frankenstein and Willie Wonka, singing along with “Pure Imagination” and weeping, weeping. Afterwards, I spent a good part of the fall rereading a YA fantasy series by Garth Nix. It was a retreat of sorts, I guess. One of my fondest memories is reading with my two sons, which we did all through their childhood. They loved fantasy series. Yes, we read all the Harry Potter books, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. The Chronicles of Narnia. One series that we were particularly fond of was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. We listened to them in the car on audiobook: read by Tim Curry in a rich, plummy, intensely funny and felt performance. We were mesmerized by the adventures of Sabriel, the girl necromancer who inherits the heavy weight of her father’s obligation to protect the world from the Dead; her half-sister, Lirael, a lonely librarian who goes on a journey with her magical companion, The Disreputable Dog, finds that she is the only one who can save the world from evil. There is also Mogget, a powerful magical creature who has been imprisoned in the body of a house cat. (Tim Curry’s performance of Mogget is a particular hammy delight.) In any case, reading these books with my kids was an intense, formative experience, and I was excited to learn that Nix had a new book in the series that was coming out in October. I prepared for it by listening to the entire oeuvre -- about 50 hours of audio -- and it lent me a crutch to hobble on through our hideous American Autumn. Reading these books again, along with the new one, Goldenhand, brought back a certain kind of joy, a certain kind of honest excitement, to return again to this wide, richly imagined world that Nix has created with such breadth and texture. I got to relive those times I had with my kids, which is not an insignificant thing. My boys are now 25- and 26-year-old men, but for a time, reading this book, I was able to commune with the children they once were. I was also able to remember the way that certain kinds of books could help in a dark time -- I remembered the kid I once was, living in a difficult and abusive and violent family situation -- and how books may have saved me. I worry that this last bit seems stupid and childish and cowardly? But so what? I lifted out of the dream of those books a sliver of faith in bravery and honesty and courage, and a hope that evil won’t win in the end. I could use the reminder. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
The Story of Kullervo, the first known prose work by J.R.R. Tolkien, is to be published this week in the United States, offering fans of Middle Earth a chance to read what may be one of the earliest sources for Tolkien’s quintessential literary fantasy realm. The story is a retelling of the tragedy of Kullervo from The Kalevala, a Finnish saga compiling oral folklore, which was first published in 1835. The world of The Kalevala proved to be an immense influence on Tolkien’s writings, as did the circumstances of its publication, which reclaimed a national mythology for Finland; Tolkien later expressed an aspiration to do the same for England. As well as Tolkien’s story (which is unfinished, with the conclusion rendered only in a brisk outline), this volume includes an introduction, notes, and concluding essay by editor Verlyn Flieger, as well as two manuscript versions of a lecture Tolkien delivered on the subject of The Kalevala. The publisher’s claim that this represents a “world first publication of a previously unknown work” is disingenuous, given that almost all of these materials have appeared previously: the story and lectures in the annual academic journal Tolkien Studies in 2010, and the concluding essay in Flieger’s own Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien in 2012. Misleading marketing is nothing new in publishing, but while this is not a deception approaching the scale of, for example, Go Set a Watchman -- mostly because there was never really any doubt that this would be only of interest to academics and committed Tolkien fans -- it still leaves a bitter taste. Fortunately, the target audience will find plenty to interest it in The Story of Kullervo, perhaps most significantly the title character, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, one of the most important characters in the First Age of Middle Earth. Túrin appears in the posthumously published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most fully in The Children of Húrin in 2007. The “hapless Kullervo” directly parallels Túrin in a number of respects -- both lose their fathers at an early age, unwittingly commit incest with their estranged sisters, and kill themselves by falling upon their own swords. The story offers early glimpses of numerous other Middle Earth tropes. For example, this story marks Tolkien’s earliest use of verse and song within a prose narrative, a stylistic element that pointed to his love of Germanic and Nordic sagas and would become a defining feature of his best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings. Likewise, some names are reminiscent of those that would become significant in Tolkien’s legendarium, with Wanwe and Ilu evolving into Manwë, King of the Valar, and Ilúvatar, the omnipotent Creator, respectively. Fans of The Hobbit might also notice a potential precursor in Kullervo’s journey down a river in a barrel, and more devoted Tolkienites might see an amalgam of Galadriel and the Blue Wizards in the mysterious figure of the “Blue-robed Lady of the Forest.” Although this will likely be the chief source of interest for readers, it would be unfortunate to summarize The Story of Kullervo solely in relation to Tolkien’s later work. The story itself is an enjoyable and creative reworking of the Kullervo myth, and serves as great introduction for those unfamiliar with Finnish folklore. As one of Tolkien’s earliest writings (he was still an undergraduate when he wrote it) there is clearly still plenty of room for stylistic development, and his confusing habit of changing the names of characters without explanation will undoubtedly alienate some readers. However, for those willing to stay with it, The Story of Kullervo presents a captivating story. It also reveals a much darker side to Tolkien; he evidently takes relish in the many moments of violence, manipulating the rash Kullervo (whose name Tolkien tells us means "wrath") towards his tragic fate. The most significant problem, however, is that the story breaks off after less than 40 pages, meaning that it takes up only around one-fifth of the volume to which it gives its title. One hesitates to use the word "filler," but the book leaves the distinct impression that there is not quite enough material here to justify publication in its own volume. For instance, Tolkien’s two draft lecture manuscripts are almost identical in places, yet both are published in full with their own separate sets of notes. Likewise, although Flieger’s essay is insightful, presented alongside her introduction and extensive notes, it is virtually rendered redundant, repeating facts and background information that (in some cases) have already been cited twice before. Aside from the lectures, it is disappointing not to see any other writings by Tolkien on The Kalevala included in this volume. At least one unpublished poem, "The New Lemminkäinen," a parody of W.F. Kirby’s translation of The Kalevala written by Tolkien in 1911, is known to exist, and might have bulked up the page count while also providing a rare insight into Tolkien’s sense of humor. Whether this text was made available to Flieger or not remains unknown, but it would certainly not have been out of place here, and would have provided a little more justification for this volume’s existence. Flieger herself seems to express a sense of uneasiness regarding the necessity of this publication in her introduction, ultimately concluding that the story deserves a wider audience. However, it is hard to see this book, which is decidedly academic in approach, being of much interest to anyone who is not already at least somewhat versed in Tolkien scholarship. But perhaps this is the volume’s ulterior purpose, or at least its unintended consequence: to address that division between academics and casual readers. Like that of Harper Lee’s, the value of Tolkien’s name ensures that thousands of fans will buy this book; if that results in them being introduced to the writings that influenced him so heavily and are so little read these days outside of academic circles, that is surely a good thing. It will undoubtedly bring greater attention to The Kalevala, and Tolkien -- always more comfortable in the role of academic than bestselling writer -- would probably have approved.
Well-heeled critics take a kind of offense when writers of David Mitchell’s caliber experiment with genre fiction. Nonetheless, the release of 2014’s The Bone Clocks, with its body-jumping Horologists and systematic references to most of his previous novels, proved that Mitchell has embarked on more than an experiment; he is on a Yeatsian search for unity. Late in his life, W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, published A Vision, a collection of cultish metaphysical writings that cast the whole of history as a cycle between order and chaos, the barbaric and the civilized. His poetry of the period also represented the world this way: his famous piece “The Second Coming” culminates with the image of a “rough beast...slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born,” a kind of un-Christ who represents the beginning of a barbaric period in history, the inversion of the Christian era. The purpose of all Yeats’s late writing, as the scholar Richard Ellmann pointed out in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was to offer a “unified personality,” to give his readers a sense of cohesion that everyday life lacks by using a consistent set of symbols to discuss, praise, mourn, and process a disjointed reality. For Yeats, symbols like beasts, roses, and winding staircases were touchstones: no matter where his writing wandered, these landmarks offered a sense of direction -- they brought him back to A Vision's unified historical scheme. The poems he made with those images are beautiful and timeless. But A Vision is another story. Supposedly sourced from automatic writings Yeats’s wife received from the spirit world, it reads like an acid trip in a Catholic church, or -- appropriately enough -- like a scene from David Mitchell’s Slade House: a horror novel set in a dark corner of the newly-minted meta-world that unites all of Mitchell’s books. Mitchell told fans at 2014’s Edinburgh Book festival that his writing has become “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” With the lengthy and ambitions Bone Clocks, he revealed the extent of that exercise by referencing characters from all of his work, back to his 1999 debut Ghostwritten. Though it would be difficult to gage the extent to which his megaverse was planned, Mitchell has made it clear that a single plot overarches everything, down even to his most quotidian Black Swan Green. Lovers of Cloud Atlas are familiar with Mitchell’s tendency to write novels as a series of interlacing plots, where a young character in one segment might be an old man in another. But what Bone Clocks introduced was design on an altogether different scale: a set of death-defying interlopers engaged in a cosmic war across time, whose antics, it turns out, have been crashing through the scenery of each successive novel. When he announced that a new, shorter book was set to debut only a year after The Bone Clocks, fans correctly anticipated that Slade House would deepen Mitchell’s investment in that larger scheme. Released just in time for Halloween, Slade House has quickly sparked comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw -- a literature critic’s ghost story, a haunted-house yarn the glamor of which was underpinned by plot and language that could bear up under the stuffiest academic scrutiny. Mitchell has been upfront about his exasperation with critics who pit realism against everything else, as if the sort of writing where souls can be eaten and bodies shed like cicada shells needed to earn special literary stripes in order to be taken seriously. He told the Edinburgh Book Festival he likes “to use genre as a tool, like style, structure or a character. Where does it say a book has to remain within a single genre?” and The Paris Review that “When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew.” Mitchell has proved himself a master of the improbable brew, but the question is whether the books that have resulted are freshening agents, or just a cheap attempt to spike the punch. Slade House cooks up its mixture with euphoric technical complexity and flourish. Set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, it is composed of five interlocking narratives centered around a mysterious “small black iron door,” and the magnificent, trippy, horrifying mansion to which it leads. A succession of sympathetic loners are lured into Slade House by its malevolent occupants, treated to a disorienting phantasmagoria that mixes their deepest fantasies of popularity and inclusion with their worst fears, and finally tricked into bringing about their own demise. We hear the story through their voices, and each is masterfully rendered, deeply human. The 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose autism makes him insensitive to the subtle difference between a quirky hostess and a murderous schemer, the oafish lonelyheart policeman whose subtle racism he would blame on hard experiences on the beat, and the self-conscious college student Sally Timms are each cohesive and distinct. For every character, Slade House morphs into a tailor-made nightmare. I found Sally’s haunting at a raucous party the most alarming and immediate, perhaps because I grew up listening to some of the same music. But more likely the sting came from her voice’s mixture of devastating self-examination and quippy humor: “Slade Alley can’t be more than three feet across,” she observes on approach to the house, “A properly fat person -- fatter than me, I mean -- couldn’t get past someone coming the other way.” And when she snuffs a proposition from an attractive partygoer: “Off he goes, and screw you, Isolde Delahunty at Great Malvern Beacon School for Girls and your platoon of body-fascist Barbies...screw all of you, wherever you are this evening, because I...just turned down a bronzed Australian surfer demigod...” Yet the culmination of each story contains an obligatory nod the meta-world of Bone Clocks, and it is there that Mitchell’s ambition starts to make a messy feast of his talent. Examining Slade House’s grandfather clock, whose face bears no hands but only the words “Time is, Time Was, Time is Not,” Sally Timms quips that the clock is “Highly metaphysical; deeply useless.” At worst, this epithet could be applied to Mitchell’s language just at the passages when Slade House reaches its highest emotional pitch. At key moments in each character’s adventures there are debilitating pauses for exposition, linking Slade House’s dark little nightmare world to the wider one we heard all too much about in Bone Clocks. Words like “lacuna,” “orison,” and worst of all, “psychovoltage” diffuse the physical terror of Mitchell’s best scenes with obtuse, jargony pinpricks. That the term “lacuna” is lifted from medieval metaphysics and “orison” from Hamlet’s banter with Ophelia in Act III scene i makes them no more interesting: pedigree adds little when species are awkwardly crossed, and there is nothing of Hamlet’s earthy nightmare in the clinical use to which Mitchell puts his meta-world’s argot, explaining away the wonderful ghost stories he’s taken such care to weave in each successive chapter. At best, “highly metaphysical; deeply useless” might still be said of the interlaced world Mitchell is making. Metaphysical and useless, yes, but nothing is as essential as the inessential, and a little willful suspension of distaste allows us to luxuriate in Mitchell’s superfluities. The Yeats-like unifying project he’s taken on is initially thrilling in its apparent scope. And though his machinations are luxurious, underneath the heavy-handed codswallop is the pungent flavor of raw voices, coming from characters we recognize from the street. As long as his books are populated by such real people, Mitchell will deserve his following, but he is in danger of a fatal shark-jumping accident. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell allowed himself to suggest the unknown, and the scenes where Orito explores Enomoto’s caves are therefore riper with terror than any of Slade House's “lacuna” scenes. Narrow paths curve into darkness, statues drip with blood, and Orito takes away only her fear and a growing list of questions about the people who built the tunnels. But Mitchell’s ambition to weave a meta-narrative has forced his newer books to reveal what is best left hinted. With their many external references, The Bone Clocks and Slade House are artsier novels than those that came before, but far less artful. In them Mitchell reads like a remodeler who stubbornly insists that the gaudy corridors he’s built between his mansions are the real architectural triumph. Admirably, he has left nothing sacred in his conquest of genre-fiction territories, explicitly comparing his work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien, the master world-architect himself. Mitchell even included a character called Bombadil in Slade House's final chapter, as if to assure us he knows what he’s doing, that no shrines to Tolkien will be left to gather dust during his incursion into hallowed ground. But to throw down that gauntlet is to invite comparison with a man who was a consummate novelist first, and mythology-spinner second. According to accounts from his friends, it took Tolkien 12 years to write and revise The Lord of the Rings, and obsessed with background as he was, most of that time was not spent tightening up a meta-scheme of cohesive self-references (otherwise why would there be so many Unfinished Tales, so many loose ends in The Silmarillion?), but making sure the characters and language were rich, authentic, and human. By contrast, Mitchell looks like a hobbit-sized challenger talking through a tall hat. Above all, Tolkien knew what to leave unsaid. To name a specific example, the “Watcher in the Water” that guards the entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring is horrible precisely because we know neither what it is nor how it came to be there, apart from some scrawled suggestions in an abandoned journal. The entry reads: “The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.” More terror is crammed into those two lines then into the whole of Slade House, because Tolkien has left space for our imaginations to populate the darkness. But Mitchell is addicted to ripping back the veil. His evil Grayer twins become less frightening the more we know about them, and their soliloquizing at each chapter’s climax makes them something worse than poorly-written antagonists: they become well-written antagonists too well explained. Their nightmare mansion ultimately disappoints, like a haunted house with all the lights turned on. With each successive, elaborately explained novel, there is a paradoxical sense that Mitchell’s world is shrinking, because the rigging he’s so intent on fastening between storylines is clogging up the gaps that should be occupied by the unknown. Nothing can swoop down on us without getting caught in the wires. Titles like Cloud Atlas hint that Mitchell is undertaking a quest to map the changeable world, to search for suggestions of coherence among what is cloudy, turbulent, and disordered. But just as the psychedelic gobbledygook of Yeats’s A Vision added nothing to the power of his poetry (it only gave theorists the opportunity to point to some prose passage that was supposedly the origin of a poem, as if that proved anything), Mitchell’s Horologist wonderland seems like an escape from the literary into the clever. Discovering one of his linked plots gives you a Sudoku-solver’s thrill, but this pleasure would be hard to call artistic. Billed as a suggestion about the interconnectedness between us all, such moments register instead as self-satisfied technical flourishes, easter eggs. As Mitchell gains power and the volume of his work expands, we have to hope he exercises a proportionately large restraint. Tolkien’s world-creating mechanism began with people and with language: He and C.S. Lewis used to play Scrabble in Elvish, a cultural artifact which grew organically alongside Tolkien’s lands and characters, instead of being thrust upon them in literary retrospect in the manner of Mitchell’s Horology. In terms of creative impetus, this retrograde fiddling with Mitchell’s own world could prove to be, as Sally Timms puts it, “a fatal mistake, like Orpheus looking back...” To demand that Mitchell walk the same road as even his greatest predecessors would be inane when his explicit desire is to innovate, but as he said himself, the watchword of the world-builder, even as he mixes improbable elements, must be a plausibility that outwrestles the improbable. Plausibility means a sense of rightness to experience, and Slade House, in spite of its pristine characterization, forgets that the experience of horror starts with the unknown. Instead of dark shadows, he gives us exposition, and as tempting as it must be to forget, Mitchell should have remembered that readers will always prefer to wander the maze’s edges than to sit down for a lecture at its center.