The Mars Room: A Novel

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National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced



The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2018 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The finalists include 31 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:

Fiction:
Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Man Booker Prize)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

Nonfiction:
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (part of our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

Biography:
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

Autobiography:
The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story by Richard Beard
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home by Nora Krug
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Poetry:
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (read our review)
The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list)
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

Criticism:
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview)

Here are the winners of the three stand-alone awards: Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to book culture. Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on March 14, 2019.

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

These are tough times for fiction. According to a report released by the Association of American Publishers, between 2013 and 2017, sales of adult fiction fell by 16%, and according to BookScan, which tracks print book sales, no fiction title topped a million copies in print in either 2016 or 2017. In contrast, just six years ago, in 2012, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy sold 14 million copies in print, along with millions more e-books.
Earlier this year, in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, literary agent Lynn Nesbit, whose clients include Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, and Jeffrey Eugenides, told me she thinks the current political climate is partly to blame for sagging fiction sales. “Even commercial fiction isn’t selling well,” she said. “Everyone is consumed with reality, the news. Every day there’s some new breaking scandal. We’ve all become ambulance chasers.”
Nesbit is onto something, I think. For too many of us, the hours we used to spend at night reading are now consumed with deep dives into polling numbers or the latest twist in the Mueller investigation. But while the space Donald Trump is taking up in the collective American mind is surely a drag on fiction sales, our obsession with all things Trump is but one particulate in an ever-thickening haze of digital noise coming between ourselves and our thoughts. Novels are hard, Facebook posts are easy – and more and more we seem to be going with easy.
I’m no exception. If you take out the novels I get paid to review, I’m reading less fiction these days, and the novels I do read for pleasure tend to lean more heavily on plot-driven suspense than on literary quality. Still, every few months a great novel punches a hole in the digital fog. Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry  was one of these for me this year. With its heady mix of publishing industry gossip and writerly ambition, this enigmatic little novel worked like a 300-page internet-blocking app, locking me on my couch for three nights straight, absorbed only by the pleasures of words on paper.
The first half of Asymmetry traces a May-December affair between Alice, a twentysomething book editor, and Ezra Blazer, an aging literary lion plainly modeled on the late Philip Roth. That, as has been widely reported, Halliday herself had an affair with Roth while she was working for Roth’s literary agent Andrew Wylie, adds voyeuristic appeal, but what might have become tawdry and puerile is instead deeply affecting. This is the book Roth’s own creepily priapic late sex novels should have been.
Then, halfway through, Halliday abruptly abandons Alice and Ezra’s doomed affair for a wildly different tale of Amar Ala Jaafari, an Iraqi American economist enduring a Kafkaesque detention in border control at London’s Heathrow Airport. If the opening section of the novel goes down like spiked fruit punch on a summer’s day, this second section is more like a heavy dose of ketamine: deadening, surreal, and profoundly disturbing. I raced through the first part and battled my way through the second, but through it all, I never once felt the urge to check my Facebook feed.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room had a similar effect on me, though Kushner’s women’s prison tale is ultimately a knottier, angrier read. I bought The Mars Room with Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers and read The Flamethrowers first. The Flamethrowers is a very good novel perhaps a little too in love with how good a novel it is, forever flaunting its central character’s preternatural cool and its deeply researched forays into the New York art world and radical Italian politics. The book seems to constantly demand of its readers that they tell it again how smart it is.
The Mars Room also features a fiercely cool female narrator in a fictive universe few readers will know first-hand – in this case, a bleak women’s prison in California’s Central Valley – but The Mars Room spends little time insisting on its own excellence. It is merely excellent. The plot, such as it is, turns on the longing of Kushner’s narrator, a 29-year-old exotic dancer serving two consecutive life sentences, to be reunited with her young son, but the novel’s emotional power lies in its ability to lock you up, whoever you are, with 3,000 poor, desperate women in a featureless wasteland where wine is made from ketchup and fruit juice, violence is everywhere, and the best anyone can do – indeed, all there is to do – is survive another day.
I wanted to click onto Facebook a thousand times, but, Reader, I did not.

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A Year in Reading: Marta Bausells

Looking back at this hectic old year, I am reminded of that Nora Ephron quote: “Whenever I read a book I love, I start to remember all the other books that have sent me into rapture, and I can remember where I was living and the couch I was sitting on when I read them.”

Not many books sent me into rapture this year. About a year ago I became an official book recommender, and with the absolutely immense privilege of reading for work sometimes comes the frustration of not always being able to give books all the time you’d like to, as well as the danger of reading as obligation, which can occasionally lead to burnout. I had to find a way to keep up with the current releases while I was simultaneously working on my own writing and attempting to gravitate towards my own personal reading list (which isn’t all, you know, books that came out this year)—all the while dozens of books started arriving through the door every single day, threatening to take over the small apartment in which I live. Let’s say it took some adjustment.

I do remember some random moments of pure peace, like being immersed in Fire Sermon in Berlin, last winter, and reading it all on a leather armchair which sat under an old GDR poster of the life cycle of the malaria mosquito. The city was raging with life and plans, but it was winter and the weather was brutal—and the book was pulling me in harder than the possibility of all the raves in the world. Or like the weeks in spring that I spent on a Cheryl Strayed binge—I finally caught up with her books and, combined with her podcast, putting myself in her orbit for a while felt like healing.

The following felt like cheating, and I enjoyed these books so: reading The Folded Clocks on a solitary week on the beach; reading Cool for You this fall, as the days got abruptly shorter in London; rereading Too Much and Not the Mood on a writing residency in the summer as the rain just would not stop pouring, and underlying almost every sentence.

I read some splendid debut novels: Freshwater, Ponti, America Is Not the Heart, Pretend I’m Dead. And second novels: Normal People (even if its extreme hype can feel a bit exhausting) and Circe are stunning.

I read some breathtaking (literally—I remember gasping at several points during all of them) story collections: Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Mothers by Chris Power (which, like Normal People, isn’t out in the U.S. yet and American readers are in for a treat).

I found solace and channels for my rage in Heather Havrilesky’s What If This Were Enough? and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. I found permission and awe in Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I laughed with and felt endless tenderness and admiration for Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin, and recently finished How to Murder Your Life which left me broken and wishing I could hug Cat Marnell.

This year was also full of fantastic fiction and nonfiction by some faves (Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Deborah Levy, Rachel Kushner, Melissa Broder) but that, as they say, is not news by this point.

I ended the year listening to the audiobook of Becoming, which meant more than 19 hours of Michelle Obama reading me her life story, which did GOOD things to me and I recommend.

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A Year in Reading: Chris Power

I’ve spent much of this year writing a novel, which I expected would have a big impact on my reading habits. But apart from some research assignments—a lot of recent Russian history and a few books about Berlin—I pretty much went on as I normally do, reading a mixture of books that I had to for review, and others I felt a sudden compulsion to pick up in order to postpone reading anything with a deadline attached to it.

At the beginning of the year I wrote about Denis Johnson’s posthumous story collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which I think is a capital G, capital B Great Book about death. I’ve read Jesus’ Son multiple times since it rewired my brain in the summer of 1993, but this assignment gave me an opportunity to dig in to his whole body of work: the poetry, the plays, the reportage and all those fascinating novels. He could have done the same thing over and over and people would have lapped it up, but it’s striking just how varied a body of work he produced.

I read some of the short fiction of Gerald Murnane, which has been collected in Stream System. Like all his work, it represents another facet of the same project all his work is engaged in furthering: the mapping, in intensive and idiosyncratic detail, of a single (and singular) consciousness. If you haven’t read Mark Binelli’s extraordinarily entertaining Times profile of him, do so at once.

I read Chekhov’s story “Gusev” a couple of times for something I was writing. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it altogether—maybe 10?—but I can never remember it whole; there’s always some part of it that presents itself as new, or that I register in a way I never registered it before. There are so many Chekhov stories I haven’t read but I seem to keep going back to the same ones, either because they’re inexhaustible or I have a terrible memory. E.M. Forster had a good line about not ever being able to remember what happens in Chekhov’s stories, but I’ve forgotten what it is.

Someone, and I’m afraid I have genuinely forgotten who it was, recommended a Heinrich Böll story from 1955 called “Mürke’s Collected Silences” to me (and I can’t recall who translated my edition, either; apologies, translation community). It’s about fascism, guilt and belief, and joins Krapp’s Last Tape in the pantheon of great works involving tape editing.  

I guzzled Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and then reread the final book, Kudos, when I reviewed it alongside volume six of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken). I’m someone who found pretty much all of Knausgaard’s sequence compelling, even volumes three and four, where I think a lot of readers drop away. But it was only during the 400-page “essay” on Hitler in the new book that I got really bogged down. It’s an enormously tedious misstep that should have been cut, or at least significantly reduced in size (I mean, the book would still be 800 pages without it). But while there are many passages in the Knausgaard that I will undoubtedly return to, it’s Cusk’s trilogy that will, I think, continue to generate fresh meanings on repeated readings. Not that it’s a competition, but the two projects are so interestingly intertwined (Cusk was inspired to write her three novels after reading Knausgaard; he appears in Kudos transformed into a lugubrious Portuguese novelist) that it’s hard not to consider them alongside one another.

I read and loved Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, the last of which kept me absorbed, and by virtue of that sane, for four hours’ standing on a packed train from Scotland to London on the last day of the Edinburgh Festival. I read Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, which is as amazing as everybody who’s read it always says it is. I reread some Alice Munro (“Differently” and “Fits”), and I read Seven Years by Peter Stamm because I’d somehow heard that it’s a great Berlin novel—this despite the fact that it’s set entirely in Munich. Oh well, it’s all Germany I guess.

This year, as every year, I bought many more books than I read. Some of them will probably still be unread when I die, but not all of them.

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A Year in Reading: Jen Gann

Toward the end of 2017, a woman emailed me with an offer to buy my 1-year-old son. She could tell I didn’t want to be a mother based on an essay I’d written, and she believed my son deserved someone more like herself. She would meet me anywhere in the country, with an amount of money that was up to me, she wrote, then referenced the park a few blocks from where my family and I lived. Two weeks later, we moved across the country. The move was planned, but because of this email and other messages like it, I tried to stay quiet about our location in public, internet spaces. That woman and her kind are welcome to think I still live near that park in Brooklyn.

Here, our books live in shelving far from where I usually read. This house has an upstairs and a downstairs. The garage—which holds two strollers and a couple of bikes—doesn’t have a car, but occasionally we borrow one and park it in the driveway. Every weekday, I leash up the dog and walk the two blocks between this rented house and my son’s preschool. Often, I don’t say more than a few words to anyone besides my family. My companions are books and podcasts, single-sided relationships with other people’s words.

One of the reasons we moved has to do with our son, who was born with a progressive genetic disease. We had read scientific papers stating the value of the ocean for people with compromised lungs like his; we had scrutinized the lung-function data on patients in the area. Immediately after we moved, his new doctor increased the amount and intensity of his treatments and medications. Part of this was age: He newly qualified for certain medications; he’d finally grown big enough to wear the medical vest that shakes up the persistent mucus forming in his lungs.

When my son’s at his healthiest, he needs about two hours of treatment a day. His father does the mornings while I hide in the bedroom with headphones on and work. I do the evenings. The other day our son told me, “Daddy does the sun, and you do the moon.” Sometimes I catch myself looking forward to this time of day, when work is over and my son is watching TV in my lap and I have a book in one hand and his nebulizer in the other, and I’m overcome with shame.

Early in the year, as the compressor hummed and the medical vest vibrated, I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which you don’t need me to tell you is searing and incredible, and then I read Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. I read all of Ruth Ware’s books, then the two Tana French ones I hadn’t read. I read Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and found it chilling and indicting in a way I think went largely unobserved, and then I tried and failed to write effectively about whatever it is I mean by that.

My son caught colds and needed more treatments. It was so tempting to be angry when we were told to increase treatment time to four hours, as if those doctors and nurses were punishing my son instead of trying to keep him out of the hospital. One or two times, maybe more, I couldn’t stop myself and brattily asked how any parent who works is supposed to keep up with this level of treatment. Somewhere in there, I tried reading memoirs, by Emily Rapp and Tara Westover, and worried I would never be able to figure out memoirs.

In the spring, I read what I believe are three essential Mom Books: The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which is the experiential novel of early motherhood any baby-curious person who cares about the West—any person, really—should read. I reread Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything when it arrived to me in its beautiful hardcover form with just as much greed as I did the first time around, when I squinted into a strangely formatted PDF that I made Meaghan send me. If Lydia’s book is experiential, then Meaghan’s book is an analysis of the motherhood experience—a balance of description and examination, of humor and emotion. I also read Angela Garbes’s Like a Mother, the very human look at the science of pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. Angela is a dream teacher and writer for someone like me, who loves a story but isn’t an experienced reader of science.

(I want to note that I am very biased and have edited work by all three of these women. But I will also note that I have commissioned and assigned pieces by them for the exact reason that they are very good writers.)   

One of the only books by a man I read this year was Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I needed to reread Solomon’s book before writing about the documentary of the same name, which is a mash-up of Solomon’s story and the stories of families with children who are profoundly different from their parents. I have complicated, mixed feelings about Solomon’s work, partially because I think it’s incorrectly heralded as a tribute to the beauty of humanity. The book has its beautiful parts, as does the film, but I think what his work is truly about is the stubborn and at times ugly persistence it takes to love and care for any child, no matter that child’s level of difference.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner wore me to the bone, the first book I picked up this year where I was not expecting to encounter so much female pain. It’s written in one long ache of mother anguish, and it’s a San Francisco book, but almost unrecognizably so. Today, the western side of the city feels haunted—during the time Kushner’s writing about, those ghosts are alive and walking the streets. I didn’t read very many collections of short stories this year, but I did read Curtis Sittenfeld’s new collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, and each story was just as funny and sad and acutely observed as her novels are.

It was summertime by then, though summer does not exist in any physical way where I happen to live. I don’t remember what I was reading the day this happened, but I know we were spending the weekend an hour south at our friends’ house. It was me, my husband, a couple he’s known since college, our son, their daughter. The kids are about 10 months apart and get along—the last fight they had was about the speed at which a song should be sung (my son thought fast, she thought slow). Usually, if we’re all together, she sits with my son during treatment, recognizing a free opportunity to watch an hour’s worth of TV. But that day he refused to watch the show she wanted (Peppa) and treatment is a time when we let my son have his way, since treatment is a blunt manifestation of how much has not gone and will not go his way. After she got up and ran out to the deck, my son turned his attention to what I think was a show about trucks, and I read whatever it was on my Kindle.

Maybe 10 minutes in, we heard knocking—my husband and our friends’ daughter were at the window, grinning and motioning for our attention. My son looked away from his screen and stood up, saying something—it’s hard to understand someone who’s both 2 and wearing silicone—and clawing at the nebulizer mask I was holding over his face. He managed to get it off and I turned off the compressor as his voice unmuffled and I understood what he was repeating: no more no more no more no more. I froze and then unfroze and shook my head at my husband to try to get them to go away, to make him realize what it was doing to our son, seeing that healthy child playing on the other side of the glass. Finally I mouthed stop in a way that reached him, and the expression on his face collapsed, and he and our friends’ daughter and their freedom moved out of sight. I sat my son back down and turned the compressor back on and we both turned back inward, to our screens filled with other people’s words.

My favorite book is Irma Voth by Miriam Toews; if you were taken by Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, read this—it’s even better. So many people I know love Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, and I do too, but Irma Voth is the best depiction of impossible, unquenchable female pain I’ve ever read. I don’t remember how I eventually got a galley of her newest, Women Talking, but once I finally got it I was uncharacteristically prim about starting it. A few weeks went by before I finally did. Somehow I hadn’t realized it was narrated by a man and at first I was mildly disappointed, and then I was selfishly thankful, because I think the amount of female pain in Women Talking might flatten the person who reads it without the buffer of a narrator one step removed.

The year felt like it might already be over when the Camp Fire started. Suddenly, everyone had become fluent in the air quality index, and for once, our child wasn’t the only one who couldn’t play outside. But our homes were fine; unlike the people in Paradise, our possessions and everyday lives had not gone up in flames. At first, maybe one in three of our neighbors wore a mask to walk their dogs through the thick-crisp air. We still took our son preschool, trying to shuttle from indoors to indoors as quickly as possible. Then our son’s nose ran with thick snot, and he began to cough. The city closed all the schools, the office workers were told to stay home. Our son’s cough worsened. The only recommendation you could get from anyone was to stay inside and wear a mask, but my husband desperated his way through a Target and came home with the store’s last $400 air purifier. The now-familiar guilt bloomed after we used it to measure the air quality inside the room where our son sleeps. He and I got on a plane to my parents’ house the next day.

Those few weeks require a long, complicated explanation. They cost hours of phone calls, thousands of dollars, and two weeks away from my son. My husband didn’t see him for nearly three. At one point, our son’s blood oxygen level was the lowest I’d ever seen it—when I updated our tough-as-nails nurse from the small-town doctors’ office near my parents’ house, it was the first time I’d ever heard her sound worried. I left him with my parents in the hopes that level would go up and went to New York for work and thank god, it did. For a few days it seemed like he was getting better. I was sitting at a desk in the office I used to go to every day when my mom called to say he’d spiked a fever and the small-town doctor was certain he had the flu and—well, we all knew what that could mean for him. If there’s any skill I’ve gained from dedicated reading, it’s whatever mettle is necessary to cry quietly while writing a few emails.

In the end, he did not have the flu. We still don’t know what that sudden fever was about. He seemed to feel terrible, then a bit better. Just like that, reality turned back into something I could face without first pulling a security grate down over my mind.

The past few days I’ve been reading Heavy by Kiese Laymon because Heather Havrilesky wrote that it’s overflowing with a brutal honesty, and whose own new book, What If This Were Enough?, is just as overfull with sometimes painful truth. There is so much I hope for my son, and one hope is that he finds something that gives him what reading gives to me: a way to rest from the kind of violence it takes to endure regular life, which I think he might need more than I do—since it must take even more violence to endure regular life when your body is actively trying to end it for you. I could say that I hope 2019 will be different, but I suspect it will be more of the same, requiring many books and lots of ugly persistence and all the stubborn love we can live with.

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A Year in Reading: Anna Wiener

I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.

After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.

I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.

I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.

A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.

I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.

Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.

On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.

This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.

And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.

Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.

It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.

I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.

This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.

In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.

And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
More from A Year in Reading 2018

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The Millions Top Ten: September 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

5 months

2.
5.

The Overstory

4 months

3.
2.

Lost Empress

5 months

4.
8.

There There

3 months

5.
7.

The Incendiaries

2 months

6.
4.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

6 months

7.
3.

The Ensemble

3 months

8.
6.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

6 months

9.


Washington Black

1 month

10.


Transcription

1 month

 

Pulitzer-winner Andrew Sean Greer holds this month’s top spot with his latest novel, Less. Two more months of strong sales and he’ll ascend to our Hall of Fame, just as Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) and Ahmed Saadawi (Frankenstein in Baghdad) seem poised to do in October.

One of two newcomers this month is Esi Edugyan, whose Booker-shortlisted novel Washington Black is based on a famous 19th-century criminal case and tells the story of an 11-year-old slave’s incredible journey from the cane fields of the Caribbean to the Arctic, London, and Morocco. “In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language,” wrote Martha Anne Toll for our site last week, “the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England.”

Edugyan is joined on our list by Kate Atkinson, whose new period novel Transcription focuses on a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. “As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel,” wrote Sonya Chung in our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and evidently her feelings are shared by many Millions readers alike.

Spots for both books were opened when Warlight and The Mars Room dropped from our ranks. Elsewhere on the list, shuffling abounds. The Overstory rose to second position after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and There There rose as well after being longlisted for the National Book Award.

Meanwhile, if you’ll turn your attention to this month’s “near misses” below, you’ll see The Golden State, the debut novel from Lydia Kiesling, our intrepid editor. Longtime readers of this site are no doubt familiar with Lydia’s brand of antic, incisive writing – she’s one of the few authors who’ve made me laugh and tear up in the same piece – but prepared as I was, I’ll admit this book floored me in the best way. Not only is it an engrossing depiction of a very particular parent’s mind, but it’s also an exploration of what it means to connect with others, raise them, be influenced and repulsed by them, as well as overwhelmed by them alike. As a bonus, there’s also an absolutely ruthless and necessary skewering of modern university administrative work, and the entire story vibrates with an extreme sense of place. I cannot wait to read what Lydia writes next and in the meantime I encourage you all to check this one out.

This month’s near misses included: Severance, The Practicing Stoic, and The Golden State. See Also: Last month’s list.

2018 Man Booker Shortlist Announced

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The 2018 Man Booker Shortlist has been revealed!

In its 50th year, the Man Booker Prize continues to uphold its mission to “promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom.” Wittled down from the 13-title longlist, the 6-book shortlist includes writers from the UK, US, and Canada—three, two, and one, respectively. With her debut novel, Johnson is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker at 27, and Edugyan is the only nominee this year to have been shortlisted before (Half-Blood Blues in 2011).

Here’s the 2018 Man Booker shortlist (which features many titles from our 2018 Great Book Preview) and applicable bonus links:


The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Read our review)
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
The Long Take by Robin Robertson
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Milkman by Anna Burns

The Man Booker Prize will be awarded on October 16.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

4 months

2.
3.

Lost Empress

4 months

3.
6.

The Ensemble

2 months

4.
5.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

5 months

5.
7.

The Overstory

3 months

6.
4.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

5 months

7.


The Incendiaries

1 month

8.
9.

There There

2 months

9.
10.

Warlight

2 months

10.


The Mars Room

1 month

 

“I have to watch I don’t get arrogant,” said Andrew Sean Greer after a Guardian reporter asked him how he’s changed since winning the Pulitzer for his latest novel, Less. Will he be able to stave off arrogance now that he’s held first position in our Top Ten for two months, though? Bet smart.

So, we bid farewell to two titles ascending to our Hall of Fame this month – The Immortalists and My Favorite Thing is Monsters – and we welcome two newcomers in their place – The Incendiaries and The Mars Room.

Much praise has been heaped upon The Incendiaries, not least of all Celeste Ng’s compliment on R.O. Kwon’s “dazzlingly acrobatic prose.” That admiration might be topped only by Michael Lindgren’s review of The Mars Room in which he called Rachel Kushner “the most vital and interesting American novelist working today.” The point is obvious. Golden rules are hard to find these days, but maybe it’s enough to say that Millions readers always have good taste.

State of California native Tommy Orange’s There There earned a place on the 7-title shortlist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize this month, and the debut also moved up a spot from ninth to eight on our list. Will that momentum carry it up again next month? Be sure to check back and find out in October. On and on we go.

Next to Orange’s novel on our list in ninth position is Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which earned Man Booker longlist recognition last July. Month’s end is when we’ll see if it makes the next round of cuts. List long or short, Ondaatje’s no stranger to any kind.

This month’s near misses included: SeveranceCirce, What We Were PromisedAn American Marriage, and Some Trick. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Less

3 months

2.
1.

The Immortalists
6 months

3.
7.

Lost Empress

3 months

4.
6.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

4 months

5.
4.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

4 months

6.


The Ensemble

1 month

7.
10.

The Overstory

2 months

8.
8.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

6 months

9.


There There

1 month

10.


Warlight

1 month

 

Reflecting on the Great 2018 Book Preview – the first of the year, not the more recent Second-Half preview – it’s interesting to note that of the first six titles we highlighted, four of them have made appearances in our Top Ten. For six months, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon and Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden hung around our list; this month they graduate to the Hall of Fame. On their heels, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad holds fifth position this month, and in two months’ time will likely join Quatro and Johnson in our Hall. Also, among the “near misses” listed at the bottom of this post, you’ll find Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, a French story which “tells of good help gone bad,” as our own Matt Seidel put it months ago. From a certain perspective, it’s wild that 66% of the first half dozen books we flagged last January have resonated so much with our audience. In fact, of the 10 titles on this month’s list, 70% of them appeared on that first Book Preview. Put simply: Millions readers, we’re here for y’all. Trust us.

(For the record, the three titles currently on our Top Ten which did not appear in our Book Preview last January: LessThe Overstory and My Favorite Thing is Monsters.)

Three new titles joined our list after Quatro and Johnson’s books moved on to our Hall of Fame and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage dropped out. The newcomers are Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Tommy Orange’s There There, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which hold the sixth, ninth and tenth positions this month, respectively.

In a preview for our site, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling recommended readers get “a taste of Gabel’s prose [by] read[ing] her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France,” and noted that “Orange’s novel has been called a ‘new kind of American epic’ by the New York Times.” Meanwhile staffer Claire Cameron, while writing about Michael Ondaatje’s latest, mused, “If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie.”

Overall it’s clear that the Book Preview foretells Top Ten placements. Next month at least two spots should open up for new titles. Will those new books come from our latest Second-Half Preview? Based on the numbers, it looks likely.

This month’s near misses included: Circe, Some TrickThe Mars Room, and The Perfect Nanny. See Also: Last month’s list.

Eclectic 2018 Man Booker Prize Longlist Announced

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The literary world was already a flutter with anticipation for the 2018 Man Booker Longlist announcement—and then The Guardian accidentally broke the embargo. Even though the article was promptly removed, the damage was already done (aka revealing the eclectic and unexpected list a day early).

In an effort to promote fiction, the Man Booker Prize is awarded to  “aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom.” In its 50th year, the longlist includes a few genre titles; two debut novelists (Sophie Macintosh and Guy Gunaratne); one previous Booker (and only Golden Booker) winner (Michael Ondaatje); and an emphasis on British and Irish authors.

Here’s the 2018 Man Booker longlist (which features many titles from our 2018 Great Book Preview) and applicable bonus links:



Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
The Water Cure by Sophie Macintosh
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Read our review)
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
Snap by Belinda Bauer
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
The Long Take by Robin Robertson
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (From our archives, a piece on attending an Ondaatje reading)
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Milkman by Anna Burns
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Rooney’s 2016 Year in Reading entry)

The Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on September 20th.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Immortalists
5 months

2.
4.

Less
2 months

3.
5.

Fire Sermon

6 months

4.
7.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

3 months

5.
8.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

6 months

6.
9.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

3 months

7.
10.

Lost Empress

2 months

8.


My Favorite Thing is Monsters

5 months

9.


An American Marriage

1 month

10.


The Overstory

1 month

 

Three books are off to our Hall of Fame this month, but one of them is completely blank, which I believe is a first for our site. Back in November 2017, in Hannah Gersen’s Gift Guide for Readers and Writers, she noted the benefits of the 5-Year Diary‘s design:
The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress.
Accompanying the Diary are two works from Carmen Maria Machado and Jesmyn Ward.

Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was the darling of our most recent Year in Reading series, picked by seven participants – Jamel Brinkley, Morgan Jerkins, Rakesh Satyal, Julie Buntin, Lidia Yuknavitch, Louise Erdrich and Jeff VanderMeer – who together sang a chorus of Buy this Book, Buy this Book, Buy this Book. Over the chorus came Nathan Goldman, who wrote in his review for our site that “for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.” Evidently, Millions readers dug the tune.

Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was also well-received, drawing praise from four of the seven Year in Reading participants linked above, as well as from Kima Jones and Sarah Smarsh. In her review for our site, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim observed that “Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy” and she also pointed to the other works invoked within the text. “By invoking [Toni] Morrison and [William] Faulkner for new readers,” Ibrahim wrote, “Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present.”

Elsewhere on our list this month, My Favorite Thing is Monsters returns after a monthlong hiatus, and newcomers An American Marriage and The Overstory fill our ninth and tenth spots, respectively. In the weeks ahead, we’ll publish our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and surely several of those upcoming titles will be reflected on our July list. Get ready.

This month’s near misses included: The Mars RoomPachinko, Warlight, The Odyssey, and The World Goes On. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

5 Year Diary
6 months

2.
2.

Her Body and Other Parties
6 months

3.
5.

The Immortalists

4 months

4.


Less

1 month

5.
4.

Fire Sermon

5 months

6.
7.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

6 months

7.
10.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

2 months

8.
6.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

5 months

9.
9.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

2 months

10.


Lost Empress

1 month

 

It’s surprising that this is the first time John McPhee’s sent a work to our site’s Hall of Fame, which recognizes books that have made appearances on our Top 10 for more than six months. McPhee, whose Draft No. 4 attains that honor this month, has published more than three dozen books. To have only one ascend to our hallowed halls surely reveals more about us than him, no? Well, an honor is an honor regardless of past injustice. Going forward, consider this my call to action: go read Oranges and learn all about the absolute madmen who grew grapefruits and limes on the branches of orange trees.

With one newly opened spot on this month’s list and one title dropping out of favor from last month’s, we welcome two newcomers. First there’s Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who just won the Pulitzer, and second there’s Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava, who years ago won something even more coveted than an award: a glowing profile from our own Garth Risk Hallberg. Writing at the time about De La Pava’s breakout, A Naked Singularity, which ultimately made it to our Hall of Fame, Hallberg recalled getting hooked on a big self-published book despite his initial skepticism, and in spite of the book’s superficial flaws.
A good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” … And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success.
Fast forward six years and De La Pava’s returned with another 600+ page novel. Plus ça change…

Elsewhere on our list, the top two titles retained their positions, The Immortalists rose two spots, Sing, Unburied, Sing dropped two more, and books by Ahmed Saadawi, Denis Johnson, and Leslie Jamison jostled around a bit. Altogether that part isn’t terribly eventful, but next month we’ll see three spots open up, and that’s where the fun should really begin. Stay tuned.

This month’s near misses included: An American MarriageThe Overstory, The Mars Room, and Pachinko. See Also: Last month’s list.

Life on Mars

“One of the advantages to being a novelist is removing oneself from the chatter of the fray and trying to get a read and a historical context on what’s happening in one’s own time.” The Guardian interviews Rachel Kushner about women’s prisons, remorse, and her new novel, The Mars Room. Pair with: our review calls Kushner’s latest a “brutal, unforgiving, and often grimly funny tour de force of wasted lives.”

The Harsh Beauty of Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Mars Room’

With The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner cements her place as the most vital and interesting American novelist working today. A brutal, unforgiving, and often grimly funny tour de force of wasted lives, The Mars Room makes most other contemporary fiction seem timid and predictable; in doing so, it reminds us that fiction that startles and abrades is as necessary, or even more necessary, than fiction that comforts and assuages.

The anti-hero of Kushner’s novel is Romy Hall, a feral Californian lost girl who, as the novel begins, is on her way to a maximum-security women’s prison to serve a life sentence for murder. The Mars Room is thus, at least nominally, a prison novel. The term conjures a dull social-realist slog with a vaguely redemptive ending; suffice it to say that in this, as in many other ways, Kushner’s novel defeats easy preconceptions. Much of the book is told in flashbacks to Hall’s prior life as a dancer in a seedy Tenderloin strip club called the Mars Room. Hall’s life, inside and outside the Mars Room, is a jolting noir scramble of violence and inebriation; the prison scenes are executed without a single trace of prurience or false uplift, with the Foucauldian undertones of the scenario all there right on the surface.

It is difficult to be precise in analyzing the contours of this novel’s bleak emotional power without giving away the plot. That said, all narrative is in one sense or another movement, and The Mars Room is built upon three intersecting vectors. The first of these is the gradual unravelling of the crime that put Hall in prison, the central incident around which the entire novel rotates, and the exact nature of which is revealed in a cunning slow drip. As readers we want, at some level, even the most desperate of our protagonists to have some kind of moral center; one of the astonishing things about this book is that the reader’s understanding of Hall’s crime comes to seem, in some essential way, profoundly irrelevant. Prison life has a moral logic all its own, and immersion in its byzantine codes of behavior slowly occludes conventional conceptions of justice, of personal likability.  By the time you get to the end of The Mars Room, your normative middle-class worldview has been knocked askew, perhaps permanently.

The second strand of narrative comes into play when we learn that Hall has left behind a now parentless seven-year-old son, whose fate she frets over. Hall and her fellow prisoners who happen to be parents are repeatedly denied even the nominal status of motherhood in absentia, as though poverty and violence were a perverse lifestyle choice made by women who somehow don’t love their small children. (“‘I used to feel sorry for you bitches,’” one guard says to Hall. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple.’”) Kushner is not so maladroit or obvious as to make this any kind of political point; one of the many striking things about the book is how it instantiates a weird, glancing kind of sideways feminism, without ever shedding any of its bad-girl menace.

Hall’s wrenching yearning to know of her son’s fate runs in parallel to the entrance of the book’s secondary protagonist, a failed writer named Gordon Hauser, who teaches at the prison workshop as a form of self-imposed exile from academia, and from women “doing that grad-school thing of air-quoting to install distance between themselves and the words they chose, these bookish women with an awkwardness he used to find cute.” Instead, Hauser finds a different kind of attraction in Hall, and the relationship between the teacher and the prisoner, who each want something from the other, is suffused with a warped almost-poignance. The axes of their relationship—teacher and student, civilian and prisoner, suitor and desired, subject and object—map a structure of power relations that will not—that cannot—resolve in a satisfying way. In a sense, The Mars Room is all about broken or damaged or asymmetric power relations, between guards and prisoners, erotic dancers and clients, victims and stalkers, teachers and students, and the impossibility of transcending them.

This would all be unbearably grim if Kushner’s novel wasn’t also savagely funny. One of the death row inmates, for example, is a woman named Betty, “who had arranged her husband’s murder to get his life insurance,” a plan that went predictably awry:
The hit man who killed her husband was her lover, but while she was waiting for the money to come through, Betty worried he was turning on her, so she had her hit man killed by a dirty cop she met in a bar in Simi Valley. She was going to have the second hit man—the dirty cop who’d killed the first hit man—knocked off when they caught her. She didn’t want to share the life insurance policy with the cop, and she was afraid he’d squeal. They were in Las Vegas, partying on her life insurance money. Betty asked a security guard at the El Cortez casino if he would murder the cop for a payoff.
There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose, but if you, like me, find this wrackingly hilarious—the “bar in Simi Valley” is the touch that pushes it over the edge—you’re going to find a lot to like. And as it ticks towards a harrowing denouement, the book accumulates a perverse grandeur. A disembodied anonymous voice peeks through the cracks of the last third of the narrative, interspliced passages which turn out, as it happens, to be quotations from the journal of Ted Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber. The implication, just barely traced, casts a sinister shadow over Hauser’s isolated lifestyle and eccentric intellectualism.

The Mars Room could only be set in California; its vivid sense of place is one of its strongest qualities. Squalor and violence are everywhere, of course, but nonetheless there’s something ineluctably West Coast about the whole thing—the book reeks of that combination of menace and sunniness that so often comes out of the Golden State, of that thin, wild line of mercury connecting the pioneers and the Donners and the 49ers to the land of Manson and satanic cults and serial killers. Viewed in this context, The Mars Room traces the secret shadow story, the long answer, to what happens in the grim aftermath of the old countercultural dream. Hall, who says “she hated San Francisco, that there was evil coming out of the ground there” could be the acid-wrecked toddler of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” four blasted decades on.

This seemingly unforgiving nihilism, this absolute refusal to conform to the expectations of middlebrow narrative, is the central strength of Kushner’s novel. It takes a species of…well, artistic courage, let’s say, to look at the fallout of hard lives without romanticizing them, to refuse to soften a collective portrait of a cohort of luckless protagonists, and to craft a narrative that follows its own relentless logic unflinchingly to its end. In the shadow of The Mars Room, middlebrow literary fiction, with its urbane cosmopolitanism, its careers and affairs and families and houses, seems pale, stuffy drawing-room drama drained of vitality or force. The world of The Mars Room may be grim and hopeless, but it is shot through with an electric vitality and a harsh kind of beauty.

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient​ and Divisidero among his other works,​ this new novel ​from Ondaatje ​is set in the decade after World War II. ​When their parents move to Singapore, ​​​14-year-old​ Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, ​are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they ​become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, ​they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when ​​their mother returns months later without their father, but​ ​gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel ​begins to uncover the story through​ a journey of​ facts, recollection, and ​​imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)

Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)

Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)

Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all.  (Anne)

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)

Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories.  That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. (Il’ja)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)

Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)

Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)

 

 

 

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)

 

The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)

 

Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)

Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)

Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)

Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview

Settle in, folks, because this is one the longest first-half previews we’ve run in a long while. Putting this together is a labor of love, and while a huge crop of great spring books increases the labor, it also means there is more here for readers to love. We’d never claim to be comprehensive—we know there are far more excellent books on the horizon than one list can hold, which is why we’ve started doing monthly previews in addition to the semi-annual lists (and look out for the January Poetry Preview, which drops tomorrow). But we feel confident we’ve put together a fantastic selection of (almost 100!) works of fiction, memoir, and essay to enliven your January through June 2018. What’s in here? New fiction by giants like Michael Ondaatje, Helen DeWitt, Lynne Tillman, and John Edgar Wideman. Essays from Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and Leslie Jamison. Exciting debuts from Nafkote Tamirat, Tommy Orange, and Lillian Li. Thrilling translated work from Leïla Slimani and Clarice Lispector. A new Rachel Kushner. A new Rachel Cusk. The last Denis Johnson. The last William Trevor. The long-awaited Vikram Seth.

As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.

So don your specs, clear off your TBR surfaces, and prepare for a year that, if nothing else, will be full of good books.
JANUARY
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): In her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Slimani gets the bad news out of the way early—on the first page to be exact: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a gray bag, which they zipped up.” Translated from the French by Sam Taylor as The Perfect Nanny—the original title was Chanson Douce, or Lullaby—this taut story about an upper-class couple and the woman they hire to watch their child tells of good help gone bad.  (Matt)

Halsey Street by Naima Coster: Coster’s debut novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rapidly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn. When Penelope Grand leaves a failed art career in Pittsburgh and comes home to Brooklyn to look after her father, she finds her old neighborhood changed beyond recognition. The narrative shifts between Penelope and her mother, Mirella, who abandoned the family to move to the Dominican Republic and longs for reconciliation. A meditation on family, love, gentrification, and home. (Emily)

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro: Five years after her story collection, I Want to Show You More, drew raves from The New Yorker’s James Wood and Dwight Garner at The New York Times, Quatro delivers her debut novel, which follows a married woman’s struggle to reconcile a passionate affair with her fierce attachment to her husband and two children. “It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing—for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life,” says Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You. (Michael)

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s writing has always had an antiphonal quality to it—the call and response of a man and his conscience, perhaps. In these stories, a dependably motley crew of Johnson protagonists find themselves forced to take stock as mortality comes calling.  The writing has a more plangent tone than Angels and Jesus’ Son, yet is every bit as edgy. Never afraid to look into the abyss, and never cute about it, Johnson will be missed. Gratefully, sentences like the following, his sentences, will never go away: “How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” R.I.P. (Il’ja)

A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson): Kadare structures the novel like a psychological detective yarn, but one with some serious existential heft. The story is set physically in Communist Albania in the darkest hours of totalitarian rule, but the action takes place entirely in the head and life of a typically awful Kadare protagonist—Rudian Stefa, a writer. When a young woman from a remote province ends up dead with a provocatively signed copy of Stefa’s latest book in her possession, it’s time for State Security to get involved.  A strong study of the ease and banality of human duplicity. (Il’ja)

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright): The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” (Check out Saadawi’s Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Wünderkind Jerkins has a background in 19th-century Russian lit and postwar Japanese lit, speaks six languages, works/has worked as editor and assistant literary agent; she writes across many genres—reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces; and now we’ll be seeing her first book, an essay collection.  From the publisher: “This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.” The collected essays will cover topics ranging from “Rachel Dolezal; the stigma of therapy; her complex relationship with her own physical body; the pain of dating when men say they don’t ‘see color’; being a black visitor in Russia; the specter of ‘the fast-tailed girl’ and the paradox of black female sexuality; or disabled black women in the context of the ‘Black Girl Magic’ movement.”  (Sonya)

Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse: In Drifting, Ulysse’s 2014 story collection, Haitian immigrants struggle through New York City after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of their county. In her debut novel, Ulysse revisits that disaster with a clearer and sharper focus. Jacqueline Florestant is mourning her parents, presumed dead after the earthquake, while her ex-Marine husband cares for their young daughter. But the expected losses aren’t the most serious, and a trip to freshly-wounded Haiti exposes the way tragedy follows class lines as well as family ones. (Kaulie) 

The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith: Smith’s The Sky Is Yours, is a blockbuster of major label debuts. The dystopic inventiveness of this genre hybrid sci-fi thriller/coming of age tale/adventure novel has garnered comparisons to Gary Shteyngart, David Mitchell and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And did I mention? It has dragons, too, circling the crumbling Empire Island, and with them a fire problem (of course), and features a reality TV star from a show called Late Capitalism’s Royalty. Victor LaValle calls The Sky Is Yours “a raucous, inventive gem of a debut.” Don’t just take our word for it, listen to an audio excerpt.  (Anne)

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee: Spanning cultures and continents, Lee’s assured debut novel tells the story of two sisters who are bound together and driven apart by the inescapable bonds of family. Miranda is the sensible one, thrust into the role of protector of Lucia, seven years younger, head-strong, and headed for trouble. Their mother emigrated from China to the U.S. after the death of their father, and as the novel unfurls in clear, accessible prose, we follow the sisters on journeys that cover thousands of miles and take us into the deepest recesses of the human heart. Despite its sunny title, this novel never flinches from big and dark issues, including interracial love, mental illness and its treatment, and the dislocations of immigrant life. (Bill)

The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus: I read this brilliant puzzle-of-a-book last March and I still think about it regularly! The Infinite Future follows a struggling writer, a librarian, and a Mormon historian excommunicated from the church on their search for a reclusive Brazilian science fiction writer. In a starred review, Book Page compares Wirkus to Jonathan Lethem and Ron Currie Jr., and says the book “announces Wirkus as one of the most exciting novelists of his generation.” I agree.  (Edan)

 The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette: With Winnette’s fourth novel he proves he’s adept at re-appropriating genre conventions in intriguing ways. His previous book, Haint’s Stay, is a Western tale jimmyrigged for its own purposes and is at turns both surreal and humorous. Winnette’s latest, The Job of the Wasp, takes on the Gothic ghost novel and is set in the potentially creepiest of places—an isolated boarding school for orphaned boys, in the vein of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Old Child, or even Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. “Witty and grisly” according to Kelly Link, strange and creepy, Job of the Wasp reveals Winnette’s “natural talent” says Patrick deWitt. (Anne) 

Brass by Xhenet Aliu:  In what Publishers Weekly calls a “striking first novel,” a daughter searches for answers about the relationship between her parents, a diner waitress from Waterbury, Conn. and a line cook who emigrated from Albania. Aliu writes a story of love, family, and the search for an origin story, set against the decaying backdrop of a post-industrial town. In a starred review, Kirkus writes “Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit.” (Lydia)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Four adolescent sibling in 1960s New York City sneak out to see a psychic, who tells each of them the exact date they will die. They take this information with a grain of salt, and keep it from each other, but Benjamin’s novel follows them through the succeeding decades, as their lives alternately intertwine and drift apart, examining how the possible knowledge of their impending death affects how they live. I’m going to break my no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one. (Janet)

King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich: This historical thriller features an ax-wielding psychopath wreaking havoc in the city of Sazeracs. It’s been eight years since Rich moved to New Orleans, and in that time, he’s been a keen observer, filing pieces on the city’s storied history and changing identity for various publications, not least of all The New York Review of Books. He’s certainly paid his dues, which is vitally important since the Big Easy is an historically difficult city for outsiders to nail without resorting to distracting tokenism (a pelican ate my beignet in the Ninth Ward). Fortunately, Rich is better than that. (Nick M.)

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers: Eggers returns to his person-centered reportage with an account of a Yemeni-American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s efforts to revive the Yemeni tradition of coffee production just when war is brewing. A starred Kirkus review calls Eggers’s latest “a most improbable and uplifting success story.” (Lydia)

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (translated by Henning Koch): A hit novel by a Swedish poet brought to English-reading audiences by Melville House. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a poet whose girlfriend leaves the world just as their daughter is coming into it–succumbing suddenly to undiagnosed leukemia at 33 weeks. A work of autofiction about grief and survival that Publisher’s Weekly calls a “beautiful, raw meditation on earth-shattering personal loss.” (Lydia)

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett: The award-winning British historian (The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War) makes her fiction debut. Narrated by multiple characters, the historical novel spans three centuries and explores the very timely theme of immigration. Walls are erected and cause unforeseen consequences for both the present and futurey. In its starred review, Kirkus said the novel was “stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose.” (Carolyn)

Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby: A novel about art, loneliness, sex, and restless city life set against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy-era New York, Neon in Daylight follows a young, adrift English catsitter as she explores the galleries of New York and develops an infatuation with a successful writer and his daughter, a barista and sex-worker. The great Ann Patchett called Hoby “a writer of extreme intelligence, insight, style and beauty.” (Lydia)

This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff: Medoff works a double shift: when she isn’t writing novels, she’s working as a management consultant, which means, as her official bio explains, “that she uses phrases like ‘driving behavior’ and ‘increasing ROI’ without irony.” In her fourth novel, she turns her attention to a milieu she knows very well, the strange and singular world of corporate America: five colleagues in a corporate HR department struggle to find their footing amidst the upheaval and uncertainty of the 2008-2009 economic collapse. (Emily)

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s first novel is a fascinating and beautifully rendered meditation on ghosts, technology, marriage, and the afterlife. In a near-future world where holograms are beginning to proliferate in every aspect of daily life, a man dies—for a few minutes, from a heart attack, before he’s revived—returns with no memory of his time away, and becomes obsessed with mortality and the afterlife. In a world increasingly populated by holograms, what does it mean to “see a ghost?” What if there’s no afterlife? On the other hand, what if there is an afterlife, and what if the afterlife has an afterlife? (Emily)

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates: The follow-up novel by the author of Black Chalk, an NPR Best of the Year selection.  Yates’s latest “Rashomon-style” literary thriller follows a group of friends up the Hudson, where they are involved in a terrible crime. “I Know What You Did Last Summer”-style, they reconvene years later, with dire consequences. The novel receives the coveted Tana French endorsement: she calls it “darkly, intricately layered, full of pitfalls and switchbacks, smart and funny and moving and merciless.” (Lydia)
FEBRUARY
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: In her latest novel, Nunez (a Year in Reading alum) ruminates on loss, art, and the unlikely—but necessary—bonds between man and dog. After the suicide of her best friend and mentor, an unnamed, middle-aged writing professor is left Apollo, his beloved, aging Great Dane. Publishers Weekly says the “elegant novel” reflects “the way that, especially in grief, the past is often more vibrant than the present.” (Carolyn)

Feel Free by Zadie Smith: In her forthcoming essay collection, Smith provides a critical look at contemporary topics, including art, film, politics, and pop-culture. Feel Free includes many essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and it is divided into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. Andrew Solomon described the collection as “a tonic that will help the reader reengage with life.” (Zoë)

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson: One of my favorite literary discoveries of 2017 was that there are two camps of Robinson fans. Are you more Housekeeping or Gilead? To be clear, all of us Housekeeping people claim to have loved ​her ​work before the Pulitzer committee agreed. But this new book is a collection of essays​ where Robinson explores the modern political climate and the mysteries of faith, including​,​ “theological, political, and contemporary themes​.”​ ​Given that ​the essays come​​ from Robinson’s incisive mind​, I think there will be more than enough to keep both camps happy.​ (Claire)​

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak. In Jones’s powerful new novel, Celestial and Roy are a married couple with optimism for their future. Early in the book, Jones offers a revelation about Roy’s family, but that secret is nothing compared to what happens next: Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and sentenced to over a decade in prison. An American Marriage arrives in the pained, authentic voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre—Celestial’s longtime friend who moves into the space left by Roy’s absence. Life, and love, must go on. When the couple writes “I am innocent” to each other in consecutive letters, we weep for their world—but Jones makes sure that we can’t look away. (Nick R.) 

The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer: Nothing is what it seems in VanderMeer’s fiction: bears fly, lab-generated protoplasm shapeshifts, and magic undoes science. In this expansion of his acclaimed novel Borne, which largely focused on terrestrial creatures scavenging a post-collapse wasteland, VanderMeer turns his attention upward. Up in the sky, things look a bit different. (Check out his prodigious Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)

House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: First made famous in the documentary Paris Is Burning, New York City’s House of Xtravaganza is now getting a literary treatment in Cassara’s debut novel—one that’s already drawing comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The story follows teenage Angel, a young drag queen just coming into her own, as she falls in love, founds her own house and becomes the center of a vibrant—and troubled—community. Critics call it “fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.” (Kaulie)

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: A surreal, metaphysical debut novel dealing with myth, mental health, and fractured selves centering around Ada, a woman from southern Nigeria “born with one foot on the other side.” She attends college in the U.S., where several internal voices emerge to pull her this way and that. Library Journal calls this “a gorgeous, unsettling look into the human psyche.” (Lydia)

 

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: The latest novel from the author of The Listeners follows five women of different station in a small town in Oregon in a U.S. where abortion and IVF have been banned and embryos have been endowed with all the rights of people. A glimpse at the world some of our current lawmakers would like to usher in, one that Maggie Nelson calls “mordant, political, poetic, alarming, and inspiring–not to mention a way forward for fiction now.” (Lydia)

Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot: In her debut memoir, Mailhot—raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in southwestern Canada, presently a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue—grapples with a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II disorder, and with the complicated legacy of a dysfunctional family. Sherman Alexie has hailed this book as “an epic take—an Iliad for the indigenous.” (Emily)

 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: 2017 Whiting Award winner Halliday has written a novel interweaving the lives of a young American editor and a Kurdistan-bound Iraqi-American man stuck in an immigration holding room in Heathrow airport. Louise Erdrich calls this “a novel of deceptive lightness and a sort of melancholy joy.” (Lydia)

 

Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin: long live the short story, as long as writers like Lazarin are here to keep the form fresh. The collection begins with “Appetite,” narrated by nearly 16-year-old Claudia, whose mother died of lung cancer. She might seem all grown up, but “I am still afraid of pain—for myself, for all of us.” Lazarin brings us back to a time when story collections were adventures in radical empathy: discrete panels of pained lives, of which we are offered chiseled glimpses. Even in swift tales like “Window Guards,” Lazarin has a finely-tuned sense of pacing and presence: “The first time Owen shows me the photograph of the ghost dog, I don’t believe it.” Short stories are like sideways glances or overheard whispers that become more, and Lazarin makes us believe there’s worth in stories that we can steal moments to experience. (Nick R.) 

The Château by Paul Goldberg: In Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, the irrepressible members of a Yiddish acting troupe stage manages a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin in hopes of averting a deadly Jewish pogrom. In his second novel, the stakes are somewhat lower: a heated election for control of a Florida condo board. Kirkus writes that Goldberg’s latest “confirms his status as one of Jewish fiction’s liveliest new voices, walking in the shoes of such deadpan provocateurs as Mordecai Richler and Stanley Elkin.” (Matt)

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: A memoir by a Whiting Award-winner who served as a U.S. border patrol agent. Descended from Mexican immigrants, Cantú spends four years in the border patrol before leaving for civilian life. His book documents his work at the border, and his subsequent quest to discover what happened to a vanished immigrant friend. (Lydia)

 

Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: If the driving force of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, Fra Keeler,  was “pushing narrative to its limits” through unbuilding and decomposition, her second novel, Call Me Zebra, promises to do the same through a madcap and darkly humorous journey of retracing the past to build anew. Bibi Abbas Abbas Hossein is last in a line of autodidacts, anarchists, and atheists, whose family left Iran by way of Spain when she was a child. The book follows Bibi in present day as she returns to Barcelona from the U.S., renames herself Zebra and falls in love. Van der Vliet Oloomi pays homage to a quixotic mix of influences—including Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kathy Acker—in Call Me Zebra, which Kirkus calls “a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it.” (Anne)

Some Hell by Patrick Nathan: A man commits suicide, leaving his wife, daughter, and two sons reckoning with their loss. Focused on the twinned narratives of Colin, a middle schooler coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as Diane, his mother who’s trying to mend her fractured family, Nathan’s debut novel explores the various ways we cope with maturity, parenting, and heartbreak. (Read Nathan’s Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: If 2017 was any indication, events in 2018 will try the soul. Some readers like to find escape from uncertain times with dour dystopian prognostications or strained family stories (and there are plenty). But what about something fun? Something with sex (and maybe, eventually, love). Something Roxane Gay called a “charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel….One of the best books I’ve read in a while.” Something so fun and sexy it earned its author a two-book deal (look out for the next book, The Proposal, this fall). Wouldn’t it feel good to feel good again? (Lydia)
MARCH
The Census by Jesse Ball: Novelist Ball’s nimble writing embodies the lightness and quickness that Calvino prized (quite literally, too: he pens his novels in a mad dash of days to weeks). And he is prolific, too. Since his previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why, he has has written about the practice of lucid dreaming and his unique form of pedagogy, as well as a delightfully morbid compendium of Henry King’s deaths, with Brian Evenson. Ball’s seventh novel, The Census, tells the story of a dying doctor and his concern regarding who will care for his son with Down Syndrome, as they set off together on a cross-country journey. (Anne)

Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman: News of a new Tillman novel is worthy of raising a glass. Men and Apparitions is the follow-up novel to Tillman’s brilliant, ambitious American Genius: A Comedy. Men and Apparitions looks closely at our obsession with the image through the perspective of cultural anthropologist Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark. Norman Rush says, “this book is compelling and bracing and you read many sentences twice to get all the juice there is in them.”  Sarah Manguso has said she is “grateful” for Tillman’s “authentically weird and often indescribable books.” I second that. (Anne)

Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith: Police officer Eamon Michael Royce is killed in the line of duty. His pregnant wife, Evi, narrates Eamon’s passing with elegiac words: “I think of him making the drive, the gentle peachy July morning light illuminating his last moments, his last heartbeat, his last breath.” Months later and wracked with grief, Evi falls for her brother-in-law Dalton: “Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots. I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me.” The sentences in Cross-Smith’s moving debut are lifted by a sense of awe and mystery—a style attuned to the graces of this world. Whiskey & Ribbons turns backward and forward in time: we hear Eamon’s anxieties about fatherhood, and Dalton’s continuous search for meaning in his life. “I am always hot, like I’m on fire,” Evi dreams later in the novel, still reliving her husband’s death, “burning and gasping for air.” In Cross-Smith’s novel, the past is never forgotten. (Nick R.)

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani): In a New Yorker essay on Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Riva Galchen wrote that “often in [her] work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own.” Tawada’s latest disorienting mythology is set in a Japan ravaged by a catastrophe. If children are the future, what does it presage that, post-disaster, they are emerging from the womb as frail, aged creatures blessed with an uncanny wisdom? (Read her Year in Reading here.) (Matt)

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s sixth novel has already received glowing reviews in the U.K. As the title suggests, the plot hinges on a love affair, and follows two generations of the Sparsholt family, opening in 1940 at Oxford, just before WWII. The Guardian called it “an unashamedly readable novel…indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel.” To those of us who adore his books, this sounds heavenly.  (Hannah)

The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser): Since Katrina Dodson published a translation of Lispector’s complete stories in 2015, the Brazilian master’s popularity has enjoyed a resurgence. Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Lispector’s second novel promises to extend interest in the deceased writer’s work. It tells the story of Virginia, a sculptor who crafts intricate pieces in marked isolation. This translation marks the first time The Chandelier has ever appeared in English (Ismail).

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat: It’s very easy to love this novel but difficult to describe it. A disarming narrator begins her account from a community with strange rules and obscure ideology located on an unnamed island. While she and her father uneasily bide their time in this not-quite-utopia, she reflects on her upbringing in Boston, and a friendship–with the self-styled leader of the city’s community of Ethiopian immigrants–that begins to feel sinister. As the story unfolds, what initially looked like a growing-up story in a semi-comic key becomes a troubling allegory of self-determination and sacrifice. (Lydia)

Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda: A fifteen-year-old girl named Pearl lives in squalor in a southern swamp with her father and two other men, scavenging for food and getting by any way they can. She meets a rich neighbor boy and starts a relationship, eventually learning that his family holds Pearl’s fate in their hands. Publisher’s Weekly called it “an evocative novel about the cruelty of children and the costs of poverty in the contemporary South.” (Lydia)

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg: Fairy tales get a feminist spin in this short story collection inspired by Ortberg’s most popular Toast column, “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” This is not your childhood Cinderella, but one with psychological horror and Ortberg’s signature snark. Carmen Maria Machado calls it a cross between, “Terry Pratchett’s satirical jocularity and Angela Carter’s sinister, shrewd storytelling, and the result is gorgeous, unsettling, splenic, cruel, and wickedly smart.” Can’t wait to ruin our favorite fables! (Tess)

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea: Urrea is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen with my 35-year-old eyes, so it’s incredible that it’s not even the thing he’s best at. He’s the recipient of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer nominee for The Devil’s Highway. His new novel is about the daily life of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in California. Or as he puts it, “an American family—one that happens to speak Spanish and admire the Virgin of Guadalupe.” (Janet)

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala: Nearly 15 years after his critically-acclaimed debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published, Iweala is back with a story as deeply troubling. Teenagers Niru and Meredith are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When Niru’s secret is accidentally revealed (he’s queer), there is unimaginable and unspeakable consequences for both teens. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says the “staggering sophomore novel” is “notable both for the raw force of Iweala’s prose and the moving, powerful story.” (Carolyn)

American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman: Wideman’s new book is a nearly fantastical stretching and blurring of conventional literary forms—including history, fiction, philosophy, biography, and deeply felt personal vignettes. We get reimagined conversations between the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the doomed white crusader for racial equality John Brown. We get to crawl inside the mind of a man sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump. We get Wideman pondering deaths in his own family. We meet Jean Michel Basquiat and Nat Turner. What we get, in the end, is a book unlike any other, the work of an American master working at peak form late in a long and magnificent career. (Bill)

Happiness by Aminatta Forna: A novel about what happens when an expert on the habits of foxes and an expert on the trauma of refugees meet in London, one that Paul Yoon raved about it in his Year in Reading: “It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift.” In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Forna’s latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.” (Lydia)

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman): The Nobel Prize winner’s latest arrives in translation from the extraordinary Edith Grossman. The Neighborhood is symphonic, a “thriller,” if you can call it that, about a detective whose wife gets roped into a debilitating situation. It is set in Llosa’s 1990s Peru, and you see this place with its paradox of grayness and color, juxtaposed with spots of blood. Two women married to very affluent men are having a lesbian affair, and one of their husbands, Enrique, is being blackmailed. When he fails to meet a photo magazine editor’s demands, he is slandered with photos of an erotic encounter on the front pages of the magazine. These two threads will converge at a point of explosion as is wont with Llosa’s novels. While this may not be his best work, it will keep readers reading all the way. (Chigozie)

My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn: Sometimes truth is more fascinating than fiction. Such is the case with Yurchyshyn’s My Dead Parents, which started as an anonymous Tumblr blog where the author posted photos and slivers of her parents’ correspondences in an attempt to piece together the mystery of their lives. Yurchyshyn’s father was a banker who died in Ukraine in a car “accident” that was possibly a hit when she was 16, and years later, though not many, her mother succumbed to alcoholism. Her parents made an enviously handsome couple, but they lived out Leo Tolstoy’s adage of each family being unhappy in its own way. Yurchyshyn’s tale is one of curiosity and discovery; it’s also an inquiry into grief and numbness. Her Buzzfeed essay, “How I Met My Dead Parents,” provides an apt introduction. (Anne)

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas: Year in Reading alum and author of The Oracle of Stamboul explores the history of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue (site of the famous Cairo Geniza document trove discovered in the nineteenth century) through the story of its generations of Muslim watchmen as gleaned by their modern-day, Berkeley-dwelling scion. Rabih Alameddine calls it “a beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted…a joy.” (Lydia)

Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen: This is an atmospheric novel of betrayal and ardent allegiance to ideology and political choices. When young Ah Liam decides it’s virtuous to report the resistance of his grandmother to Maoist rule to the authorities, he unravels his family with his own hands. His decision leads to the family having to flee the country and for them to have to make a decision: leave a fraction of the family behind or face greater harm. With its striking title about the sacrifice (the “burying”) of those who are left behind, the novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history. (Chigozie)

Memento Park by Mark Sarvas: Many of us who have been with The Millions for some years surely remember Sarvas’s pioneer lit blog, The Elegant Variation—and look forward to his second novel, Memento Park, 10 years after his critically acclaimed Harry, Revised.  Memento Park is about art, history, Jewishness, fathers and sons: Joseph O’Neill writes pithily, “A thrilling, ceaselessly intelligent investigation into the crime known as history.”  So far, Kirkus praises Sarvas for “skillful prose and well-drawn characters.” (Sonya)

Wrestling with the Devil by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Famously, Kenyan author Ngugi wrote his Gikuyu novel Devil on the Cross while serving out a prison sentence. (And he did it on toilet paper, no less.) Now, the writer whom Chimamanda Adichie calls “one of the greatest of our time” is releasing a memoir of his prison stay, begun a half-hour before he was finally released. Taking the form of an extended flashback, the memoir begins at the moment of the author’s arrest and ends, a year later, when he left prison with a novel draft. (Thom)

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: Twenty-something artist Andrea ran away from the Midwest to Portland to escape the expectation to be a mother and create a life for herself as a queer artist. Then, confused and hurt by a break-up, she hooked up with a man—and ended up having his child. Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which comes  after a successful run of short stories like the Ploughshares Solo “Escape and Reverse,” is a humorous and heartfelt exploration of sexual identity and unconventional families. (Ismail)
APRIL
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer is ​one of those rare​​ novelist​s​ who is able to capture the zeitgeist. Her follow up to The Interestings, The Female Persuasion centers around Greer Kadetsky, who is a freshman in college when she meets Faith Frank, an inspiring feminist icon who ignites Greer’s passions. ​After graduation, Greer lands a job at Frank’s foundation and things get real. Wolitzer is a master weaver of story lines and in this novel she brings four ​together as the characters search for purpose in life and love. As the starred review in Publisher’s Weekly says, this novel explores, “what it is to both embrace womanhood and suffer because of it.” Amen sister. (Claire)

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison: The bestselling author of The Empathy Exams brings us The Recovering, which explores addiction and recovery in America, in particular the stories we tell ourselves about addiction. Jamison also examines the relationship many well-known writers and artists had with addiction, including Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, and more. The Recovering has received advance praise from Stephen King, Vivian Gornick, and Anne Fadiman. Chris Kraus described the The Recovering  as “a courageous and brilliant example of what nonfiction writing can do.” (Zoë)

Circe by Madeline Miller: It took Miller 10 years to write her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, The Song of Achilles. Happily, we only had to wait another five for Circe, even more impressive when one considers that the novel’s story covers millennia. Here Miller again invokes the classical world and a massive cast of gods, nymphs, and mortals, but it’s all seen through the knowing eyes of Circe, the sea-witch who captures Odysseus and turns men into monsters. (Kaulie)

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: As we enter year two of the Donald Trump presidency, Castillo’s first novel challenges readers to look beyond the headlines to grasp the human dimension of America’s lure to immigrants in this big-hearted family saga about three generations of Filipina women who struggle to reconcile the lives they left behind in the Philippines with the ones they are making for themselves in the American suburbs. (Michael) 

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Is Sittenfeld a serious literary novelist who dabbles in chick lit? Is she a writer of frothy beach reads who happens to have an MFA from Iowa? Do such distinctions still have any meaning in today’s fiction market? Readers can decide for themselves when Sittenfeld publishes her first story collection, after five novels that have ranged from her smash debut Prep to American Wife, her critically acclaimed “fictional biography” of former First Lady Laura Bush. (Michael)

Varina by Charles Frazier: Returning to the setting of his NBA winning Cold Mountain, Frazier taps into the American Civil War, specifically the life of Varina Howell Davis, the teenage bride of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In this personal tragedy set in an epic period of American history, Frazier examines how “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences” regardless of one’s personal degree of involvement in the offense.  Something to think about. (Il’ja)

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean: You’ve been reading Dean’s reviews and journalism for some time at The Nation, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, Slate, Salon The New Republic, et alia.  Winner of the 2016 NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Dean is debuting her first book with apt timing: Sharp features intertwining depictions of our most important 20th-century female essayists and cultural critics—Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, Rebecca West, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, and others.  A hybrid of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp has been praised and starred by PW as “stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers.” (Sonya)

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee: In addition to receiving a starred review—and being named a Top 10 Essay Collection of Spring 2018—by Publishers Weekly, Chee’s essay collection explores a myriad of topics that include identity, the AIDS crisis, Trump, tarot, bookselling, art, activism, and more. Ocean Vuong described the book as “life’s wisdom—its hurts, joys and redemptions—salvaged from a great fire.”  (Zoë)

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (translated by Tina Kover): From the waiting room of a French fertility clinic, a young woman revisits the stories of generations of her Iranian ancestors culminating in her parents, who brought her to France when she was 10. This French hit, published in English by Europa Editions, is called “a rich, irreverent, kaleidoscopic novel of real originality and power” by Alexander Maksik. (Lydia)

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires: A debut collection of stories exploring black identity and middle-class life in so-called “post-racial” America, with storylines ranging from gun violence and depression to lighter matters like a passive-aggressive fight between the mothers of school kids. George Saunders called these stories “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive.” (Lydia)

 

Black Swans by Eve Babitz: Until last year, Babitz was an obscure writer who chronicled hedonistic Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. And then Counterpoint and NYRB Classics began reissuing her memoirs and autofiction, and word of Babitz’s unique voice began to spread. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “On the page, Babitz is pure pleasure—a perpetual-motion machine of no-stakes elation and champagne fizz.” Novelist Catie Disabato asserts that Babitz “isn’t the famous men she fucked or the photographs she posed in. She is the five books of memoir and fiction she left behind for young women, freshly moved to Los Angeles, to find.” Black Swans is the latest in these recent reissues. Published in 1993, these stories/essays cover everything from the AIDS crisis to learning to tango. And, of course, the Chateau Marmont. (Edan)

Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: Crosley, author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake, returns with a new collection of essays. Ten years removed from her debut, Crosley takes on issues ranging from the pressures of fertility, to swingers, to confronting her own fame. Look Alive promises to be a worthwhile follow-up to Crosley’s 2011 collection How Did You Get This Number?. (Ismail)

The Only Story by Julian Barnes: Give this to Barnes: the Man Booker laureate’s not afraid of difficult premises. In his 13th novel, a college student named Paul spends a lazy summer at a tennis club, where he meets a middle-aged woman with two daughters around his age. Soon enough, the two are having an affair, and a flash-forward to a much-older Paul makes clear it upended their lives. (Thom)

 

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis): In this torrential inner monologue out from Oakland publisher Transit Books, a woman reflects on music, politics and her affair with a musician, a pianist obsessed with the 1910 self-portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, a haunting, blue-tinted work in which the composer’s“expression promised nothing positive for the art of the future, conveyed an anxiety for the future, looked far beyond any definition of the work of art or of the future.” (Matt)

How to Be Safe by Tom McCallister: This novel, by the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook, is billed as We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Dept. of Speculation—those are two of my favorite books! Also? Tom McCallister…is a man!  Although high school English teacher Anna Crawford is quickly exonerated after being named a suspect in a campus shooting, she nevertheless suffers intense scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy. As the jacket copy says, “Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online.” Of the book, novelist Amber Sparks writes, “It’s so wonderful—so furious and so funny and urgent and needed in this mad ugly space we’re sharing with each other.” Author Wiley Cash calls McCallister “an exceptionally talented novelist.” (Edan)
MAY
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient​ and Divisidero among his other works,​ this new novel ​from Ondaatje ​is set in the decade after World War II. ​When their parents move to Singapore, ​​​14-year-old​ Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, ​are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they ​become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, ​they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when ​​their mother returns months later without their father, but​ ​gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel ​begins to uncover the story through​ a journey of​ facts, recollection, and ​​imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)

Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)

Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all.  (Anne)

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)

Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk: Four years since publishing his last novel, Palahniuk returns in the era of fake news, obvious government corruption, and widespread despair. (It’s as though the protagonists in his most famous novels were right from the start.) In Adjustment Day, these themes weave together in the form of a mysterious day of reckoning orchestrated by an out of touch, aging group of elected officials. (Nick M.)

Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories.  That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph.  RIP. (Il’ja)

MEM by Bethany Morrow In this debut novel set in a speculative past, a Montreal-based scientist discovers a way to extract memories from people, resulting in physical beings, Mems, who are forced to experience the same memory over and over. Complications ensue when one of the Mems, Dolores Extract #1, begins to make and form her own memories. (Hannah)

 

And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: O’Connell’s memoir—her first book—is here to remedy the “nobody tells you what it’s really like” refrain of new mothers. Giving birth to her son in her 20s, after an unplanned pregnancy, O’Connell chronicles the seismic changes that happened to her body, routine, social life, and existential purpose before she knew what was coming. All the cool moms of literary twitter (including Edan!) are raving. (Janet)

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)

 

The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)

Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)
JUNE
Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne)

A Suitable Girl by Vikram Seth: Reportedly delayed by writer’s block brought on by a breakup, Seth has finally produced the much-anticipated sequel to his international smash of 1993, A Suitable Boy. That novel, a gargantuan epic set in post-independence India in the 1950s, was a multi-family saga built around the pursuit of a suitable husband in a world of arranged marriages. In the “jump sequel,” the original protagonist is now in her 80s and on the prowl for a worthy bride for her favorite grandson. Though best-known for A Suitable Boy, the versatile Seth has produced novels, poetry, opera, a verse novel, a travel book, and a memoir. (Bill)

Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Bara​c​k Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, ​Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind​.” Included is ​”Dogs Go Wolf,​”​ the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. ​In a​ recent​ interview,​ Groff gave us the lay of the land:​ “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years.​..​I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.​”​ (Claire)

There There by Tommy Orange: Set in Oakland, Orange’s novel describes the disparate lives that come together for the Oakland Powwow and what happens to them when they get there. In an extraordinary endorsement,  Sherman Alexie writes that Orange’s novel “is truly the first book to capture what it means to be an urban Indian—perhaps the first novel ever to celebrate and honor and elevate the joys and losses of urban Indians. You might think I’m exaggerating but this book is so revolutionary—evolutionary—that Native American literature will never be the same.” (Lydia)

Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah)

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael) 

Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom)

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” (Lydia)

 

SICK by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir SICK, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She  examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Zoë) 

Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)

 

Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)

 

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.”  The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera.  Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya)

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