Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Namwali Serpell, Nathan Englander, Laila Lalami, Brad Leithauser, Amy Hempel and more—that are publishing this week.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Old Drift: “Serpell’s debut is a rich, complex saga of three intertwined families over the course of more than a century. The epic stretches out from a single violent encounter: in the early 20th century, a British colonialist adopts North-Western Rhodesia (now Zambia) as his home, settling in the Old Drift, a settlement near Victoria Falls, where the colonist gets into a fateful skirmish with a local hotelier. After this, readers first meet Sibilla, the hotelier’s granddaughter, a woman born with hair covering her body, who runs away to Africa with a man who frequents the wealthy Italian estate at which her mother is a servant; then, in England, there’s Agnes, the colonialist’s granddaughter, a rich white girl and talented tennis player who goes blind and falls in love with a student who, unbeknownst to her, is black; and Matha, the servant’s granddaughter, a spirited prodigy who joins a local radical’s avant-garde activism. In part two, Agnes’s son, Lionel, has an affair with Matha’s daughter, which leads to a confrontation that also involves Naila, Sibilla’s granddaughter. Serpell expertly weaves in a preponderance of themes, issues, and history, including Zambia’s independence, the AIDS epidemic, white supremacy, patriarchy, familial legacy, and the infinite variations of lust and love. Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel.”
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Kaddish.com: “In Englander’s excellent comic dissection of Jewish-American life (following Dinner at the Center of the Earth), Larry is a secular Jew living in a goyish neighborhood in Brooklyn. When his father dies, Larry flies to Memphis to sit shivah with his Orthodox sister, Dina. She resents the fact that he doesn’t plan to spend the next year saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer for the dead—every day to ease their father’s way into heaven. Instead, Larry goes to kaddish.com and hires someone who will do the job for him: Chemi, a religious student. But then, inspired by Chemi’s example, Larry undergoes a transformation. Changing his name to Shuli, he moves back to the Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up and becomes a teacher of Hebrew studies. Twenty years pass. Shuli feels guilty about his previous deception and decides to track down Chemi. With the help of Gavriel, a 12-year-old computer whiz, Shuli locates Chemi in Jerusalem and, after saying goodbye to his wife and children, flies to Israel to confront the stand-in of two decades past. This novel reads like Chaim Potok filtered through the sensibility of Mel Brooks. Englander writes cogently about Jewish-American assimilation, and, in his practiced hands, he makes Shuli’s journey, both outer and inner, a simultaneously humorous and deeply moving one.”
Sing to It by Amy Hempel
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sing to It: “Short story virtuoso Hempel’s first collection since 2006 consists of 15 characteristically bold, disconcerting, knockout stories. The title story, which fits on a single page, offers no plot, names, dates, or setting—just snippets of dialogue, a proverb, and a gesture to capture a moment of personal connection. ‘The Quiet Car,’ in two pages, shows a moment of disconnection signaling the end of a relationship. A volunteer who relates better to dogs than people narrates ‘A Full-Service Animal Shelter,’ an 11-page rant/lament about working with dogs on the ‘euth’ list. In ‘Chicane,’ a woman longs for closure when she meets the French actor who once seduced her suicidal aunt. In ‘Greed,’ a woman seeks payback as she tracks the older woman with whom her husband is having an affair. The volume ends with the remarkable 62-page ‘Cloudland,’ a visually rich, heart-wrenching portrait of a Florida caregiver haunted by thoughts of the baby girl she gave up for adoption at a Maine maternity home years ago. In stories that can be funny, brutal, poetic, blunt, elusive, or all of the above, this accomplished collection highlights Hempel’s signature style with its condensed prose, quirky narrators, and touching, disturbing, transcendent moments.”
The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Promise of Elsewhere: “In this charming and moving ramble of a novel from Leithauser (The Art Student’s War), 43-year-old bipolar Louie Hake is going through a rough patch. Teaching architectural history at a college in the academic backwaters of Michigan, his second wife, Florence, has just left him for another man, and he has been diagnosed with a degenerative macular disorder. The latter propels him to leave his job and embark on a tour of the world’s great architectural sights before he can no longer see them. His first stop is Rome, where he meets Louie Koepplinger, a widowed dentist from Philadelphia who has philosophically adjusted to the indignities of old age. From there, Louie Hake moves on to London, where he is approached by another American, Sophie Pfister, who has been jilted by her husband-to-be and decided to enjoy their honeymoon itinerary on her own. Louie’s final destination is Greenland, where he makes the acquaintance of an argumentative Dane named Bendiks Overgaard and follows him to his home in the remote village of Qaqqatnakkarsimasut, there to be dazzled by nature’s architecture in the form of calving glaciers. Leithauser’s novel offers civilized comforts of beguiling characters, witty dialogue, and trenchant observations about modern life that enshrines the visceral pleasures of armchair travel.”
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Other Americans: “Lalami’s powerful third novel, after 2014’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Moor’s Account, uses nine narrators to probe the schisms of American community. When Driss Guerraoui is killed in a hit-and-run, his single daughter Nora—a struggling composer who survives by substitute teaching—leaves Oakland for her parents’ home in Yucca Valley. There she navigates her strained relationships with her mother Maryam, who hopes she will abandon music for a law degree, and sister Salma, who unlike Nora chose a conventional path of marriage, children, and a lucrative career. As Nora grapples with grief for her supportive father and pushes the police to find the driver who killed him, her encounters with Jeremy Gorecki, a former elementary school classmate, lead to intimacy she isn’t sure she wants. Nora, whose parents emigrated from Morocco in 1981, initially worries that Jeremy, a veteran traumatized by his time in Iraq, represents an American aggression that she fears, even as their relationship deepens. The novel depicts characters who are individually treated differently because of his or her race, religion, or immigration histories, but its focus is the sense of alienation all of them share. In a narrative that succeeds as mystery and love story, family and character study, Lalami captures the complex ways humans can be strangers not just outside their “tribes” but within them, as well as to themselves.”
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Good Talk: “Snippets of dialogue between Jacob (The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing) and her family and friends form the basis of this breezy but poignant graphic memoir that takes on racism, love, and the election of President Trump. The bisexual daughter of Indian immigrants, Jacob effectively conveys how the 2016 election impacted LGBTQ folks and people of color in ways that were searing, personal, and often misunderstood (such as that awkward moment when the older gentlemen at her mother-in-law’s dog’s ‘bark mitzvah’ think she’s the help). As her Trump-supporting Jewish in-laws insist they still love her, her six-year-old son wants to know not only if he can turn white like Michael Jackson (and ‘Did he lose his other glove?’), but how to tell which white people are afraid of brown people. Jacob pastes simple character drawings, cut like paper dolls staring directly at the reader, over grainy photos of New York City, her childhood home in New Mexico, and other locales, emphasizing the contingency of identity. The collage effect creates an odd, immediate intimacy. She employs pages of narrative prose sparingly but hauntingly, as when she learns that a haughty, wealthy woman once lost a child: ‘in that place where you thought you would find a certain kind of woman…is someone you cannot begin to imagine.’ The ‘talks’ Jacob relates are painful, often hilarious, and sometimes absurd, but her memoir makes a fierce case for continuing to have them.”
So Much Longing in So Little Space by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about So Much Longing in So Little Space: “Norwegian modernist painter Edvard Munch, whose masterpiece The Scream is one of art’s best-known depictions of an unhinged psychological freak-out, is a prosaic yet mysterious figure in this knotty aesthetic-biographical study. Norwegian novelist Knausgaard (My Struggle) ponders many Munch paintings (he includes reproductions), delves into his lonely life—the deaths of family members in early life left him gun-shy about relationships and perpetually alienated, Knausgaard writes—and conducts lengthy interviews with artists about Munch’s influence and legacy. The results are uneven, by turns illuminating and obscure. Knausgaard’s analysis of The Scream shows how it evokes a world subsumed in a crazy, distorted perspective without any sane vantage point to shelter viewers, an example of Munch’s ability to visually capture emotions. Often, though, Knausgaard lapses into murky art-crit pensées, as in his assessment of The Sick Child as ‘a picture which at one and the same time comes into being and is destroyed.’ Knausgaard inserts his own droll, hang-dog psychic travails—asked to curate a Munch exhibition, he feels like a failure for showcasing subpar paintings—as a much-needed relief from high-falutin’ theory. Unfortunately, his sometimes turgid and baffling passages on the art exemplify how difficult it is to convey in words the visceral impact of images.”
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: “These darkly hilarious and forthcoming essays from Young, cofounder of social commentary blog Very Smart Brothas, center around the ‘perpetual surreality’ of the African-American experience. For example, he writes with honesty and humor about his youthful worry that, if no white person called him the N word, his authenticity as a black man was in question. One of the funniest essays contains excerpts of his college-era poetry, often plagiarized from rap lyrics. In another, he recalls sneakily renting pornography as a teenager, feeling he was being watched by ‘my recently deceased aunt Toni, the first Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Maya Angelou, and the ghost of that guy Morgan Freeman played in Glory.’ He critiques toxic masculinity and admits to a major error in judgment: writing a ‘triflin’-ass’ piece dismissing a rape victim’s critique of rape culture. He wants, he realized, not to be just a ‘decent’ man, but a man ‘worthy’ of friendship with the women in his life. Young uses pop culture references and personal stories to look at a life molded by structural racism, the joy of having a family that holds together in a crisis, and the thrill of succeeding against difficult odds. Young’s charm and wit make these essays a pleasure to read; his candid approach makes them memorable.”
Also on shelves: The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor).
In the second year that the Booker Prize has been open to U.S. authors, five American authors make the longlist. Anne Enright is the lone former winner on the list, while Marilynne Robinson is the most celebrated American to be tapped. Other notable names include Hanya Yanagihara, Tom McCarthy, and Bill Clegg, who has been better known as a high-powered literary agent and memoirist. Laila Lalami, who now calls the U.S. her home, is the first Moroccan-born writer to land on a Booker longlist. Seven countries are represented overall.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Green Road by Anne Enright (What It Is to Be Alone: The Millions Interviews Anne Enright)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (“How History Becomes Story – Three Novels” by Laila Lalami, Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (A Millions Top 10 book)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
The Chimes by Anna Smaill
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)
Following last year’s win for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer jury named Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See this year’s winner in the fiction category, a second year in a row that the year’s break-out literary bestseller took home the prize.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs, Doerr’s Year in Reading 2010 and 2014)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
Winner: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre)
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
Winner: Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker
Winner: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer
Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers
Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin
Compass Rose by Arthur Sze
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Year In Reading: Anthony Doerr)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel (Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel)
Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore (Is She Writing About Me?: A Profile of Lorrie Moore)
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Guerilla Grandma: On Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, ‘The Blank Screen Is the Enemy’: The Millions Interviews David Mitchell, Exclusive: David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez (Hug Your Darlings, Give the Moon the Finger: Writers On Delight)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Aloof, Quiet, and Dissonant: On Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, The Elusive Qualities of Dreams: On Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Strange Library’)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature)
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Scraps of Prayers: On Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (In a Toxic Dreamscape: On Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters)
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Art After Tragedy: The Narrow Road to the Deep North)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (More Alive and Much Stranger: On Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase)
10:04 by Ben Lerner (Only Disconnect: Ben Lerner’s 10:04)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (This Could Be Your Story: On Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves)
Christopher Columbus, the once venerable explorer of the New World, seems to have fallen out of favor. In April of this year, Minneapolis declared the second Monday in October, his signature holiday, as Indigenous People’s Day. His eponymous voyage on the Santa Maria has inspired the irreverent and biting term “Columbused,” to describe white people’s discovery and appropriation of another group’s culture, practice or tradition. And though school textbooks continue to laud Columbus as a hero and credit his bravery, other descriptors like slave trader and murderer have soiled his once impeccable reputation.
His questionable legacy sets the stage for Leila Lalami’s stunning new novel, The Moor’s Account. Like criticism about Columbus, the vibrant testimony of former slave Mustafa al-Zamori underscores the notion that history often dismisses crucial voices, and in doing so, provides only a fraction of the truth.
Mustafa’s birth on a barge crossing a Moroccan river gives rise to his mother’s prophesy that he will someday become a world traveler. Her prediction, though dead on, included no inkling of the brutal forces that would fulfill it. Crippling drought and famine afflicting their hometown of Azemmur force Mustafa, a once wealthy merchant, to sell himself into slavery to save his family. In 1527, his fifth year as a slave, he sails with 600 men from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. In the New World, disease and starvation decimate the crew. Only four survive the first year — Mustafa, his master Andrés Dorantes and two other Castilians. They spend seven more years among the Indians in La Florida, before their rescue.
When Mustafa’s account of the fateful expedition is left out of the official records, he decides to record his memories himself. “I intend to correct the details of the history that was compiled by my companions…But unlike them I was never called to testify to the Spanish Viceroy about our journey among the Indians.” This arresting narrative alternates between his adventures in the Land of the Indians and his life before slavery. As in her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, elegantly unspools the agony of a fractured life, and the psychological and physical costs of a doomed journey.
Lalami artfully conveys the politics and power dynamics of bondage. Despite his own horrific subjugation, Mustafa humbly assumes responsibility for his own role in the suffering of others. When his discovery of gold brings about the torture of four Indians, he observes the devastating consequences. “I had to pretend, like my master, not to hear the cries that had begun to emerge from the storehouse. Within moments, they had turned into howls, so long and so filled with pain that I felt they were echoing in the depths of my own soul.” He later regretfully recalls the time when, as a money-hungry merchant, he traded fellow Moroccans into slavery. “I had sent three men into a life of bondage without pausing to consider my role in this evil.” Rather than dwell in self-pity, anger or bitterness for his own predicament, Mustafa graciously acknowledges his past and present privileges.
Lalami, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics, eloquently examines the subjectivity of narrative, and the creation and manipulation of the truth. Throughout the book, Mustafa comes to understand the power of words, and how intent and motivation shape stories. “I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.” And as the doomed procession traverses the swamps of La Florida, Mustafa considers how language feeds the pride and arrogance of the Spaniards. “So they gave new names to everything around them, as though they were the All-Knowing God in the Garden of Eden.”
Homesickness and regret haunt Mustafa, and Lalami poignantly expresses his ache to reunite with his family. His cerebral account recalls the contemplative, haunting voices of Solomon Northrup in his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, and Sethe of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “Memories of my hometown came to me at odd moments, just like this, when I least expected them, as if my grief liked to ambush me.” And later, when Mustafa senses the awkward relationship between Senior Dorantes and his younger brother Diego, he writes, “Oh, what I would not have given to be with my own brothers…it was my desire to know and my yearning for them that dictated everything I did in those days…” Mustafa’s heartfelt sorrow and palpable anguish fuel his drive to survive.
As does his steadfast belief in God. A devout Muslim forced to convert to Christianity upon enslavement, Mustafa experiences enlightenment of another kind, one where he comes to value diversity in worship and appreciate the many, equally worthy paths to salvation. “Surely it would have been in His power to make us one faith if that had been His wish. Now the idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me.” Mustafa the Moor exhibits a level of sophistication, compassion, and reverence that few of his other companions possess.
Above all else, as a memoirist, Mustafa’s penetrating narrative affords him the power, visibility, and autonomy he lacks as a Moor. He becomes the master of his own story, the notary of his own destiny, and through evocative, exacting language, breaks loose from the shackles of censorship. “Maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of truth.”
And with this magnificent novel, Lalami, through fiction, has penned a revelation and tribute to truth.