The year has gotten off to a rocky start worldwide, but we hope this semi-annual Millions tradition will be a bright spot. We seem to say this every year, but at 140-something books, this is truly our most gratuitously enormous Preview to date. And yet there are even more books to be read in the first half of this year! As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Hop into the comments to let us know what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!
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Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener: When the history of what went wrong in the first two decades of the 21st century is written, the rampant fragmentation of our attention, the proliferation of propaganda, the inanities and barbarities of social media, New Yorker staff writer Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, will be instrumental in the forensics. An optimistic millennial who absconded from the moribund publishing industry of New York to the supposedly sunny, utopian environs of Silicon Valley, Wiener quickly learns that the counter-cultural promise once embodied by the tech industry has been abandoned in favor of adopting an ethos that’s as at home with any 19th-century robber baron as any of the more conventionally predatory business that dominate American economic life. “But we see now that we’ve been swimming in the Kool Aid,” Wiener writes, “and we’re coming up for air.” Something to think about when you share a (rightfully glowing) recommendation for Uncanny Valley on social media. (Ed S.)
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: No one writes like Yu: he’s at once sincere and funny, his father-son narratives make me tear up, his work is science-fiction-but-not, and he’s always formally inventive. His new novel isn’t like anything else, either: it’s a novel that’s also a screenplay…or a screenplay that busts out of its form to be a novel. In it, actor Willis Wu longs to play more than “generic Asian man” on various TV shows, but the industry—and the world, the culture—won’t let him. This is a book about race and the roles we play, both among strangers and our family. Emily St. John Mandel calls it “Wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original.” (Edan)
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey: Beginning in Italy and ending in San Joaquin Valley, Popkey’s understated and gorgeous debut follows conversations between an unnamed narrator and other women over two decades. Exploring gender, desire, and violence, the slim novel captures the intimacy of female friendships, and the ways women create narratives for themselves and others. A must-read for fans of Jenny Offill. (Carolyn)
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston: This collection of eight lesser-known stories written during Hurston’s time as a student at Barnard in New York City showcase the author’s range. While many know Hurston best for her fiction depicting rural life, these stories brim with the vibrancy and madcap liveliness of the Harlem Renaissance. (Nick M.)
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Cleanness is the work of a writer so absolutely attuned to the world: our paradoxes of love, bodies, desires, regrets. In the morning, a man looks at his lover: “his face bearded and dark, smoothed out by sleep.” There, and elsewhere in Greenwell’s imagery, the material world joins the metaphysical, the rare ability to give shape and texture to the mystical. I wanted to linger on these sentences, but also to follow the routes of these narratives—Greenwell knows the subtle suspense created by careful syntax. “Harbor,” one section in the second half of the book, is a stirring classic unto itself. (Nick R.)
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred D. Taylor: Readers have grown up with the Logan Family saga, told in the classic young adult novels Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis. The new book, the first since prequel The Land in 2001, follows Cassie across the country to college and law school, and then back to Mississippi in the 1960s to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. A major event in young adult fiction. (Lydia)
Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: I’ll read anything by Yoon. A 2014 Young Lions Award winner, Yoon displays uncanny range, imagination, and originality; every novel is so different and surprising. Run Me to Earth, his fourth novel, is also one of the most beautiful galleys I’ve ever seen (yes, I can be shallow that way). Early reviews suggest it is also exceptional inside the covers, Library Journal in a starred review calls this book set in 1960s Laos “essential reading.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick: A fluid, beautifully written story about professional wrestling, intergenerational trauma, genocide, and history, jumping through Armenia to America and from one generation to another. John Williams of the New York Times said of the book, “With a minimum amount of soapiness, he keeps the pages turning on his love triangles and nostalgic wrestlers and brothers at peace and war. And he allows his larger themes to resonate without pushing them on us too hard.” (Lydia)
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: The author of iconic novels like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna returns with her 20th work of fiction, a novel of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War for Chile. Of the new work Colum McCann says “What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time. She knows that all stories are love stories, and the greatest love stories are told by time.” (Lydia)
Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra (translated by Daniel Hahn): A epistolary thriller from the award-winning Brazilian novelist, Blue Flowers is a case of obsession and mistaken identity told in part through letters sent to the wrong man. Catherine Lacey calls it “an elegant and unnerving meditation on the aftermath of love and the lasting power of desire.” (Lydia)
Little Gods by Meng Jin: Jin’s brilliant debut novel centers on Su Lan, a woman who gives birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of Tiananmen Crackdown. By immersing the readers in various personal narratives, Jin raises difficult questions about history, life, and self. For example, are the young protesters on Tiananmen Square driven by their pursuit of a righteous cause or their desire for expansive attention? What does self-erasure lead to? Cultural assimilation or loss of identity or both? What is the relationship between memory and self? Little Gods is elegantly written, emotionally compelling, and thought provoking on every page. (Jianan Qian)
Track Changes by Sayed Kashua: Track Changes is the fourth novel of internationally lauded author, screenwriter, and journalist Kashua. The book’s protagonist, an Arab-Israeli memoirist, receives a note one day that his father is dying. Immediately, he leaves his wife and children in the United States and boards a plane back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. However, his homecoming is coldly received, and an increasing tension between him and his family suggests a long-standing estrangement. Sitting by his father’s sickbed, the protagonist begins to recall the causes of his isolation. But he has meanwhile found himself fabricating memories. On a broad level, Track Changes traces the process of which stories get told and forgot in Palestine and Israel. On each page, it is also a fierce and intelligent exploration of identity, class, relationship, and truth. (Jianan Qian)
The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg: Blending memoir and true crime, Eisenberg’s book recounts the 1980 murders of two young women in rural West Virginia—known as the “Rainbow Murders”—and her time living and working in Pocahontas County. Exploring the intersection of gender, class, and violence, Eisenberg reveals the way the murders inflicted trauma onto generations of Appalachians. Carmen Maria Machado calls the book “a staggering achievement of reportage, memoir, and sociological reckoning.” (Carolyn)
The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka: Culture critic Chayka’s nonfiction book explores the origins of minimalism and where our current obsession stems from. From architects and philosophers to museums and Zen gardens, he reveals that “less is more” is not just about material goods. Jenny Odell says the book “peels back the commodified husk of minimalism to reveal something surprising and thoroughly alive.” (Carolyn)
We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan: In Zancan’s second novel, a group of students at a low-residence MFA program band together to take revenge on a professor who has wronged one of their own. Zancan does a wonderful job of describing the characters who populate this program, with excellent pacing and a momentum that turns the MFA life into a gripping story of professional and personal revenge. (Lydia)
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala: In this English-language debut by the Cuban novelist Gala and translated by Anna Kushner, a newcomer to the small town of Cienfuegos embarks upon a radical project: to construct “the first cathedral for and by the meek.” But the strange, massive project is also seen as a hubristic shrine for “those with darkness in their hearts.” Told by a series of characters—poets, murderers, hustlers—this is an energetic, soaring novel of Gaudi-esque proportions. (Matt)
Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallet: Hughes-Hallet has written several nonfiction works, including a biography (The Pike) of the priapic daredevil Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. At age 65, Hughes-Hallet published her first novel, Peculiar Ground, which described an English estate in the 16th and 20th centuries; Publishers Weekly called the novel a “sprawling epic debut about an enclosed paradise.” Her second work of fiction is a collection of modern-day retellings of myths. In one, for example, an opera singer’s wife, Eurydice, suffers a fall and descends into a coma. Hughes-Hallet is an erudite chronicler well suited to reviving old tales. (Matt)
Heart of Junk by Luke Geddes: “There were antiques and then there were collectibles,” says Margaret, one of the more pedantic dealers of the Heart of America Antique Mall, the fertile comic setting for Geddes’s first novel. Geddes, who has written a short story collection, taxonomizes the stuff accumulated by a society as well as the peculiar souls for whom collecting that stuff constitutes a kind of religion. The struggling merchants hope that being featured on an American Pickers-like show will reverse their fortunes, if a scandal involving a kidnapped toddler doesn’t torpedo the mall first. (Matt)
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: A memoir from the prize-winning poet about crossing the border with his family and living as an undocumented person in the United States. Of the book, Sandra Cisneros writes, “This moving memoir is the document of a life without documents, of belonging to two countries yet belonging to neither. Hernandez Castillo has created his own papers fashioned from memory and poetry. His motherland is la madre tierra, his life a history lesson for our times.” (Lydia)
The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao: “Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all,” we read early on in Tsao’s The Majesties, whose narrator is the sole survivor when her sister poisons 300 people. (Shark-fin soup is the deadly delivery mechanism.) The sisters are scions of an Indonesian textile clan, one of the nation’s richest 50 families. Tsao, who has written two novels in a fantasy series and translated several books of Indonesian poetry and prose, explores the hidden motives behind the Borgia-fication of this hyper-wealthy family. (Matt)
Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: A collection of witty stories from the Irish writer. Kirkus writes, “Flattery’s prose-absurd, painfully funny, and bracingly original-slingshots the stories forward. These female characters never say what you’re expecting, and their insights are always incisive…Nervy, audacious stories in which women finally get to speak their minds.” (Lydia)
Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi: A woman leaves the United States and her failed marriage to return to Pondicherry, only to discover a relative she never knew she had. The novel documents the new life they start together. Gary Shteyngart writes, “Tishani Doshi brings all her skills as one of the world’s best poets to this lovely, beguiling, brilliant novel.” (Lydia)
The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson: “Hard to explain but easy to enjoy” is one way to attempt to define poet-cum-novelist Robertson’s uncategorizable work (per Stephanie Burt). Robertson’s process is one of collecting, assembling, and collapsing sentences into extended forms, such as with her book-length poem, Cinema of the Present. Consider The Baudelaire Fractal, her first novel, an extension of this—in which poet Hazel Smith awakens to find she’s authored the complete works of Charles Baudelaire. According to Bookforum’s Jennifer Krasinski, part of the book’s delight is “wrestling with how exactly to apprehend and define this Escher-like interiority that Robertson and Hazel Brown cohabit—kind of—with him.” (Anne)
An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado: In Testo Junkie, Preciado’s pivotal memoir/”body essay,” he wrote of his experiments with testosterone, its effects on body and mind, and in doing so described the reproductive and social control imposed by the pharmaceutical and porn industries during late capitalism. Preciado’s newly translated An Apartment on Uranus—with a forward by Virginie Despentes—could be considered its sequel. Within, Preciado recounts his transformation from Beatriz to Paul B., while attempting to define a third space beyond existing power, gender, and racial strictures: “My trans condition is a new form of uranism,” he declares. (Anne)
Creatures by Crissy Van Meter: A family story set on the coast of southern California, this debut garnered a starred review of Kirkus: “Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos…A quietly captivating debut.” (Lydia)
A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary: An anthology of essays about migration and belonging, this collection includes work by writers like Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, Jennifer S. Cheng, Nadia Owusu, and Lauren Alwan. Publishers Weekly writes, “this collection is a vital corrective to discussions of global migration that fail to acknowledge the humanity of migrants themselves.” (Lydia)
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: One Story associate editor Napolitano’s Dear Edward opens with a commercial airline crash, and as Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book Review put it, “Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but the book follows Edward, the sole survivor and “world’s most famous orphan,” and in alternating chapters returns to the final minutes of the crash. Based on a real crash, that of Air France Flight 447, this book should keep readers on the edge of their seats. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus that she was born into the Netted to which she aspires. But that promising future also means betraying from the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen deliberately chooses for the novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)
Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and rightwingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)
Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)
Apeirogon by Colum McCann: Drawing upon real-life details and experiences, McCann’s seventh novel examines how friendship and mutual understanding between Palestinian and Israeli fathers can be stitched around grief’s void. Ambitious in scope and kaleidoscopic in form, the novel at once explodes and atomizes one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Its title is fitting: an apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of sides and angles. (Nick M.)
Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)
Indelicacy by Amina Cain: Inhabiting Cain’s novel Indelicacy “is a bit like standing in a painting, a masterful study of light and dark, inside and out, freedom and desire,” writes Danielle Dutton. I’d concur. As I wrote in my 2019 Year in Reading, I developed a kind of synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing, imagining Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within. Needless to say—like its swift, keen title, Indelicacy is graceful and incisive. (Anne)
trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)
The Lucky Star by William Vollmann: Vollmann takes us back to the San Francisco of his early fiction, to the haunts of those who will live and die on the city’s margins. The story centers on Neva, “a woman everybody loves,” who spends a lot of time at a certain bar in the city’s Tenderloin District. For all the contemporaneity in the telling, there is (as always) a certain moral quality to Vollmann’s work. In this one: there is no one on earth, no one, who would not benefit from a little more love and a lot less contempt. (Il’ja)
Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump: Claude McKay Love starts this fantastic debut with this: “‘If there’s one thing wrong with people,’ Paul always said, ‘it’s that no one remembers the shit that they should, and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.'” And we’re off and running in this spirited novel of a kid just trying to be a kid and how difficult that is in our present moment. “An instant American classic for the post-Ferguson/Trump era,” writes Jeff Parker (Ovenman). Library Journal in a starred review says it’s laugh-out-loud funny and “delivers a singular sense of growing up black that will resonate with readers.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)
And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: A rangy yarn-spinner, Sparks is capable of real surprise and real sentiment. There are ghosts here, and women who have been buried in history. In “Our Mutual (Theater) Friend,” a woman “explodes every now and then in the most embarrassing fashion, usually at children’s birthday parties,” waxing “about the vulgarity of modern pizza parlors, upstaging Elmo and Abby and Cookie Monster—not to mention the pirate-themed face painters.” In lists, fables, dreams, and nightmares, Sparks’s characters make noise. A whimsical collection in the tradition of Donald Barthelme, delivered with Sparks’s unique touch. (Nick R.)
The Cactus League by Emily Nemens: “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else,” says the narrator in this novel’s first chapter, “everything changes.” Nemens delivers an engaging, eccentric cast of players, coaches, families, and others who inhabit the world of baseball—including a wise, witty, and somewhat omniscient sportswriter-narrator. From start to finish, Nemens captures the spirit of the game—both on the field and off, all meanings double-played: “Spring is a sensitive time for the ballplayers, working out the kinks of their winters, proving themselves into pitching rotations or fighting to keep themselves in starting lineups, competing against younger knees, quicker bats, unmarried men.” (Nick R.)
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)
I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert: Kispert’s debut story collection weaves through the lives of people whose deceptions have complicated their lives. In one piece, a man hires an actor to pretend to be his friend, in hopes of seeming less lonely and pathetic to a lover he’s worried will leave him. In another, a man’s lie that he’s an avid hunter makes his life difficult when he runs across a deer carcass. Another story features a theater producer who forces death row inmates to stage New Testament crucifixions. Throughout, the author tackles questions of identity and performance, as well as the difficulties of navigating a queer identity. (Thom)
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Celebrated novelist Erdrich, author of Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House, returns to the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in The Night Watchman. One of the most powerful voices in contemporary Native-American literature, Erdrich provides a fictionalization of her own uncle’s story, when he journeyed from North Dakota to Washington DC in 1953 to testify on a congressional hearing about the Termination Act, which would once again abrogate the United States’ treaties with a Native-American nation. The Night Watchmen, as with all of Erdrich’s writing, reminds us that Native-American culture is not hidden in history books and museums, but an identity that is current, or as she writes in The Plague of Doves, “History works itself out in the living.” (Ed S.)
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Millions’ own Mandel is back with The Glass Hotel, the long-awaited sequel to her much-beloved first novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist. Where Station Eleven explored a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a super-plague, The Glass Hotel explores what Mandel calls “the kingdom of money,” locales as disparate as a South Carolina prison and a container ship in international waters, and the messily intertwined lives of half-siblings Vincent and Paul. In a starred review of The Glass Hotel, Publishers Weekly says, “This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.” (Adam P.)
Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction by Nick Ripatrazone: The Millions’ own Ripatrazone has proven himself over the past decade to be one of our most adept critics at explicating the faith of poetry and the poetics of faith. Now in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, Ripatrazone asks in what sense Roman Catholicism informs the writings of some of our most crucial writers, from Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to more surprising authors like Toni Morrison (who converted) and Cormac McCarthy. For Ripatrazone, there is a fruitful tension between those who joined the Church, those who left it, and those who stayed. “Writers long for God,” Ripatrazone argues, “and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” (Ed S.)
Deacon King Kong by James McBride: The National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water returns with a novel set in 1969 in Brooklyn, addressing a murder through the various members of a bustling neighborhood. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.” (Lydia)
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: THE FINAL VOLUME IS UPON US. Mantel dazzled readers with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and now she completes her stunningly good account of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. One of the literary events of the young millennium. (Lydia)
New Waves by Kevin Nguyen: In this debut novel, friends Margo and Lucas’s plan to get revenge on the start-up where they work is upended when Margo dies in a car accident. Tommy Orange says it’s “a brilliant meditation on death and grief in the age of the Internet,” and in its starred review, Publishers Weekly hailed it as a “stellar debut,” calling it “a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism.” (Edan)
Actress by Anne Enright: The acclaimed Irish writer’s latest novel is a mother-daughter story about an aging theater actress, Katherine O’Dell, and her daughter Norah. For years, Norah admired her mother’s bohemian and unconventional path, but when Katherine commits a bizarre crime late in life, Norah has to reconsider her mother’s legacy and confront some long-buried secrets, including her father’s identity. Norah’s investigations into the past are combined with her own search for meaningful work and a life partner. (Hannah)
Lakewood by Megan Giddings: After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies and her family falls on hard times, she drops out of college and applies to participate in a secretive research project. The pay is good, there’s health insurance, but something’s off. Lena, a black millennial, joins a pool of subjects who are all black, Indian, or Latinx; all the researchers are white. Experimental eye drops change brown eyes blue, subjects are given mysterious medication, and it soon becomes clear that Lena’s participation may require more sacrifices than she’s willing to make. Giddings’s debut novel, Lakewood takes a long and horrified look at the costs levied on people of color in the name of science. (Kaulie)
Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera: This novel is the coming-of-age-while-coming-out story of 15-year-old Francisca, who is dragged against her will from Bogotá to Miami, where she is subjected to feverish religious services in a stinky room at the Hyatt, among other indignities of “Yanquiland.” But Francisca finds herself falling in love with the pastor’s daughter, and the novel becomes a layered portrait of exile, sexual awakening, and family bonds. As wise young Francisca puts it: “Women in my family possessed a sixth sense…from the close policing of our sadness: Your tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective female sadness to which we all contributed.” (Bill)
It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan: As its uplifting title implies, McMillan’s new novel is about women of a certain age refusing to see the late stage of life as a dreary slide toward death. At the center of a reunited group of high school classmates is 68-year-old Loretha Curry, head of a beauty-supply empire, whose world is turned upside down by an unexpected loss. “It’s about living in the here and now,” 68-year-old McMillan tells O magazine, “even being willing to fall in love and live happily ever after in these late chapters of our lives.” Like McMillan’s earlier hits, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, this novel looks destined for the bestseller lists. (Bill)
Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: The prolific cultural critic and author of Men Explain Things to Me returns with a memoir of her development as an artist as a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s and the violence against women that undergirds American life. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Absorbing…A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.” (Lydia)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: At 15, Vanessa Wye enters into an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, Vanessa must reckon with their relationship when Jacob is accused of sexually abusing another student. Author Janet Fitch says: “It’s breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.” Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity. (Carolyn)
Later by Paul Lisicky: In his newest memoir, Lisicky explores his coming-of-age as a gay man living in Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1990s. As the AIDS epidemic rages on, Lisicky searches for love and community in the face of grief, illness, and uncertainty. About the radiant memoir, Rebecca Makkai writes: “Both telescopic and microscopic, this story challenges and illuminates—and, as only the best books do, leaves the reader fundamentally transformed.” (Carolyn)
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn: The author was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island and this is the novel that will help many of us realize we need to read more fiction from Hawai‘i. In 1995, 7-year-old Nainoa Flores falls over the side of a cruise ship, but is rescued by a shark—a divine favor. When fortunes turn, his family are forced to confront their bonds, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. Marlon James calls it, “a ferocious debut.” (Claire)
Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby: A collection of essays on life, love, and work by the piercingly funny and trenchant writer, to follow the best-selling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The new collection documents bad dates with new friends, weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers,” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Read Irby’s latest piece on settling down, for The Cut. (Lydia)
Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos: A thriller of political and familial intrigue set against the public relations campaign for a New Mexico airport by the NBCC board member. Tim O’Brien calls the book “a suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable novel that explores the themes of betrayal, deceit, redemption, and cultural collision in modern-day New Mexico.” (Lydia)
August by Callan Wink: The author’s debut novel follows his 2016 short story collection, Dog, Run, Moon—a set so good that I hoped Wink could distract himself from fly-fishing long enough to range further and give us a novel. And now he has: this testament of the obstacles encountered by a Michigan boy battling his way toward manhood. Told with all the economy, clarity of character, and lively prose that mark Wink’s short stories, this is writing that would tell just as well around the campfire as it does on the page. (Il’ja)
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang: In what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has described as an “immaculate debut novel” and “a wholly engaging joy to read,” Chang follows a 24-year-old Asian-American woman as she leaves a prestigious tech reporting job in Silicon Valley to move with her boyfriend to upstate New York. The move, precipitated by her boyfriend’s entrance into graduate school, is more of an excuse than a reason. The narrator has been searching for a way out. But once there, she finds herself captivated by stories of Asian Americans in history, and forced to think more deeply than she ever has about her role in an interracial relationship. In this tender, funny coming-of-adulthood story, Chang asks what it means to live in a society that does not notice or understand you. (Jacqueline)
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: In a starred review, Kirkus called the latest novel from science fiction luminary Jemisin “fierce, poetic, uncompromising.” Set in Jemisin’s hometown of New York City, this work of speculative fiction features five New Yorkers who must come together to defend their city against the Enemy, which Jemisin described, in an interview with EW, as “a dangerous otherwordly tourist…trying to supernaturally gentrify the city to death.” Toilet stalls attack, backyard pools become portals, and FDR traffic “becomes a literal, tentacled killer.” So, your standard work of social realism. I can’t wait for this one. (Jacqueline)
So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith: Forty-two stories, some short, some not, some in email and one in the form of a recipe, make up Cross-Smith’s So We Can Glow. Different as they are, all the stories focus on the strange hearts of women and girls—brave and broken, longing and loving—and weave together to create this structurally playful and lyrically rich second collection. (Kaulie)
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: A collection of razor-sharp stories on technology, pathology, and humanity from a hugely talented writer. (Lydia)
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth: The author’s sixth book has a nigh-unforgettable premise: Two auditors for the American egg industry hatch an improbable plot to steal a thousand chickens from a farm in the dead of night. They assemble a team, gather their supplies, and head to the farm in question, where (predictably) a chain of disasters ensues. The author employs a wide range of voices—including, at one point, a chicken explaining what she thinks will happen when she dies—to furnish a heist story that’s unlike anything else. (Thom)
We Ride upon Sticks by Quan Barry: From the author of the acclaimed novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, We Ride upon Sticks is a wickedly funny and moving story that is set in the 1980s in Danvers, Mass., where the 1692 witch trials took place. The novel focuses on members of the Danvers High School girls’ field hockey team who will do anything to win—even witchcraft. A Kirkus starred review says “readers will cheer them on because what they’re really doing is learning to be fully and authentically themselves.” Maris Kreizman says the novel is “A perfect blend of aesthetic and narrative pleasure…It’s very funny and a little angry and a lot of fun.” (Zoë)
Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita: Yamashita blends Jane Austen’s characters with stories of Japanese Americans in this dynamic collection. In merging these characters, she reconsiders canonical works, questions cultural inheritance, and experiments with genre and form. Julie Otsuka says “whether she is riffing on Jane Austen, channeling Jorge Luis Borges, or meditating on Marie Kondo, Yamashita is a brilliant and often subversive storyteller in superb command of her craft.” (Zoë)
Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian: Arian’s first English novel follows Iranian bus driver Yunus Turabi who leads a simple life until he’s arrested during a strike. Kirkus’s starred review says calls the novel “a distressing, smartly interior tale of the horrors sown by oppressive politics.” (Carolyn)
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman: Zigman (Piece of Work) chronicles the downward spiral of a once-successful children’s book author whose life in midlife starts to erode—and so she does what? Inexplicably starts wearing the family dog in a BabyBjörn. Kirkus calls it “adept at Where’d You Go Bernadette–style snarkery.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: Following the success of Hua’s wonderful novel A River of Stars, Counterpoint is reissuing her debut collection of stories with new, never-published work. (Lydia)
Ordinary Insanity by Sarah Menkedick: A work of nonfiction and reportage on the crisis of maternal anxiety that is still treated as a taboo in American society. (Lydia)
I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux: A new collection of essays by the New York Times-bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus. In his new collection, Arceneaux explores how debt and a fear of personal economic collapse affect his decisions from dating to seeking medical care. (Lydia)
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)
Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixoticism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)
Mothers Before by Edan Lepucki, ed.: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)
Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)
The House of Deep Water by Jeni McFarland: River Bend, Mich., is a small town much like any other, except that it’s the hometown the three women at the core of McFarland’s debut novel couldn’t wait to leave. Years later, Linda, Paula, and Beth reluctantly return and soon find themselves living together at Beth’s father’s house. A May-December relationship, the arrest of one woman’s abuser, a confrontation over the town’s quiet racism, and all a small town’s secrets and scandals confront the women, who find it difficult to keep as quiet as they used to do. Recommended for readers who loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. (Kaulie)
Passage West by Rishi Reddi: It’s 1913 in California and Ram Singh has just arrived, anxious to make his fortune so he can return to his wife and infant son in India. He takes work on a friend’s cantaloupe farm, forcing fruit out of the desert of the Imperial Valley, while many others from the world over work farms up and down the valley. But anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in both support and violence, and a rift between friends threatens to finally uproot everything Singh has built. (Kaulie)
The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of (Gary) Lutz and (Diane) Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the later (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)
The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who are able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)
What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Haruki Murakami has called Kawakami his favorite new writer—which was enough to pique my interest! Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, this two-part novel tells the story of two sisters, one unmarried and childless, the other married with a daughter. In the first part of the book, the daughter is 12 and nervous about growing up; meanwhile her mother is looking into breast enhancement surgery. The second part of the novel takes place 10 years later, when the younger sister is contemplating artificial insemination. (Hannah)
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: When it comes to evoking the jagged edge of contemporary anxiety there might not be a more insightful writer working today than Moshfegh. That is, if the boundless dark potential of the human psyche is your thing. If it’s not, this atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat might not be for you. But, sophisticated reader that you are, you’re not afraid of the dark. Right? (Il’ja)
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)
Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)
A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman): In his Year in Reading, Omar El Akkad wrote called this “The book I’ve thought about the most this year.” In this novel by the Spanish writer, 32 seemingly feral children arrive unannounced in an Argentine town. Edmund White, in his introduction, called it “One of the best books I’ve ever read.” (Lydia)
Kept Animals by Kate Milliken: Milliken, who won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, explores the fissures that undergird a ranch, a stable, and a community in Topanga Canyon, Calif., just before a catastrophic fire. With themes of class, race, migration, work, land, and ownership, this is a beautifully written novel. (Lydia)
Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar: It’s rare to find a gripping archival mystery, which is unfortunate because archival mysteries are some of the best ones. In this novel of the gorgeous California coast, Sligar invents a troubled, tragic artist whose fate is pieced together through the clues in her archive, which a young journalist at loose ends is hired to put in order. A literary thriller that is also an exploration of art, women’s ambition, violence, and mental health. (Lydia)
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.”” (Lydia)
The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah: A novel that explores the aftermath of a school shooting told from the perspective of a Palestinian-American girl living in Chicago. Rebecca Makkai calls this “a striking and stirring debut, one that reaches its hands straight into the fire. Sahar Mustafah writes with wisdom and grace about the unthinkable, the unspeakable, and the unspoken.” (Lydia)
St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)
Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud: Trinidad-born Persaud hit the scene with a splash in 2017-2018 when she won both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and BBC National Story Award. Love after Love, her second novel, is a story of complicated, messy families and uncovered secrets, set primarily in Trinidad and New York City. André Aciman describes the novel as “Restless, heartbreaking, and intensely spellbinding.” (Sonya)
American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Novelist Mockett turns to nonfiction with this terribly relevant memoir about the time she spent with the conservative evangelicals who work the harvest on her paternal family’s 7,000-acre Nebraska wheat farm. Mockett, who grew up in northern California with her Japanese mother and a Nebraskan father who put the Midwest and farming behind him, gives herself over for a time to a way of life and ingrained beliefs that others in her milieu might never know from the inside out. Writes Susan Cheever: “Mockett’s account of the harvest is riveting, and the way she navigates her own plural identity as she travels with the combines is brilliant.” Fans of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota may especially want to check this one out. (Sonya)
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)
Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer: An Iranian man who has spent his life as a government interrogator travels to New York on a diplomatic mission and agrees to fulfill his deceased father’s wish of being buried in Iran, carrying his ashes back and reflecting on his own life on the way. (Lydia)
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: A story of four women in Seoul and the way that economic and social realities determine the paths available to them. Helen Oyeyemi writes, “Each voice in this quartet cuts through the pages so cleanly and clearly that the overall effect is one of dangerously glittering harmony. The tale told here is as engrossing as a war chant, or a mosaic formed with blades, every piece a memento sharpened on those unyielding barriers between us and our ideal lives.” (Lydia)
Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro: Forget eyes as the window to the soul: It’s really one’s pets who animate one’s intimate desires and projections. Case in point: Both my brother and partner’s brother recently have been transformed into baby-talking, cat-and-dog toting men (respectively) because of their fierce attachments. Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro, is a collection of original writing and art by fiction writers, poets, and academics, including Christine Schutt, Blake Butler, Scott McLanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, and Sarah Manguso. The menagerie accounted for includes a killer chihuahua, a catatonic toy poodle, and a backyard full of endangered desert tortoises. (Anne)
The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi: A story of tales told through generations, and the odd twists and turns of a man’s life, culminating in the Iranian Revolution. (Lydia)
Pew by Catherine Lacey: To some degree all of Lacey’s fiction focuses on ontology and states of being, conveying the intimacy of relationships, as well as their built-in claustrophobia and desire to flee. Lacey has a way of articulating this in a way that’s both beautiful and delightfully jarring. It seems this counterbalance of delightful and jarring will also hold true in her third novel, Pew (what a name, even), which depicts the itinerancy of a person shuffled between homes during a Forgiveness Festival, and who is nicknamed such for having been found sleeping in a church pew. (Anne)
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Little Eyes is her second novel to be translated into English (her first was the frenzied Fever Dream). In Spanish the novel’s title is Kentukis, which is also the name for the cutesy device, described as a “creepier Furby,” that acts as a portal between lives of the owner and the person who has purchased essentially a voyeur’s right to its camera feed. Embedded within this novel of international interconnectivity are questions of the exhibitionism and voyeurism tied up in our use of technology. Expect echoes of the Wachowskis’ Sense8, except told with what has been characterized as Schweblin’s “neurotic unease.” (Anne)
Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour: A collection of linked essays reflecting on Khakpour’s experience growing up in a family who fled Iran for Los Angeles and finding her way through intersecting communities during the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States. (Lydia)
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride: A woman walks into a hotel room. Then another, and another. Hotels in Austin, Avignon, Auckland, others, and each room reflects back something of herself. Sometimes she meets a man, sometimes she fights with her memories, and sometimes she thinks about what it would mean to go home. An avid McBride fan ever since A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I eagerly await the arrival of what’s sure to be a darkly brilliant work. (Kaulie)
These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card: A family story that travels from Jamaica to Harlem unveiling its secrets along the way. Victor LaValle says of the novel, “This book is painful and shocking but it can be funny as hell, too. What a talented writer. Maisy Card has written one of the best debut novels I’ve read in many years.” (Lydia)
Drifts by Kate Zambreno: Drifts is Zambreno’s first novel since Green Girl, and is first in a series that continues to explore and reify her obsessions with artistic ambition and the possibilities and failures of literature. Her narrator spends long days alone, corresponding with writers, and taking photos of residents and strays in her neighborhood alike—with nods to the likes of Rilke, Dürer, and Chantal Ackerman, among others. “Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin,” writes Paris Review staffer Rhian Sasseen, as does “her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty.” (Anne)
The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian: Set in his native Detroit in the grim year of 2009, Zadoorian’s new novel, The Narcissism of Small Differences, is a comedy of the compromises Joe Keen, a failed fiction writer, and Ana Urbanek, an advertising copy writer, have made over the course of their long relationship. Their compromises come in many flavors—financial, moral, professional—and as these two creative types near their dreaded 40s, they’re forced to confront the people they have become because of those compromises. Like Zadoorian’s earlier novels—The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, The Leisure Seeker and Beautiful Music—this new novel brims with wit, passion and soul. (Bill)
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon: This novel intertwines the lives of three women across centuries: Lily, a mother in Brooklyn in 2016 who is grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires; Vivian, a political wife in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., who refuses to obey her ambitious husband; and Esther, an independent young woman in ancient Persia who is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king. Solomon, the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride, explores how things have both changed and stayed the same. Mary Beth Keane says it’s “searingly inventive, humane, and honest.” (Claire)
Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: The capstone of Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy, this latest novel returns to the life of the boy David, the protagonist of the first two books in the series. But this time it’s David—in perhaps the story’s sole clear analogy to the life of Christ—dying too young. And was his life, stripped of every cursory marker of identity, worth anything? Is everything, as the sages have told us, meaningless? Coetzee, via David, leaves us with better template by which to ask—if never answer—these questions. (Il’ja)
All Adults Here by Emma Straub: I keep hearing online chatter that this is Straub’s best novel yet. When Astrid Strick witnesses an accident, a suppressed memory causes her to question the legacy of her parenting to her now-grown children. Elizabeth Strout says it’s, “totally engaging and smart book about the absolutely marvelous messiness of what makes up family.” Ann Patchett says it’s “brimming with kindness, forgiveness, humor.” Straub is a New York Times-bestselling author and co-owner of the vibrant Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic. (Claire)
Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford: Pulitzer-Prize winner Ford’s latest is a short story collection that explores themes of love and loss, taking readers to his native Mississippi, as well as New Orleans and Canada. The volume includes a novella, The Run of Yourself, which depicts a New Orleans widower learning to cope without his Irish wife. (Hannah)
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet: A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one takes place at a family vacation, where 12 children break off from their parents’ revelries and find themselves in apocalyptic circumstances. Karen Russell calls Millet “A writer without limits.” (Lydia)
Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron: A memoir on love and addiction in the early days of motherhood. (Lydia)
Shiner by Amy Jo Burns: Burns’s memoir, Cinderland, powerfully evoked the post-industrial ruins, both physical and psychic, of her childhood home in Mercury, Penn. In Shiner, she returns with a book similarly rooted in geography, the story of 15-year-old Wren Bird, who lives in isolation on a West Virginia mountain with her mother and father, an itinerant preacher and snake-handler. When tragedy strikes at one of her father’s sermons, Wren is forced to discover the truth about her family and imagine a life outside of her cloistered West Virginia existence. The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State, calls Shiner “a lush, gripping novel that explores love, grief, rage, and regeneration in a small Appalachian community,” and says, “I won’t forget the haunting mood, place, and characters that Burns brings to life.” (Adam P.)
Beauty by Christina Chiu: Amy Wong is an up-and-coming designer in New York, navigating a largely chauvinistic and cutthroat world and trying to see just where her ambition takes her. Novelist Michael Cunningham calls it “beautiful in the way of a scalpel blade.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Quotients by Tracy O’Neill: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree O’Neill’s (The Hopeful) sophomore effort follows a young couple attempting to make a seemingly conventional home together—but this story turns into a heady brew of fractured identities, aliases, big data, and what it means to live in this age of terrorism and global surveillance. Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human) describes it as “a love story rendered in galloping prose that takes you all over the map.” Looking forward to this timely and intriguing work. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)
Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha: Beha’s novel begins in 2009, with two prophets: a street preacher who promises an apocalyptic “Great Unveiling,” and Sam Waxworth, a religious skeptic and software engineer whose “political projection system” predicted every result of the 2008 election. Now a writer, Waxworth has been assigned a piece on Frank Doyle, a legendary, infamous commentator of baseball and politics. The assignment turns out to be more than Waxworth expected, widening and revealing his own faults. Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction—even down to the probing dialogue of his characters. (Nick R.)
Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak: Evelyn is in her late 30s struggling with an existential crisis, driving Californian freeways and avoiding her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband. As the novel unfolds, she decides to work with terminally ill patients, and the work allows her to grapple with her grief and pushes her to confront her past. Lydia Kiesling says, “Life Events is a hypnotic novel that beautifully grapples with fundamental questions about how to die and how to live. Karolina Waclawiak transports the reader into the streets of Los Angeles, the deserts of the southwest, the apartments of the dying, and a woman’s life at a moment of profound change.” (Zoë)
This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah: A collection of linked essays explores her experience of Americanness as the child of Gujarati immigrants in western New York and elsewhere. Kiran Desai says of the book, “While this memoir is frequently heartbreaking, it also dazzles with incandescent humor. One of the most nuanced, wise, and tender portraits of immigration I have ever read.” (Lydia)
Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma: Francis-Sharma’s prose shines in this epic and propulsive historical novel that is set in Trinidad and the American West, and follows the life of Rosa Rendón, who is talented, bright, and fierce. Laila Lalami writes that the novel “recreates the hybrid history of Native and African peoples during the era of American exploration and expansion,” and Peter Ho Davies says that it “adds (or better say restores) another strand to our national narrative. We’re all the richer for Book of the Little Axe.” (Zoë)
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: A personal account of her own immigration story and a probing assessment of how nationality is conceived of in America by the author of The Other Americans and The Moor’s Account. Viet Thanh Nguyen says of the book “Laila Lalami has given us a clear-eyed, even-handed assessment of this country’s potential—and its limits—through her insightful notion of conditional citizenship. Her book is a gift to all Americans—if they are willing to receive it.” (Lydia)
A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: From the author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of stories that go from Regency England to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (Lydia)
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: Critic and fiction writer Masad’s debut novel follows 27-year-old Maggie Krause, whose mother has just died in a car crash. On her return home, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes from her mother, each addressed to a man Maggie doesn’t know. Maggie sets out on a road trip to discover the truth about her mother’s hidden life, and her own difficulties with intimacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as a “queer tour de force.” (Jacqueline)
F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton: A debut collection of stories taking place in post-coal Appalachia, featuring dead humans, dead honeybees, told with humor and heart. Rachel Heng writes, “These stories take you apart slowly, piece by piece, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late. The stories are in your blood now. They live in you, with all their strangeness and decay, isolation and comfort, hellscapes and moments of grace.” (Lydia)
Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more— in a woman named Phoebe. (Carolyn)
Latitudes of Longing by Shubangi Shwarup: Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020, this novel brings together characters as disparate as a geologist and a yeti. Nilanjana S. Roy writes, “Astonishing and completely original, Shubhangi Swarup’s magical novel will change the way you see people—and landscapes, forests, the oceans, snow deserts. She stirs your curiosity about the earth, takes you from sadness and heartbreak to rich, unexpected surprises, and finds hope in the cracks of broken lives.” (Lydia)
My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir: A Haitian family who settles in New York and falls on hard times has the house itself to contend with in this literary thriller that Carolina De Robertis says “is poised to blow the roof off.” (Lydia)
Fairest by Meredith Talusan: A memoir about migration, transition, difference, and growing up by an award-winning journalist and editor of them. Garrard Conley calls this “a truly brilliant memoir with sparkling sentences, navigating incredibly complex questions of privilege with ease and candor.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s bestselling first novel, so I can’t wait for her second, about identical twin sisters who run away from their small Southern town at age 16. Ten years later, one of the sisters is passing as white, and not even her white husband knows the truth. The book moves back and forth in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and, according to the jacket copy, “considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations.” (Edan)
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): A long-awaited novel from elusive genius Ferrante, another work set in Naples. According to Il Libraio, “As you read, a vast panorama of characters slowly unfolds…a diverse and dynamic tableau of humanity. Once again, Elena Ferrante has not created a mere story but an entire world.” (Lydia)
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: By the author of Behold the Dreamers, Mbue’s new novel describes the struggle of a fictional village in Africa to combat a rapacious American oil company. Sigrid Nunez says “Mbue has given us a book with the richness and power of a great contemporary fable, and a heroine for our time.” (Lydia)
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg: You might be tempted to race through all 11 stories in Van Den Berg’s new collection, her first since Isle of Youth in 2013. This would be unwise, because haste and haunting are incompatible, and you really need to live with these ghosts, to slow your eyes over their uncanny weirdness until you’re both unsettled and seen—the hallmark quality of van den Berg’s writing. (Nick M.)
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: A new novel from the literary superstar follows the career of a fictional British psychedelic rock band. Mitchell described the book in the Guardian: “Songs (mostly) use language, but music plugs directly into something below or above language. Can a novel made of words (and not fitted with built-in speakers or Bluetooth) explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Mitchell asked. “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? Utopia Avenue is my rather hefty stab at an answer.” (Lydia)
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: The hotly anticipated debut novel from the editor of Catapult, A Burning takes place in contemporary India and follows three characters from different circumstances as they are thrown together after a bombing. Colum McCann says “This is a novel of now: a beautifully constructed literary thriller from a rare and powerful new voice.” (Lydia)
The Last Great Road Bum by Héctor Tobar: In the 1960s, Joe Sanderson left the Midwest to globe-trot and live a life worth writing about. By 1979, he had joined a leftist band of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, fighting against the U.S.-backed military junta. Not long after, Sanderson was dead, becoming one of only two known Americans to have fought and died for this cause. In the late aughts, Tobar acquired a trove of Sanderson’s writings, and has since used them as an outline for this fictionalized account of Sanderson’s life—which turned out to be worth writing about, after all. (Nick M.)
Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino: The week of her wedding, a woman known only as The Bride is visited by the spirit of her dead grandmother, who appears in the form of a parakeet. Her grandmother tells her: Don’t get married. Seek out your brother. As the novel follows The Bride in the increasingly hectic few days between this encounter and her wedding, Bertino tells a complex story about family, responsibility and the need to become our best selves. (Thom)
Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall: From the author of Our Kind of Cruelty, a book the Washington Post called “strange, sexy,” comes a new mystery about death, grief, and secrets. The book opens with the murder of Nancy Hennessy, a woman whose life looks perfect from the outside (money, loving family, etc.). But wait! This may surprise you, but Nancy’s life is not perfect. When the investigators fail to come up with answers, Nancy’s two best friends must take it upon themselves to learn what really happened to her. Out come secrets galore, plus a nuanced depiction of complex female friendships. For fans of Patricia Highsmith and Paula Hawkins. (Jacqueline)
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoun Frazier: A kind of sibling/cousin to Convenience Store Woman, Frazier’s Pizza Girl follows the picaresque adventures of an 18-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl in suburban L.A. Her life becomes further complicated when she befriends and becomes obsessed with a single mother on her route. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry: Spanning decades, Castleberry’s mysterious debut novel follows The Seekers, a group who wants to create a utopia, and the violence that rises to meet—and squash—them. Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan calls the novel “sharply-tuned, funny, satisfyingly strange, and preternaturally poised.” (Carolyn)
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: A novel of self-discovery following a Palestinian-American girl as she navigates queerness, love addiction, and a series of tumultuous relationships. Tony Tulathimutte says of the book, “Zaina Arafat speaks for the persistently hungry.” (Lydia)
Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman: Wendy Doe, found on a bus to Philadelphia, has no money, ID, or memory. Suffering from dissociative fugue, she becomes a body to be experimented on to some, a source of fascination and wonder for others. But who is Wendy Doe, really? Untethered from obligations and history, who can she become? The novel follows on the success of Wasserman’s first book, Girls on Fire. Leslie Jamison praises it as “not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightness by Emily Temple: The first novel from LitHub senior editor Temple, The Lightness is “psychologically wise and totally wise-assed, all while being both cynical and spiritual,” according to one Mary Karr. After Olivia runs away to a place known as the Levitation Center, she joins the camp’s summer program for troubled teens and falls into a close-knit group of girls determined to learn to levitate. Of course, it’s not that easy, could even be dangerous, but Olivia’s search for true lightness pushes her towards the edge of what’s possible in this novel that blends religious belief, fairy tales and physics. (Kaulie)
A Short Move by Katherine Hill: By the author of the novel The Violet Hour and co-author of The Ferrante Letters, this novel follows a young man from Virginia through his rise to the NFL, and takes the microscope to the disintegration of his life as an adult. (Lydia)
Michael Nye is not certain whether he considers his debut, All the Castles Burned, a sports novel. “My first response is no, this is not a sports novel,” he said. “But I think that’s just me not wanting to have my novel pigeonholed.” Owen Webb, a scholarship student at a prestigious private high school in Ohio and the novel’s protagonist, is a prodigious point guard. The friendship he builds with Carson, an older student, grows while they shoot hoops during a shared free period. Basketball is at the heart of All the Castles Burned. When thinking about sports novels he really appreciated, like Fat City by Leonard Gardner, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, or The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill, he hit on one of the things that makes his book work so well. “These sports novels, and other really terrific ones, aren’t about winning a game…Sports are just a way of getting into those themes that drive our characters to making critical choices in their lives with irreversible consequences. Does it really matter if a character hits a game-winning shot? On the surface, of course not. Beneath the surface? Maybe it does.” It’s only a game until it isn’t.
The Millions: One of the things that I was most impressed by was the way the basketball games were written. How did you approach those scenes? Were there any books or pieces of writing you were looking toward as guides for how to write about the game?
Michael Nye: One of the things that has always struck me about sportswriting is how rarely it makes game action vivid. For beat writers, they have to churn out the facts of the game—who scored what at what point in the game and so forth—and rarely get to describe the action in a vivid way. I wanted to avoid moments that a reader might typically see in any kind of sports story, whether it’s in a book or in a movie. No miraculous shots, no wild scrambles of pure luck, no buzzer beaters. So I picked moments that Owen would experience and view in his unique way: Carson shooting a free throw, his on-the-ball defense at the end of the game, and all the small gestures that can lead to a fistfight. Each gave me the chance to do something a little different; respectively, the careful examination and memory of his friend and the mechanics of shooting; the tension and action of one moment; and the slow build up of game play leading to a drama much bigger than just a basketball game. Because I haven’t seen this described in other novels, I felt free to write them however I wanted to without the restraints of influence.
TM: I’m glad that you mentioned the immediate tension and the slow build up in the games because that was one of the most interesting things about the games and the novel as a whole. There’s a sense reading it that that a few characters—Carson, Owen, Owen’s father—could blow up at any minute. All sorts of small moments in the novel feel like they could directly or indirectly result in something explosive and tragic. What was the process of winding it so tightly like?
MN: The first drafts of this novel were a bit of a free-for-all. My driving thought was to finish the book, to get to the end, hurry the story along, and I didn’t think much about how to make the story tense and compelling. In later drafts, I thought of Owen being squeezed, the sense of pressure building around him.
What really helped to give the book tension was thinking about how to use first person. One of my writer-friends, Rachel Swearingen, pointed this out: Owen has survived these events and is in the here and now telling the story. The reader doesn’t know what the present day Owen is like, where he’s speaking from, how he turned out, only that he is alive and telling the story. Owen looks back on his life and sees certain events differently, perhaps, than he did in the moment. We all do that, right? We very clearly remember yesterday; we are hazy about five weeks ago, five months ago, five years ago. Neuroscience research indicates that we change and shape our memories all the time to better fit who we are right now. The more we access a memory, the more unreliable it becomes. So, every time Owen slows down, ponders, focuses on his story, the reader is reminded of the survivor, the teller of the tale. Rachel urged me to remind the reader—sometimes, not too much—of Owen’s role as narrator, and I think that really helped to construct tension and intrigue into his story.
TM: How many drafts of the book did you go through? And how much did Owen’s reflective narration change over that time?
MN: On my laptop, I have eight drafts. But I’m not sure how significantly different each draft is from the other. When I’m revising, a “new” draft might be a complete rewrite or it might be changing the word “the” and everything else in between. In the end, I would guess closer to six drafts, but I’m honestly not sure.
What changed? The book has two timelines, the first in 1994 to 1995 and the second in 2008. In early drafts of the novel, the book was split evenly between those periods. I was trying to write something sort of Nabokovian, and it only took a few months [to learn] that I don’t write anything like Nabokov and don’t much want to. It was the completely wrong influence for my writing and, more specifically, this book. As I thought about what this book was really exploring, about male friendship and class, I focused on Owen’s formative teenage years, and saved the present for a much shorter period of time. Shifting in both time and character (from a Nabokov antihero to, say, a Richard Russo storyteller) reshaped Owen, both who tells the story and the events he chose to share.
TM: I was really interested in how you dealt with class throughout the book. Owen is a scholarship student at an expensive private school and Carson is from a very rich family, and there are things about his politics sprinkled throughout the book. I was wondering how you were thinking about class in a political context as you were working on this book.
MN: There have always been class divisions, in 1994 and of course today, anytime in civilization, really. I wanted this sense of class to be particularly to Cincinnati, to the Midwest, to the era. By attending a private school, Owen becomes aware of what he doesn’t have, which is often how we think about wealth: what is denied or unattainable rather than valuing what we already possess and cherish. So much is in the details, the things that Owen is learning to become aware of, and how easily, as Carson shows, that leads to entitlement.
TM: Can you elaborate on how you approached the particularities of the place and era?
MN: I graduated both high school and college in the 1990s, so all pop culture elements like movies, books, TV shows, world events, the O.J. Simpson trial, and so forth, are fairly ingrained in my memory. There are enough details in the novel to get the facts right, but I’m reluctant to rely to heavy on culture references to make characters vivid or to move a plot along. In some ways, I want to deemphasize this by having the characters aware of, but dismissive, of events such as the Russian invasions of Chechnya or the Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress in 1994.
In fact, thinking about it now, the lack of cell phones really helps to force action into a story. Owen can’t find out about Carson with a Google search. Caitlin can’t post selfies. Google didn’t exist. Teenagers are always going to find ways to be bored or kill time, but something as simple as “I need to use a phone” helped add tension to the novel by forcing Owen to go home, leave messages, wait for phone calls. I want this world to be recognizable as another era, but I didn’t want to be steeped in nostalgia that it would feel kitschy or forced.
TM: Was that something you found difficult to avoid, having been the same age around the same time?
MN: I have no idea how effectively I truly balanced the nostalgia in this book. You know how you often only see a story or novel clearly once you’ve been removed from it for a time? Organizing my home office, I recently came across my story collection, and started flipping through it, and mostly thinking “ugh.”
I really didn’t find the nostalgia hard to avoid. While I had a perfectly fine childhood, I’m suspicious of nostalgia in narrative art. It always rings false to me. I often think I’m not remembering my past correctly: I tend to sugarcoat things, so as a fiction writer, I distrust my own memories and avoided using my specifics in the novel. Which is a good thing: I know then I’m writing Owen’s story rather than some bastardized version of my own life.
I didn’t heavily research this era. I didn’t want to be tied down to the facts when writing fiction. I double-checked that the references to music, film, and television shows were correct along Owen’s timeline, but in doing so, I was operating as a fact checker rather than looking for influence for the story. I don’t particularly enjoy doing research. And, really, the past never seems that long ago to me. When thinking about being a teenager in the 1990s, I never think “that was so long ago!” until I glance at the calendar. That’s the thing about the past and memory: when called up, it’s so visceral and sharp that it seems recent, urgent, right there in the room with me. Owen feels the same way; the Owen at the end of the novel doesn’t so much look back on his past as he relives it and carries it around with him all the time.
TM: I think my favorite piece of 1990s culture in the book were the scenes of Owen watching basketball
MN: BOOMSHAKALAKA! The 1990s is when I fell in love with basketball and the NBA (and, clearly, NBA Jam) so writing about that era was fun. I’m not sure TV ever got better than when you had a big dumb box with buttons on it, the cable literally attached to the back of your TV, that you had to thwack to change stations.
TM: Who were your go-to NBA Jam pair?
MN: For a long time, my go-to with NBA Jam was the Hornets: Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill. But! In NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, I’m pretty much unstoppable with the Warriors. Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber. Having a combo of one player for threes [and] steals and the other for rebounds [and] blocks is key. I’m a pretty big fan of 16 bit arcades/bars where I can go nuts on that game for a solid two hours.
TM: You’re a big Celtics fan, so here’s the most important question: are the Boston Celtics going to make the NBA finals this year or what?
MN: Well, why not? I’ll be a complete and total homer right now and insist they are making the Finals because Cleveland is a dumpster fire and I have no faith that We The North are anything but a regular-season team. Banner #18, baby!
The 2015 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honorees have been announced! This year’s honorees are Angela Flournoy for The Turner House (our review here), Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi for Fra Keeler (our review here), Colin Barrett for Young Skins (which appeared in our most recent book preview), Tracy O’Neill for The Hopeful (you can read her Millions articles here and here), and Megan Kruse for Call Me Home. For all of the National Book Award longlists, check out our post.
A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons.
Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history.
It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer.
Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough.
And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition.
More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning — that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?”
Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog.
What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through.
Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought — and footnotes — that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms:
It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other.
Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness.
Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?”
When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting.
While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams — and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land?
There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste.
In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing…These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers.
But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous.
Image Credit: Flickr/slgckgc.