Dig deep enough into frivolity, and you just might strike substance. Sound far-fetched? Well, it is. After all, if we’re talking about books, most of the time you’ll come up empty-handed; what appears frivolous at first blush tends to be precisely that upon closer inspection. But with a combination of inexhaustible patience, superior burrowing technique, and plain old-fashioned luck, chances are that one day you’ll end up with one that fits the bill. As it happens, The Occasional Virgin, by Hanan al-Shaykh, is that book—this reviewer did the requisite digging for you—or at least one of the precious few in circulation.
Al-Shaykh is a Lebanese novelist and short story writer, long resident in London, who writes in Arabic. (That said, her recent One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling was written in English.) Because of her years in the U.K. and her frank discussion of sexual matters in fiction often set in Arab countries—see, for example, The Story of Zahra and Women of Sand and Myrrh—al-Shaykh has had to contend with charges that she has divorced herself from the Arab world she continues to mine for stories and that her depiction of Arab women smacks of Orientalism. Such overblown accusations need not detain us here. In fact, an intriguing (and counterintuitive) aspect of The Occasional Virgin is that al-Shaykh has dulled the edge of much of her original Arabic-language material. This process appears to have begun with the book’s very title.
The Occasional Virgin is not a straightforward translation of an original Arabic-language work but an adaptation of two of the author’s books, an anemic novella titled Two Women by the Sea and the outwardly silly novel [The] Virgins of Londonistan, which feature the same pair of protagonists. Al-Shaykh merged the two stories, reworking, excising, and adding much material. The resulting text was then rendered into fluid and natural-sounding English by Catherine Cobham, who is not only a veteran translator but head of the Department of Arabic and Persian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Al-Shaykh knew full well that to effect a successful amalgamation of Two Women and Londonistan, the latter would have to swallow the former. Not just because it’s broader in scope and more consequential but because any variation on its title would prove catchier than something about a couple of women on a beach. Yet she dropped “Londonistan”—almost certainly because the term, a barb directed at the supposed cultural Islamization of London, would offend North American and British readers (who have been exposed to alarmist books such as Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan) far more than it did Arabs.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is The Occasional Virgin all about? Well, related by a third-person narrator equally comfortable inhabiting the mind of either of al-Shaykh’s 30-something protagonists, it’s a two-part story, with Part I adapted largely from Two Women, and Part II a reworked version of Londonistan. Following little of note in Part I, which is set on the Italian Riviera (but includes flashbacks to Lebanon), we meet up again with the pair in the U.K.’s capital a few months later. That’s where Yvonne, who owns and manages an advertising firm, lives; Huda, a Toronto-based theater director—who’s gathering information on whether she might stage a performance of One Thousand and One Nights in London—is visiting her. Al-Shaykh has them stroll through Hyde Park, where they pause to listen to the assortment of zealots haranguing people at Speakers’ Corner. What happens next sets the story in motion.
Huda, whose late father was an imam, can be described as lying somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. (Yvonne, born into a Christian family, isn’t much for organized religion either, but—as becomes apparent later—retains her childhood veneration of the Virgin Mary.) Nevertheless, when brought face-to-face with Islam-bashers at Speakers’ Corner, Huda pushes back. For example, referring to the Prophet Muhammad, she insists that “God’s messenger is the one who ordered the emancipation of slaves and made them free and forbade racism.”
As though Huda taking on the task of defending Islam weren’t ironic enough, al-Shaykh shrewdly finds a way to turn this encounter into—of all things—a confrontation between the spirited woman and a handsome but hectoring Muslim. While she’s at it, the author even manages to work in a dig at Islam itself.
It starts with a young man’s insistence that Huda, while fully engaged in singing Islam’s praises to the assembled crowd, should take care to employ specific and mandatory terms of reverence when citing the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad. As he is insufferable, and as Huda doesn’t take kindly to his schoolmarmish ways, she doesn’t oblige. Matters escalate, and before long the guy, an Algerian-Egyptian named Hisham with whom she converses in Arabic, issues a bloodcurdling threat: “Do you know that hens are slaughtered if they cry like roosters?”
What enrages Hisham so is Huda’s bemoaning of the fact that certain majority Muslim countries permit marriage between adult males and girls, “some of them as young as eight.” Left unsaid is that the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was of a similar age has long served as the justification for such laws. Hisham, of course, knows as much.
Soon afterward, the two women take their leave. Yet Huda is still incensed—and vengeful. Here, at long last (we’re almost halfway through the novel), the first stirrings of an enduring and much-needed conflict are felt. The remainder of The Occasional Virgin can be neatly divided into two sections (though the author enacts no such division): The first concerns Huda’s efforts to get the better of Hisham, and the second sees al-Shaykh shift her attention to the lovelorn Yvonne, who receives mixed signals from a man she takes a shine to at a wedding party, and later must decide how exactly to handle the bewildered Hisham when he starts dropping in at her office and then her home in a bid to determine the whereabouts of a now-vanished Huda.
Yvonne’s experiences, both at the wedding party and with Hisham, are nothing special and not worth lingering on. It’s Huda’s earlier encounter with Hisham that provides spark. Igniting that spark is the fact that Huda, far from behaving like the proverbial rooster this time around, uses her feminine wiles to strike back at her antagonist. Having heard Hisham say something about planning to attend a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy that afternoon in order to protest the Syrian regime’s violence against its people, Huda, without yet having worked out a plan, resolves to waylay him there. Meanwhile, as a lark back at her house, Yvonne introduces her friend to something called a “strawberry” by its manufacturers. This, Huda realizes, is what she must use to catch her holier-than-thou bête noire in a compromising position.
The “strawberry” in question is what a sexually active woman intent on appearing virginal inserts into her vagina to trigger the flow of “blood” upon intercourse. So when Huda, having homed in on her quarry at the demonstration and convinced him that she’s feeling ill, manages to get him to take her to his home, the stage is set for both a rounding out of Hisham’s hitherto one-dimensional character (a university student working as a doorman, he proves quite considerate and helpful) and the actualization of her ruse.
Huda doesn’t have to exert much effort to seduce the excitable Hisham—though he catches her off guard by proposing an on-the-spot marriage. All they must do for it to pass Islamic muster, he maintains, is recite a verbal formula. After a brief hesitation, Huda accepts. The next step is for the two to consummate the union. That, after all, is the reason Hisham proposed to her in the first place. Meanwhile, Huda hopes things turn out thus:
He sleeps with her, discovers she’s a virgin and regrets calling her names and treating her so hatefully, is maybe even sorry that he tried to shut her up, subdue her, sorry for believing that every Muslim woman who didn’t cover herself was a fallen woman with no place in society.
As for the thorny matter of sex, Huda has girded herself. “All I’m going to think about,” she muses, “is the strawberry waiting to explode, and the satisfaction of having my revenge on him when he sees my virginal blood and his arrogance and self-righteousness melt away.”
Before we get to that exploding strawberry, let’s touch on another subject having to do with sex that crops up between the two newlyweds round about this time—at least in Londonistan. At one point, Huda informs Hisham that Muslim martyrs looking to spend eternity having sex with dozens of houris, the beautiful and perpetual virgins of paradise, will be sorely disappointed. According to Huda, there exists a consensus among Arab scholars of the Arabic language that the plural term houris (in Arabic, “hour,” classically rendered in full as “hour ‘ayn”) refers to grapes.
Here’s the problem: This assertion was made by the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg in a German-language book, one that has—even after being translated into several languages—hardly caught on with Arab linguists or Islamic jurists. Moreover, Luxenberg’s fascinating claim is that the term is Syriac, and that the Quran, which Muslims hold to be a God-given Arabic-language original text, cannot be understood without taking into account the Syriac roots of much of its then-newfangled terminology. Huda doesn’t go anywhere near this explosive issue. But why did al-Shaykh have her claim, falsely, that it is Arab scholars of the Arabic-language, as opposed to Luxenberg, who assert that the houris are grapes? Ignorance? Wishful thinking? Or, most intriguingly, an indirect attempt to stimulate further discussion among Arabs and Muslims of the taboo subject that is the historical origins of the Quran?
Also, why is this whole exchange regarding houris and grapes missing from The Occasional Virgin? Unclear. Jumping back into the sack with Huda and Hisham, however, we discover that it isn’t the only thing that’s missing. Who would have thought that the English-language adaptation of two Arabic-language works of fiction would include less sex than the originals? In Londonistan, a priapic Hisham prevails upon Huda to have intercourse with him no fewer than four times within five hours of their “marriage.” In The Occasional Virgin, however, al-Shaykh has them sleep together just once.
The result isn’t simply a tamer encounter. Al-Shaykh changes the very nature of Huda’s enterprise. In Londonistan, Huda seems to wing it; yes, she aims to seduce Hisham and have him pop her strawberry, but it isn’t initially clear to the reader (and possibly to Huda herself) how she plans to use the guy’s subsequent shock to her advantage. What she comes up with is nothing short of a masterstroke. Huda makes use of a strawberry each and every time she has sex with Hisham, who can’t for the life of him understand why she keeps bleeding anew. He deflowered her the first time, and she’s not menstruating, so what’s going on?
Huda lets him stew in his uncertainty until the fourth time, when she confronts the befuddled sod with the purposely outlandish theory that she is in fact a houri. Though she ends up interpreting her supposed newfound status in different and contradictory ways, one proves especially provocative; she suggests that the virgins of paradise can no longer cope with the number of martyrs streaming through the pearly gates, so God has dispatched some of them to earth, where they might satisfy Muslim men who have yet to turn militant, let alone die.
This is all absent from The Occasional Virgin, if not simply because Huda and Hisham have themselves a tumble only once. Whereas their repeated lovemaking in Londonistan provides the perpetually virginal Huda with an opportunity to ask Hisham why people believe in miracles that took place long ago but doubt those (such as her hymen reconstructing itself) that happen before their very eyes, and to imply that carnal bliss is attainable here on earth and doesn’t require martyrdom, The Occasional Virgin proves considerably less revolutionary. True, Huda has formulated more of a plan to begin with. And yes, thanks to her use of the infamous strawberry, she gains the sought-after advantage over Hisham. But because there’s no more sex, she is unable to milk it. She must content herself with berating him for having considered her promiscuous on account of her attire, manner of speech, and style of comportment.
Yet there is admittedly one aspect of al-Shaykh’s paring down of the sexual element that emerges as more effective: Hisham’s crisis of conscience regarding their sham marriage, which in both versions of the story he decides he wants to turn into a legitimate union—replete with witnesses—posthaste. Because Hisham’s mistaken belief that he took Huda’s maidenhead is what prompts this sudden overriding concern (more on the reason for his anxiety shortly), it makes better sense that it should seize hold of him following a single roll in the hay, which is of course the case in The Occasional Virgin, as opposed to only after the activity’s fourth iteration.
At any rate, what’s the upshot of all this, you ask? Though lacking the slyly subversive quality of Londonistan, does The Occasional Virgin leave the reader with anything to think about?
It does. In our day and age, the notion that a never-married woman’s virtue derives from her virginity enjoys a good deal less currency than it once did. But it hasn’t gone bankrupt just yet. How to deal with those (not all of whom are named Muhammad, Ali, or Hisham) for whom it retains value? Al-Shaykh chooses humor—including oblique mockery. It’s all rather mild (again, the Arabic-language Londonistan is spicier), but it’s what makes The Occasional Virgin more than occasionally clever. A good thing, too, because the rest of the novel is superficial and boring.
Huda is arguably at her least virtuous when pretending that intercourse with Hisham marks her initiation into sex. Hisham, of course, falls for the deception. But that’s not the half of it. All of a sudden, his opinion of Huda undergoes a radical transformation. Indeed, he comes to behold her with a kind of reverence and is consumed with guilt. He even resolves to retroactively make their sham marriage official, though it’s clear that they have no future together and that, if they do marry, divorce would constitute the next logical step.
The reason for Hisham’s agitated state is simple. The guy is wrongly convinced that until he slept with the intelligent, accomplished, and attractive woman in question, she was a virgin. Why does this matter? Because it means that, despite Huda’s lackluster approach to Islam, she is still in some visceral sense loath to disregard certain of its strictures. “When I discovered that you’d preserved your virginity up till then,” explains a chastened Hisham, “I was sure you’d held fast to your religion without being conscious of it.” This in turn endears her to God. And as has by now become readily apparent, Hisham—obsessed as he is with being an observant Muslim bound for heaven—is desperate to remain in God’s good graces!
Putting together our semi-annual Previews is a blessing and a curse. A blessing to be able to look six months into the future and see the avalanche of vital creative work coming our way; a curse because no one list can hope to be comprehensive, and no one person can hope to read all these damn books. We tried valiantly to keep it under 100, and this year, we just…couldn’t. But it’s a privilege to fail with such a good list: We’ve got new novels by Kate Atkinson, Dale Peck, Pat Barker, Haruki Murakami, Bernice McFadden, and Barbara Kingsolver. We’ve got a stunning array of debut novels, including one by our very own editor, Lydia Kiesling—not to mention R.O. Kwon, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Crystal Hana Kim, Lucy Tan, Vanessa Hua, Wayétu Moore, and Olivia Laing. We’ve got long-awaited memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Nicole Chung. Works of nonfiction by Michiko Kakutani and Jonathan Franzen. The year has been bad, but the books will be good. (And if you don’t see a title here, look out for our monthly Previews.)
As always, 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. (As a thank you for their generosity, our members now get a monthly email newsletter brimming with book recommendations from our illustrious staffers.) 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.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon: In her debut novel, Kwon investigates faith and identity as well as love and loss. Celeste Ng writes, “The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R.O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.” The Incendiaries is an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce pick, and The New York Times recently profiled Kwon as a summer writer to watch. (Zoë)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: Booker finalist Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest book is (as fans of hers can probably guess) both funny and deeply tender, a testament to the author’s keen eye for the sad and the weird. In it, a young woman starts a regiment of “narcotic hibernation,” prescribed to her by a psychiatrist as demented as psychiatrists come. Eventually, her drug use leads to a spate of bad side effects, which kick off a spiral of increasingly dysfunctional behavior. (Thom)
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Against the backdrop of political disarray and vicious violence driven by Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, sisters Chula and Cassandra live safely in a gated Bogotá community. But when a woman from the city’s working-class slums named Petrona becomes their live-in maid, the city’s chaos penetrates the family’s comfort. Soon, Chula and Petrona’s lives are hopelessly entangled amidst devastating violence. Bay Area author Ingrid Rojas Contreras brings us this excellent and timely debut novel about the particular pressures that war exerts on the women caught up in its wake. (Ismail)
A Carnival of Losses by Donald Hall: Hall, a former United States poet laureate, earnestly began writing prose while teaching at the University of Michigan during the 1950s. Failed stories and novels during his teenage years had soured him on the genre, but then he longed to write “reminiscent, descriptive” nonfiction “by trying and failing and trying again.” Hall’s been prolific ever since, and Carnival of Losses will publish a month after his passing. Gems here include an elegy written nearly 22 years after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. “In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of flesh.” For a skilled essayist, the past is always present. This book is a fitting final gift. (Nick R.)
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: Set in China’s metropolis Shanghai, the story is about a new rich Chinese family returning to their native land after fulfilling the American Dream. Their previous city and country have transformed as much as themselves, as have their counterparts in China. For those who want to take a look at the many contrasts and complexities in contemporary China, Tan’s work provides a valuable perspective. (Jianan)
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim: In Lim’s debut novel, the world has been devastated by a flu pandemic and time travel is possible. Frank and Polly, a young couple, are learning to live in their new world—until Frank gets sick. In order to save his life, Polly travels to the future for TimeRaiser—a company set on rebuilding the world—with a plan to meet Frank there. When something in their plan goes wrong, the two try to find each other across decades. From a starred Publishers Weekly review: “Lim’s enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative.” (Carolyn)
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs: Last year, Alexia Arthurs won the Plimpton Prize for her story “Bad Behavior,” which appeared in The Paris Review’s summer issue in 2016. How to Love a Jamaican, her first book, includes that story along with several others, two of which were published originally in Vice and Granta. Readers looking for a recommendation can take one from Zadie Smith, who praised the collection as “sharp and kind, bitter and sweet.” (Thom)
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Megan Abbott is blowing up. EW just asked if she was Hollywood’s next big novelist, due to the number of adaptations of her work currently in production, but she’s been steadily writing award-winning books for a decade. Her genre might be described as the female friendship thriller, and her latest is about two high school friends who later become rivals in the scientific academic community. Rivalries never end well in Abbott’s world. (Janet)
The Seas by Samantha Hunt: Sailors, seas, love, hauntings—in The Seas, soon to be reissued by Tin House, Samantha Hunt’s fiction sees the world through a scrim of wonder and curiosity, whether it’s investigating mothering (as in “A Love Story”), reimagining the late days of doddering Nikolai Tesla at the New Yorker Hotel (“The Invention of Everything Else”), or in an ill-fated love story between a young girl and a 30-something Iraq War Veteran. Dave Eggers has called The Seas “One of the most distinctive and unforgettable voices I’ve read in years. The book will linger…in your head for a good long time.” (Anne)
The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh: Novelist and playwright Hanan al-Shaykh’s latest novel concerns two 30-something friends, Huda and Yvonne, who grew up together in Lebanon (the former Muslim, the latter Christian) and who now, according to the jacket copy, “find themselves torn between the traditional worlds they were born into and the successful professional identities they’ve created.” Alberto Manguel calls it “A modern Jane Austen comedy, wise, witty and unexpectedly profound.” I’m seduced by the title alone. (Edan)
The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas: In this massively creative work of musical magical realism, Bob Marley has been reincarnated as Fall-down and haunts a clocktower built on the site of a hanging tree in Kingston. Recognized only by a former lover, he visits with King Edward VII, Marcus Garvey, and Haile Selassie. Time isn’t quite what it usually is, either—years fly by every time Fall-down returns to his tower, and his story follows 300 years of violence and myth. But the true innovation here is in the musicality of the prose: Subtitled “A Novel in Bass Riddim,” Marvellous Equations of the Dread draws from—and continues—a long Caribbean musical tradition. (Kaulie)
The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani: Kakutani is best-known as the long-reigning—and frequently eviscerating—chief book critic at The New York Times, a job she left last year in order to write this book. In The Death of Truth, she considers our troubling era of alternative facts and traces the trends that have brought us to this horrific moment where the very concept of “objective reality” provokes a certain nostalgia. “Trump did not spring out of nowhere,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, “and I was struck by how prescient writers like Alexis de Tocqueville and George Orwell and Hannah Arendt were about how those in power get to define what the truth is.” (Emily)
Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar: Kumar, author of multiple works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, returns with a novel about Kailash, a young immigrant from India, coming of age and searching for love in the United States. Publishers Weekly notes (in a starred review) that “this coming-of-age-in-the-city story is bolstered by the author’s captivating prose, which keeps it consistently surprising and hilarious.” (Emily)
Brother by David Chariandy: A tightly constructed and powerful novel that tells the story of two brothers in a housing complex in a Toronto suburb during the simmering summer of 1991. Michael and Francis balance hope against the danger of having it as they struggle against prejudice and low expectations. This is set against the tense events of a fateful night. When the novel came out in Canada last year, it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was declared one of the best of the year by many. Marlon James calls Brother “a brilliant, powerful elegy from a living brother to a lost one.” (Claire)
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen: Familial devotion, academic glory, and the need for some space to think have combined to send Andrei back to Moscow some 20 years after his family had emigrated to America. The trip should stir up some academic fodder for his ailing career, and besides, his aging baba Seva could really use the help. For her part, baba Seva never wavers in her assessment of Andrei’s attempt to make a go of it in 200-aughtish Russia: “This is a terrible country,” she tells him. Repeatedly. Perhaps he should have listened. This faux memoir is journalist and historian Keith Gessen’s second novel and an essential addition to the “Before You Go to Russia, Read…” list. (Il’ja)
The Lost Country by William Gay: After Little Sister Death, Gay’s 2015 novel that slipped just over the border from Southern gothic into horror, longtime fans of his dark realism (where the real is ever imbued with the fantastic) will be grateful to indie publisher Dzanc Books for one more posthumous novel from the author. Protagonist Billy Edgewater returns to eastern Tennessee after two years in the Navy to see his dying father. Per Kirkus, the picaresque journey takes us through “italicized flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness interludes, infidelities, prison breaks, murderous revenge, biblical language, and a deep kinship between the land and its inhabitants,” and of course, there’s also a one-armed con man named Roosterfish, who brings humor into Gay’s bleak (drunken, violent) and yet still mystical world of mid-1950s rural Tennessee. (Sonya)
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (translated by Heather Cleary): A fin de siècle Beunos Aires doctor probes a little too closely when examining the threshold between life and death. A 21st-century artist discovers the ultimate in transcendence and turns himself into an objet d’art. In this dark, dense, surprisingly short debut novel by the Argentinian author, we’re confronted with enough grotesqueries to fill a couple Terry Gilliam films and, more importantly, with the idea that the only real monsters are those that are formed out of our own ambition. (Il’ja)
Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June: “It was my mother I thought of as I looked down at my new daughter,” writes Laura June in her debut memoir about how motherhood has forced her to face, reconcile, and even reassess her relationship with her late mother, who was an alcoholic. Roxane Gay calls it “warm and moving,” and Alana Massey writes, “Laura June triumphs by resisting the inertia of inherited suffering and surrendering to the possibility of a boundless, unbreakable love.” Fans of Laura June’s parenting essays on The Cut will definitely want to check this one out. (Edan)
OK, Mr. Field by Katherine Kilalea: In this debut novel, a concert pianist (the eponymous Mr. Field) spends his payout from a train accident on a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. And then his wife vanishes. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “a striking, singular debut” and “a disorienting and enthralling descent into one man’s peculiar malaise.” You can whet your appetite with this excerpt in The Paris Review. Kilalea, who is from South Africa and now lives in London, is also the author of the poetry collection One Eye’d Leigh. (Edan)
Nevada Days by Bernardo Atxaga (translated by Margaret Jull Costa): Though it’s difficult to write a truly new European travelogue, the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga seems to have found a way. After spurning Harvard—who tried to recruit him to be an author in residence—Atxaga took an offer to spend nine months at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, which led to this book about his tenure in the Silver State during the run-up to Obama’s election. Though it’s largely a fictionalized account, the book contains passages and stories the author overheard. (Thom)
Interior by Thomas Clerc (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman): Give it to Thomas Clerc: The French writer isn’t misleading his readers with the title of this book. At heart, Interior is a tour of the author’s apartment, animated with a comic level of detail and consideration. Every object and appliance gets a history, and the author gives opinions on things like bathroom reading material. Like Samuel Beckett’s fiction, Interior comes alive through its narrator, whose quirkiness helps shepherd the reader through a landscape of tedium. (Thom)
Eden by Andrea Kleine: Hope and her sister, Eden, were abducted as children, lured into a van by a man they thought was their father’s friend; 20 years later, Hope’s life as a New York playwright is crumbling when she hears their abductor is up for parole. Eden’s story could keep him locked away, but nobody knows where she is, so Hope takes off to look for her, charting a cross-country path in a run-down RV. The author of Calf, Kleine is no stranger to violence, and Eden is a hard, sometimes frightening look at the way trauma follows us. (Kaulie)
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting: The latest collection from one of America’s most audaciously interesting writers follows her last two novels, in which she inverted the Lolita story and satirized Silicon Valley, respectively. Somewhere in between, she also wrote about her love of hot dogs. Oh, and this collection’s title is clearly a nod to Lucia Berlin. Let’s be real for a minute: If you need more than that to buy this book, you’re not my friend, you’ve got bad taste, and you should keep scrolling. (Nick M.)
Suicide Club by Rachel Heng: What if we could live forever? Or: When is life no longer, you know, life? Heng’s debut novel, set in a futuristic New York where the healthy have a shot at immortality, probes those questions artfully but directly. Lea Kirino trades organs on the New York Stock Exchange and might never die, but when she runs into her long-disappeared father and meets the other members of his Suicide Club, she begins to wonder what life will cost her. Part critique of the American cult of wellness, part glittering future with a nightmare undercurrent, Suicide Club is nothing if not deeply imaginative and timely. (Kaulie)
The Samurai by Shusaku Endo (translated by Van C. Gessel): In early 17th-century Japan, four low-ranking samurai and a Jesuit priest set off for la Nueva España (Mexico) on a trade mission. What could go wrong? The question of whether there can ever be substantive interplay between the core traditions of the West and the Far East—or whether the dynamic is somehow doomed, organically, to the superficial—is a recurring motif in Endo’s work much as it was in his life. Endo’s Catholic faith lent a peculiar depth to his writing that’s neither parochial nor proselytizing but typically, as in this New Directions reprint, thick with adventure. (Il’ja)
If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel: The characters in these 11 stories, nearly all of whom are first-generation Indian immigrants, are gay and straight, highly successful and totally lost, meekly traditional and boldly transgressive, but as they navigate a familiar contemporary landscape of suburban malls and social media stalking, they come off as deeply—and compellingly—American. (Michael)
Homeplace by John Lingan: Maybe it’s true that a dive bar shouldn’t have a website, but probably that notion gets thrown out the window when the bar’s longtime owner gave Patsy Cline her first break. In the same way, throw out your notions of what a hyper-localized examination of a small-town bar can be. In Lingan’s hands, the Troubadour explodes like a shattered glass, shards shot beyond Virginia, revealing something about ourselves—all of us—if we can catch the right glints in the pieces. (Nick M.)
Early Work by Andrew Martin: In this debut, a writer named Peter Cunningham slowly becomes aware that he’s not the novelist he wants to be. He walks his dog, writes every day, and teaches at a woman’s prison, but he still feels directionless, especially in comparison to his medical student girlfriend. When he meets a woman who’s separated from her fiance, he starts to learn that inspiration is always complex. (Thom)
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua: A factory worker named Scarlett Chen is having an affair with Yeung—her boss—when her life is suddenly turned upside down. After she becomes pregnant with Yeung’s son, Scarlett is sent to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles so that the child will be born with the privileges of American citizenship. Distressed at her isolation, Scarlett flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with a teenage stowaway named Daisy. Together, they disappear into a community of immigrants that remains hidden to most Americans. While they strive for their version of the American dream, Yeung will do anything to secure his son’s future. In a time when immigration policy has returned to the center of our national politics, Bay Area author Vanessa Hua delivers a book that explores the motivations, fears, and aspirations that drive people to migrate. (Ismail)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft): The 116 vignettes that make up this collection have been called digressive, discursive, and speculative. My adjectives: disarming and wonderfully encouraging. Whether telling the story of the trip that brought Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw or of a euthanasia pact between two sweethearts, Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018. (Il’ja)
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: Kim, a Columbia MFA graduate and contributing editor of Apogee Journal, is drawing rave advance praise for her debut novel. If You Leave Me is a family saga and romance set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Though a historical drama, its concerns—including mental illness and refugee life—could not be more timely. (Adam)
Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden: On the heels of her American Book Award- and NAACP Image Award-winning novel The Book of Harlan, McFadden’s 10th novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, gives us the story of Abeo, a privileged 9-year-old girl in West Africa who is sacrificed by her family into a brutal life of ritual servitude to atone for the father’s sins. Fifteen years later, Abeo is freed and must learn how to heal and live again. A difficult story that, according to Kirkus, McFadden takes on with “riveting prose” that “keeps the reader turning pages.” (Sonya)
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: When Clare arrives in Havana, she is surprised to find her husband, Richard, standing in a white linen suit outside a museum (surprised, because she thought Richard was dead). The search for answers sends Clare on a surreal journey; the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Her role in Richard’s death and reappearance comes to light in the streets of Havana, her memories of her marriage, and her childhood in Florida. Lauren Groff praises the novel as “artfully fractured, slim and singular.” (Claire)
Severance by Ling Ma: In this funny, frightening, and touching debut, office drone Candace is one of only a few New Yorkers to survive a plague that’s leveled the city. She joins a group, led by IT guru Bob, in search of the Facility, where they can start society anew. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch. (Adam)
Night Soil by Dale Peck: Author and critic Dale Peck has made a career out of telling stories about growing up queer; with Night Soil, he might have finally hit upon his most interesting and well-executed iteration of that story since his 1993 debut. The novel follows Judas Stammers, an eloquently foul-mouthed and compulsively horny heir to a Southern mining fortune, and his mother Dixie, a reclusive artist famous for making technically perfect pots. Living in the shadow of the Academy that their ancestor Marcus Stammers founded in order to educate—and exploit—his former slaves, Judas and Dixie must confront the history of their family’s complicity in slavery and environmental degradation. This is a hilarious, thought-provoking, and lush novel about art’s entanglement with America’s original sin. (Ismail)
Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: After the success of his six-part autofiction project My Struggle, Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard embarked on a new project: a quartet of memoiristic reflections on the seasons. Knausgaard wraps up the quartet with Summer, an intensely observed meditation on the Swedish countryside that the author has made a home in with his family. (Ismail)
Ohio by Stephen Markley: Ohio is an ambitious novel composed of the stories of four residents of New Canaan, Ohio, narratively unified by the death of their mutual friend in Iraq. Markley writes movingly about his characters, about the wastelands of the industrial Midwest, about small towns with economic and cultural vacuums filled by opioids, Donald Trump, and anti-immigrant hatred. This is the kind of book people rarely attempt to write any more, a Big American Novel that seeks to tell us where we live now. (Adam)
French Exit by Patrick deWitt: In this new novel by Patrick deWitt, bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, a widow and her son try to escape their problems (scandal, financial ruin, etc.) by fleeing to Paris. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a bright, original yarn with a surprising twist,” and Maria Semple says it’s her favorite deWitt novel yet, its dialogue “dizzyingly good.” According to Andrew Sean Greer the novel is “brilliant, addictive, funny and wise.” (Edan)
Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus: If you’ve read Marcus before, you know what you’re in for: a set of bizarre stories that are simultaneously terrifying and hysterical, fantastical and discomfortingly realistic. For example, in “The Grow-Light Blues,” which appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, a corporate employee tests a new nutrition supplement—the light from his computer screen. The results are not pleasant. With plots that seem like those of Black Mirror, Marcus presents dystopian futures that are all the more frightening because they seem possible. (Ismail)
The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: In the follow-up to his Costa Award-winning novel Reservoir 13, McGregor’s newest book focuses on the crime at the center of its predecessor: the disappearance of 13-year-old Becky Shaw. After Becky goes missing, an interviewer comes to town to collect stories from the villagers. Over the course of the book, the community reveals what happened (or what may have happened) in the days and weeks before the incident. In its starred review, Kirkus called the novel a “noteworthy event” that, when put in conversation with Reservoir 13, is “nothing short of a remarkable experiment in storytelling.” (Carolyn)
Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey: Called “a dark star of a book, glittering with mordant humor and astonishing, seductive strangeness and grace” by Lauren Groff, this is the story of Pony Darlene Fontaine. She lives in “the territory,” a sinister town run on a scarce economic resource. One night, Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, bolts barefoot into cold of the wider world—a place where the townspeople have never been. Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a “word-for-word triumph.” (Claire)
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Every news event, policy decision, and cultural moment now draws parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s Gilead, we’re in Gilead,” Twitter tells us, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” But Shah’s novel is both explicitly connected to Atwood’s marvel and working to expand it by imagining what a secular, Middle Eastern Gilead might look like. In a near future, war and disease have wiped out the women of what is currently Pakistan and Iran, and those who survived are now the forced breeders of a dystopian society. But there’s resistance, secrets, and risk; the result, Kirkus writes, is a kind of spy-genre-cum-soap-opera update on a modern classic. (Kaulie)
Boom Town by Sam Anderson: The decorated journalist Sam Anderson, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, has set out to fill a yawning gap in the American popular imagination: our tendency to ignore the nation’s 27th-largest metropolis, Oklahoma City. Anderson’s rollicking narrative is woven from two threads—the vicissitudes of the city’s NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the city’s boom-and-bust history of colorful characters, vicious weather, boosterism, and bloodshed, including, of course, the 1995 terrorist bombing of the federal building that left 168 dead. Everything about Anderson’s OK City is outsize, including the self-delusions. Its Will Rogers World Airport, for instance, doesn’t have any international flights. Anderson runs wild with this material. (Bill)
Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes (translated by Emma Ramadan): French feminist author and filmmaker Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory used her experience of rape, prostitution, and work in the porn industry to explode myths of sex, gender, and beauty, and it subsequently gained a cult following among English-language readers when first published in 2010. She’s since broken through to a wider audience with Volume 1 of her Vernon Subutex trilogy, just shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. While we’re waiting on the second volume of Subutex in the States, Feminist Press brings us Despentes’ Pretty Things, “a mean little book, wickedly funny, totally lascivious, often pornographic,” according to Kirkus, and just one of the many reasons Lauren Elkin has called Despentes “a feminist Zola for the twenty-first century.” (Anne)
Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen: Book of Numbers, Cohen’s tome about a tech titan leading us out of the pre-internet wilderness with his search engine, contains aphoristic observations on technology: “Our access is bewildering, not just beyond imagination but becoming imagination, and so bewildering twice over. We can only search the found, find the searched, and charge it to our room.” Now comes a nonfiction book about life in the digital age. The wide-ranging collection has political profiles, book reviews, and idiosyncratic journal entries: “Hat Lessons Gleaned from Attending a Film Noir Marathon with a Nonagenarian Ex-Milliner Who Never Stops Talking.” (Matt)
Open Me by Lisa Locascio: If you’re looking for a sexy and smart summer read, look no further. In this erotic coming-of-age story, Lisa Locascio explores the female body, politics, and desire. Aimee Bender writes that this debut novel is “a kind of love letter to the female body and all its power and visceral complexity. This is a story of many important layers, but one of the many reasons it remains distinct in my mind is because of its honesty about our complicated, yearning physical selves.” (Zoë)
Housegirl by Michael Donkor: In this debut novel, Donkor follows three Ghanaian girls: Belinda, the obedient; Mary, the irrepressible; and Amma, the rebel. For her part, Amma has had about enough of the tight-laced life in London that her parents want for her and begins to balk at the strictures of British life. But when she is brought to London to provide a proper in-house example for willful Amma, sensible Belinda begins to experience a cultural dissociation that threatens her sense of self as nothing before ever had. (Il’ja)
Transcription by Kate Atkinson: 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—especially a period novel about a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. Nonetheless, here’s some love from Booklist (starred review): “This is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.” (Sonya)
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling: File The Golden State under “most most-anticipated” as it’s the first novel of The Millions’ own brilliant and beloved Lydia Kiesling, who has has been wielding her pen and editorial prowess on this site for many a year. Two months pre-pub, The Golden State is already off to the races with a nomination for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, stating, “Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations.” Kiesling herself has written that “great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The Golden State promises just that. (Anne)
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: It’s the early years of Liberia, and three strangers with nothing in common help smooth the way for the nation. Gbessa is a West African exile who survives certain death; June Dey is running from a Virginia plantation; Norman Aragon, the son of a colonizer and a slave, can disappear at will. Their story stands at the meeting point of the diaspora, history, and magical realism, and Edwidge Danticat calls the novel “beautiful and magical.” (Kaulie)
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Barker is best known for her fantastic World War I Regeneration trilogy, including The Ghost Road, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. The Silence of the Girls sees Barker casting her historical imagination back further, to Ancient Greece and the Trojan War. Captured by Achilles, Briseis goes from queen to concubine, from ruler to subject—in this retelling of The Iliad, Barker reclaims Briseis as a protagonist, giving authorial voice to her and the other women who have long existed only as powerless subjects in a male epic. (Adam)
The Wildlands by Abby Geni: Geni’s last novel, The Lightkeepers, was a thriller set on an isolated island that was also somehow a meditation on appreciating nature, and it blew me away. Her new novel similarly combines the natural world with manmade terror. It follows four young siblings who are orphaned by an Oklahoma tornado and the ensuing national media attention that pushes their relationships to the edge. (Janet)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Edugyan’s last novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker. Attica Locke calls this one “nothing short of a masterpiece.” When Wash, an 11-year-old enslaved in Barbados, is chosen as a manservant, he is terrified. The chooser, Christopher Wilde, however, turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. But soon Wash and Christopher find themselves having to escape to save their lives. Their run takes them from the frozen North to London and Morocco. It’s all based on a famous 19th-century criminal case. (Claire)
Crudo by Olivia Laing: Olivia Laing, known for her chronicles of urban loneliness and writers’ attraction to drink as well as critical writing on art and literature, jumps genres with her first novel, Crudo. It’s a spitfire of a story with a fervent narrator and a twist: The book is written in the voice of punk feminist author Kathy Acker performed in mash-up with Laing’s own, as she considers marriage (with equivocation) and the absurdity of current events circa 2017. Suzanne Moore at The Guardian says, “Here [Laing] asks how we might not disappear…She reaches out for something extraordinary. Crudo is a hot, hot book.” (Anne)
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: Set during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Shteyngart’s novel begins with a bloodied, hungover, Fitzgerald-loving hedge fund manager—his company is called “This Side of Capital”—waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority. A disastrous dinner party the night before has pushed him over the edge, leading to his impulsive decision to flee the city, his business woes, and his wife and autistic toddler to track down an old girlfriend. Like Salman Rushdie in The Golden House, Shteyngart turns his satiric eye on a gilded family in disarray. (Matt)
The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translated by Anne McLean): In this, his sixth novel in English translation, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez plays mischief with history, a string of murders, and the conspiracy theories that commonly arise alongside. Add a storyline carried by a duet of narrators—one with a healthy dollop of paranoia, the other with a fixation for real crime so engrossing he’s turned his home into a kind of museum of crime noir—and you’ve got a gripping read and a solid reflection on the appeal of conspiracy. (Il’ja)
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina: Edie finds her mother Marianne in the living room only just surviving a suicide attempt, while her sister Mae is upstairs in a trance. Marianne is committed to a mental hospital, and the sisters are sent to live with their father, far from their native Louisiana. But as they spend more time with their father, the girls grow further apart, torn by their deep loyalty to opposite parents and their own grief and confusion. Apekina’s debut novel plays with tricky family relationships and the way fact and fantasy, loyalty and obsession, can be so difficult to tease apart. (Kaulie)
After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey): A story about love and consciousness that takes place in Havana, Paris, and New York, by the Mexican author who Katie Kitamura called “a brilliant anatomist of love and perversity…each new book is a revelation.” (Lydia)
Ordinary People by Diana Evans: The third novel from Evans, the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers, Ordinary People follows two troubled couples as they make their way through life in London. The backdrop: Obama’s 2008 election. The trouble: Living your 30s is hard, parenthood is harder, and relationships to people and places change, often more than we’d like them to. But Evans is as sharply funny—in clear-eyed, exacting fashion—as she is sad, and Ordinary People cuts close to the quick of, well, ordinary people. (Kaulie)
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke by Sarah Smarsh: An uncomfortable reality of contemporary American society, one of many, is that where social mobility is concerned, the so-called American Dream is best achieved in Denmark. If you’re born into poverty here, in other words, hard work won’t necessarily pull you out. In Heartland, Smarsh blends memoir—she comes from a long line of teen mothers and was raised primarily by her grandmother on a farm near Wichita—with analysis and social commentary to offer a nuanced exploration of the impact of generational poverty and a look at the lives of poor and working-class Americans. (Emily)
The Caregiver by Samuel Park: Park’s third novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro and California. Mara is an immigrant whose beloved mother Ana, a voice-over actress, was involved with a civilian rebel group in Rio. In California as an adult now, Mara works as a caregiver to a young woman with stomach cancer and grapples with her mother’s complicated, enigmatic past. Shortly after finishing the novel in 2017, Park himself died of stomach cancer at age 41. (Sonya)
The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard: Winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt doesn’t guarantee an English translation, but as Garth Risk Hallberg showed in a piece about international prize winners, it helps. Recent translated winners include Mathias Énard’s Compass and Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, and the latest is Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, a historical novel about the rise of Nazism, corporate complicity, and Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Discussing his fictionalized account, Vuillard, who also wrote a novel about Buffalo Bill Cody, told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as neutral history.” (Matt)
Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg: This new collection is the famed short story writer’s first book since 2006, and advance word says it lives up to the best of her work. Over the course of six lengthy, morally complicated stories, the author showcases her trademark wit and sensitivity, exploring such matters as books that expose one’s own past and the trials of finding yourself infatuated with a human rights worker. (Thom)
Ponti by Sharlene Teo: Set in Singapore in the 1990s, Teo’s debut, which won the inaugural Deborah Rogers award in the U.K. and was subsequently the subject of a bidding war, describes a twisted friendship between two teenage girls. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it “relatable yet unsettling.” (Lydia)
Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman: Eden Malcom, a deeply wounded soldier coming back from the Iraq war, lies unconscious in a bed. The story is narrated by a ghost, Eden’s friend and fellow soldier whom he has lost in the foreign land. Through numerous shattering moments in the book, Ackerman pushes the readers to explore eternal human problems such as the meaning of life, marriage, love and betrayal. (Jianan)
Boomer1 by Daniel Torday: Daniel Torday follows his acclaimed debut, The Last Flight of Poxl West, with a second novel that carries a menacing subtitle: Retire or We’ll Retire You. It’s apt because this is the story of a millennial loser named Mark Brumfeld, a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and current grad student whose punk bassist girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal, driving him out of New York and back to his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore. There, under the titular handle of Boomer1, he starts posting online critiques of baby boomers that go viral. Intergenerational warfare—what a smart lens for looking at the way we live today. (Bill)
River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith): One of the unsung attractions of London is the transitional areas at the edges, where city meets country meets industry meets waterfowl meets isolated immigrant laborer. A book in which scarcely anything ever happens, River is, however, filled with life. Resolute in her take on the terrain as the outsider looking in, Kinsky skillfully chronicles the importance in our lives of the homely, the unobserved and the irrepressibly present. A book for those who would gladly reread W.G. Sebald but wish he had written about people more often. (Il’ja)
The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman: Sarah Weinman uncovers that Sally Horner, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in 1948, was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Through her thorough research, Weinman learns that Nabokov knew much about Horner’s case and made efforts to disguise this fact. Megan Abbott writes that The Real Lolita “offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” (Zoë)
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre: The Myers-Briggs personality test is the most popular test of its kind in the world, and affects life in ways large and small–from the hiring and career development practices of Fortune 500 companies, to time-wasting Facebook tests to, amazingly, people’s Twitter bios. (I’m allegedly an ENFP, incidentally.) As it happens, the test was contrived by a team of mother-daughter novelists with a Jung obsession. Scholar and trenchant literary critic Emre uses archival research to tell this story, revealing the fictions woven into a supposedly “scientific” instrument. (Lydia)
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen): Like many before me, I once fell into Murakami’s fictional world only to emerge six months later wondering what on earth happened. So any anticipation for his new books is tempered by caution. His new novel is about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called “Killing Commendatore.” Mysteries proliferate, and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell. (Hannah)
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This book—the first by the former editor of the much-missed site The Toast—is garnering high praise from lots of great people, among them Alexander Chee, who wrote, “I’ve been waiting for this writer, and this book—and everything else she’ll write.” Born prematurely to Korean parents who had immigrated to America, the author was adopted by a white couple who raised her in rural Oregon, where she encountered bigotry her family couldn’t see. Eventually, Chung grew curious about her past, which led her to seek out the truth of her origins and identity. (Thom)
Heavy by Kiese Laymon: Finally! This memoir has been mentioned as “forthcoming” at the end of every Kiese Laymon interview or magazine article for a few years, and I’ve been excited about it the entire time. Laymon has written one novel and one essay collection about America and race. This memoir focuses on Laymon’s own body—in the personal sense of how he treats it and lives in it, and in the larger sense of the heavy burden of a black body in America. (Janet)
Almost Everything by Anne Lamott: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author of Bird by Bird has some fascinating thoughts about hope and its role in our lives. In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott recounts her own struggles with despair, admitting that at her lowest she “stockpiled antibiotics for the Apocalypse.” From that point on, she discovered her own strength, and her journey forms the basis of this thoughtful and innovative work. (Thom)
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: The beloved novelist’s latest tells the story of Willa Knox, whose middle-class life has crumbled: The magazine she built her career around has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has shut down. All she has is a very old house in need of serious repair. Out of desperation, she begins looking into her house’s history, hoping that she might be able to get some funding from the historical society. Through her research, she finds a kindred spirit in Thatcher Greenwood, who occupied the premises in 1871 and was an advocate of the work of Charles Darwin. Though they are separated by more than a century, Knox and Greenwood both know what it’s like to live through cultural upheaval. (Hannah)
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: In his debut short story collection, Adjei-Brenyah writes about the injustice black people face every day in America. Tackling issues like criminal justice, consumerism, and racism, these timely stories are searching for humanity in a brutal world. The collection is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and George Saunders called it “an excitement and a wonder: strange, crazed, urgent and funny.” (Carolyn)
Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan: This debut collection of short fiction is the most recent collaboration between Coffee House Press and Emily Books. The 11 short stories argue that relationships between two people often contain a third presence, whether that means another person or a past or future self. Tan’s sensibility has been compared to that of Joy Williams, David Lynch, and Carmen Maria Machado. (Hannah)
Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III: Whether in his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) or his nonfiction (Townie), Dubus tells blistering stories about broken lives. In his new novel, Daniel Ahern “hasn’t seen his daughter in forty years, and there is so much to tell her, but why would she listen?” Susan, his daughter, has good reason to hate Daniel—his horrific act of violence ruined their family and poisoned her life. Dubus has the preternatural power to make every storyline feel mythic, and Gone So Long rides an inevitable charge of guilt, fear, and stubborn hope. “Even after we’re gone, what we’ve left behind lives on in some way,” Dubus writes—including who we’ve left behind. (Nick R.)
Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis: A memoir about growing up a mile from the Rio Grande, told in vignettes, or retablos, showing the small and large moments that take place along the U.S. border. Julia Alvarez says of the book, “Unpretentiously and with an unerring accuracy of tone and rhythm, Solis slowly builds what amounts to a storybook cathedral. We inhabit a border world rich in characters, lush with details, playful and poignant, a border that refutes the stereotypes and divisions smaller minds create. Solis reminds us that sometimes the most profound truths are best told with crafted fictions—and he is a master at it.” (Lydia)
Family Trust by Kathy Wang: Acclaimed by Cristina Alger as “a brilliant mashup of The Nest and Crazy Rich Asians,” the book deals with many hidden family tensions ignited by the approaching of the death of Stanley Huang, the father of the family. Family Trust brings the readers to rethink the ambitions behind the bloom of Silicon Valley and what families really mean. (Jianan)
Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson (translated by Damion Searls): At 1,800 pages, the two-volume set of Uwe Johnson’s 1968 classic—and first complete publication of the book in English—isn’t going to do your TBR pile any favors. The NYRB release follows, in detail, the New York lives of German emigres Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie as they come to terms with the heritage of the Germany they escaped and with an American existence that, in 1968, begins to resonate with challenges not dissimilar to those they left behind. A Searls translation portends a rewarding reading experience despite the volumes’ length. (Il’ja)
White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Drawing comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and Sandra Cisneros, Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection pulls together stories of diverse women of color as they face violence, whether it be sexual, racial, or self-inflicted. The Buddha also makes an appearance, as do Hindu myths, incurable diseases, and an android. No wonder Jeff VanderMeer calls White Dancing Elephants “often provocative” as well as bold, honest, and fresh. (Kaulie)
Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips: You know meritocratic capitalism is a lie because everyone who wrote during Holly Anderson’s tenure as editor of MTV News is not presently wealthy beyond imagination, but that’s beside the point. Better yet, let’s pour one out for Grantland. Better still, let’s focus on one truth. Brian Phillips’s essays are out of this world: big-hearted, exhaustive, unrelentingly curious, and goddamned fun. It’s about time he graced us with this collection. (Nick M.)
The Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang: For the title of his debut collection of essays on race, gender, and American society, Wesley Yang invokes W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 classic study of race in America. These 13 essays, some of which appeared previously in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and n+1, explore the ways in which the American dream shapes and distorts an assortment of people: chefs, strivers, pickup artists, and school shooters. Included here is “Paper Tigers,” Yang’s personal, National Magazine Award-winning look at Asian-American overachievers. As Yang’s avid followers already know, his laser scrutiny spares no one—not even Yang himself. (Bill)
The Witch Elm by Tana French: For six novels now, French has taken readers inside the squabbling, backstabbing world of the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, with each successive book following a different detective working frantically to close a case. Now, in a twist, French has—temporarily, we hope—set aside the Murder Squad for a stand-alone book that follows the victim of a crime, a tall, handsome, faintly clueless public relations man named Toby who is nearly beaten to death when he surprises two burglars in his home. Early reviews online attest that French’s trademark immersive prose and incisive understanding of human psychology remain intact, but readers do seem to miss the Murder Squad. (Michael)
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald: Casey Gerald fulfilled the American dream and is here to call bullshit. He grew up in Dallas with a sometimes absent mother and was recruited to play football for Yale. As he came to inhabit the rarefied air of Yale, Harvard, and Wall Street, he recognized the false myths that hold up those institutions and how their perpetuation affects those striving to get in. (Janet)
Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker: Camille Acker spins her debut story collection around a pair of linked premises: that respectability does not equal freedom and that the acclaim of others is a tinny substitute for one’s own sense of self. Set mostly in Washington, D.C., these stories give us a millennial who fights gentrification—until she learns that she’s part of the problem; a schoolteacher who dreams of a better city and winds up taking out her frustrations on her students; and a young piano player who wins a competition—and discovers that the prize is worthless. A timely, welcome book. (Bill)
The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana): Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Juan Rulfo—comparisons to each have been made with regard to Cristina Rivera Garza’s novels, which are uncanny and unique, often exploring and crossing and investigating borders, including but not limited to “geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death.” Rivera Garza has spent her life crossing borders, too. Born in Mexico, she lived between San Diego and Tijuana for a long while, and she now directs the first bilingual creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Houston. The Taiga Syndrome is Rivera Garza’s second novel to be translated to English, a book which Daniel Borzutzky likens to “Apocalypse Now fused with the worlds of Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges.” Yowza. (Anne)
Well-Read Black Girl ed. Glory Edim: Glory Edim founded Well-Read Black Girl, a Brooklyn-based book club and an online space that highlights black literature and sisterhood, and last year she produced the inaugural Well-Read Black Girl Festival. Most recently, Edim curated the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, and contributors include Morgan Jerkins, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, Gabourey Sidibe, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, and Barbara Smith. The collection of essays celebrates the power of representation, visibility, and storytelling. (Zoë)
Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker: Martin Riker has exquisite taste in books. He’s proven this again and again as publisher of Dorothy and former editor for Dalkey Archive, and as a critic and champion of literature in translation, innovative writing, and authors who take risks—which is why the debut of Riker’s first novel, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, is so thrilling for us bookish types. The titular Samuel Johnson is not that Samuel Johnson but a Samuel Johnson who comes of age in mid-20th-century America who is killed and whose consciousness then migrates from body to body to inevitably inhabit many lives in what Joshua Cohen calls “a masterpiece of metempsychosis.” (Anne)
All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy: This is Roy’s latest offering after a powerful showing in Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. This novel centers around Myshkin, a boy whose life is changed when his mother elopes—no, vanishes—with a German man who appears naked at a river near their house one day and insists he has come for her after first meeting her in Bali. The novel follows the anamnesis of what happened, and his ruminations on its effect on his life. Already published in Britain, the novel has been called “elegiac,” compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali—at a festival where I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015—this is an affecting novel. Readers should look for a conversation between Roy and me on this site around publication date. (Chigozie)
Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: Can you remember a better short story collection in recent years than Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women? I can’t. Maybe once a week I think about that dentist, ripping his own teeth out in front of his granddaughter. Now, Berlin’s estate is back with even more stories, this time all previously uncompiled. In the case of a less talented writer, I’d be worried about publishers scraping the barrel. But with Berlin, there are surely unplucked molars. (Nick M.)
The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen: Today Franzen is best known as a novelist—even the “Great American Novelist”—but it’s worth noting that he first appeared on many readers’ radar with his 1996 Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream” about the difficulties of writing fiction in an age of images. Franzen’s essays, like his novels, can be a mixed bag, but he is a man perennially interested in interesting things that others overlook, such as, in this book, the global devastation of seabirds by predators and climate change. (Michael)
Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell): From the author of the brilliant, Prix Goncourt-winning Compass, a work of historical fiction that follows Michelangelo to the Ottoman Empire, where he is considering a commission from the Sultan to build a bridge across the Golden Horn. The novel promises to continue Énard’s deep, humanistic explorations of the historical and ongoing connections between Europe and Asia, Islamdom and Christendom. (Lydia)
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: As the title makes clear, the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a dark comedy of sibling rivalry. The beautiful Ayoola leads a charmed life, and thanks to the cleanup efforts of her older sister, Korede, she suffers no repercussions from killing a string of boyfriends. Korede’s loyalty is tested, however, when a man close to her heart asks out her sister. Film producers are already getting in on the fun, as Working Title has optioned what the publisher calls a “hand grenade of a novel.” (Matt)
Those Who Knew by Idra Novey: Following up her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, Novey’s latest tells the story of a woman who suspects a senator’s hand in the death of a young woman on an unnamed island. The great Rebecca Traister says the book “speaks with uncommon prescience to the swirl around us. Novey writes, with acuity and depth, about questions of silence, power, and complicity. The universe she has created is imagined, and all too real.” (Lydia)
The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr): A collection of his best early stories from a pioneer in China’s 1980 avant-garde literary movement, renowned for approaching realist subject matters through unconventional techniques. In his writings, reality is punctured and estranged, leading up to a new look at things familiar. Yu Hua is one of the best acclaimed contemporary Chinese authors. His previous works include China in Ten Words, Brothers, and the stunning To Live. (Jianan)
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Charles Heist lives in a trailer in the desert outside L.A. and keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer. Phoebe Siegler is a sarcastic motormouth looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Together, they explore California’s sun-blasted Inland Empire, searching for the girl among warring encampments of hippies and vagabonds living off the grid. In other words, we’re in Lethemland, where characters have implausible last names, genre tropes are turned inside out, and no detective is complete without a pet opossum.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: A story that takes across time and place in the Philippines, from the American occupation to the Duterte era, by the winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealer’s Daughter. (Don’t miss Apostol’s astute essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Francine Prose and textual appropriation.) (Lydia)
Hardly Children by Laura Adamcyzk: Chicago-based author Laura Adamcyzk’s bold and observant debut story collection, Hardly Children, teems with wry wit as it explores memory and family and uncovers the unexpected in the everyday. Her stories often involve family, interrelations within, and their disintegration, such as in “Girls,” which won the Dzanc Books/Disquiet Prize. Other stories are pithy and razor sharp, such as “Gun Control,” which invents many permutations of Chekhov’s Gun (i.e., a gun in act one must go off by act three), and in doing so reflects the degree to which Adamcyzk considers the architecture of her stories, which often shift in striking ways. (Anne)
The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda): This is the English-language debut from a Japanese writer whose work has already been translated worldwide. The short stories in this collection are a mix of the fantastical and the painfully real. The title story is about a woman who makes radical changes to her appearance through bodybuilding, yet her husband doesn’t even notice. Other mysterious premises include a saleswoman whose client won’t come out of a dressing room, a newlywed couple who begin to resemble each other, and umbrellas that have magical properties. (Hannah)
The Patch by John McPhee: McPhee’s seventh collection of essays is finely curated, as expected for an essayist who lives and breathes structure. Essays on the sporting life fill the first part; the second includes shorter, previously uncollected pieces. The collection’s titular essay is an elegiac classic, which begins with the pursuit of chain pickerel in New Hampshire but soon becomes an essay about his dying father. McPhee flawlessly moves from gravity to levity, as in his writing about the Hershey chocolate factory. Such pieces are tastes of his willingness to let the world around him just be and to marvel at mysteries of all variety: “Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms…Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor.” One wishes John McPhee would write about everything, his words an introduction to all of life’s flavors. (Nick R.)
The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco: A gender-bending historical detective story involving the opium trade and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the Pacific Northwest. (Lydia)
Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai: Winner of the Doris Bakwin Award selected by Tayari Jones, Chai’s collection comprises eight stories detailing life in a globalized world. Edward P. Jones called Useful Phrases “a splendid gem of a story collection…Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language―‘a wind so treacherous it had its own name,’ ‘summer days stretched taffy slow’….Chai’s work is a grand event.” (Lydia)
North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah: Farah has been writing about the world’s greatest catastrophes for years, and his novels, especially Hiding in Plain Sight, have been about the tragedy that accompanies the loss of one’s original country. That strong theme is the centrifugal force of this novel about a calm home engulfed when a son leaves quiet and peaceful Oslo to die back in Somalia. His widow and children return to Norway to live with his parents, and in bringing their devoted religiosity with them, threaten to explode the family once again. Farah is a master of shifts and turns, so this novel promises to be among the year’s most exciting publications. (Chigozie)
Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra (translated by Achy Obejas): Translated for the first time into English, internationally bestselling novelist Guerra’s book follows a writer from Cuba to Spain, where her expat compatriots assume she is a spy for Castro. Back home in Cuba, she is treated with equal suspicion by her government. (Lydia)