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).
A graphic memoir composed almost entirely of dialogue and static drawings might seem like an unlikely follow-up to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob’s acclaimed 2014 novel. But Jacob, author of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, which will be published this month by One World, doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
No matter whether the challenge is explaining race relations and Michael Jackson’s fluctuating skin color to her six-year-old mixed-race son, or confronting the mother-in-law she adores about supporting Donald Trump.
Jacob, the daughter of East Indian immigrant parents and married to a Jewish man, does all of this and more in Good Talk. She allows her characters—her son, husband, friends and extended family—to speak for themselves, literally, in a memoir that is as graphically inventive as it is deeply personal and unapologetically political.
We talked to Jacob about creating her first graphic work, identity and American racism, and the challenge of raising a child during a period of political and moral crisis.
The Millions: Which came first, the graphic nonfiction form or the subject matter? Or did they evolve together?
Mira Jacob: I’ve always drawn, and my agent knows this because when I turn in manuscripts, I have drawings in the mix. When I get stuck, I draw my way out. She said, “You should draw a book,” but I had no idea what it would look like.
Then, I was stuck in a nursing home with my grandma in India—and in India, no one goes to nursing homes—and she was depressed and angry, and the TV went out. But in the span of the four minutes it was out, we had the most intense conversation. I drew that conversation to crack up my cousins because there are so many of us and I knew they’d understand it immediately with no additional explanation. That’s when I understood that if you just draw the conversation as it happened, people will understand.
Later my son started asking these questions. I wanted to write an essay about it. Most kids go through an obsession with Michael Jackson. But he figured out he was brown and that it wasn’t as welcome as white, and his idol was black. I started writing those conversations down and drawing them.
TM: I’m curious about how you decided to approach writing about the unwitting racists of the world, of which there are many.
MJ: I kept wondering, especially in my interactions with my liberal white friends, “What do I do when racial violence is happening everywhere, but you express this skepticism. The only thing you’ll accept is the idea that you weren’t racist, so we can keep being friends.”
It’s a known known now that people are more upset about being called racist than by being racist. There are clear patterns with my white friends, where I say they’ve hurt my feelings, and their emotional reaction trumps anything I could ever do. Defending yourself is not getting us anywhere. How can we not have a conversation about this? It’s usually with my liberal friends. They say, “If this is how you handle it, you won’t have anyone on your side.” And I wonder, “How on my side are you?”
Writing to that place is tough. The other thing I’m writing to is this persistent fantasy that if people have interracial relationships that are positive, they’ve worked through it…. People are like, “I’ve done the work. I’m woke now.” I myself am in a constant process of waking.
TM: There are several scenes at different points in your life in which you depict your own ignorant or bigoted moments. Why were those important to include?
MJ: It was very deliberate. There’s a scene where I said something really stupid to my black boyfriend’s friend, but right after that [in the book], I told my son we weren’t racist. So I just let it stand.
TM: The parenting conversations really resonated with me—the constant tension between wanting to protect our kids and wanting to be honest with them. How have your conversations with your son evolved?
MJ: He’s ten now. This book ends two years before this moment. It’s gotten more complicated. I’ve lived by the rule of answer the question you’re asked. Don’t rush forward into all the things you think he needs to know. Those things will come. He’ll be a teenager and he’ll figure out how people perceive brown boys. It’s gonna be awful. It’s not gonna be less awful because I tell him about it ahead of time.
There’s a lot of anti-Semitism too. He asked me a year ago, “Is it that I’m brown and Jewish, because those are two things no one likes?” I wanted to call my in-laws and say “What do you think brought this on?” When he was born and Obama was in office, we were living with a level of privilege. He didn’t know everything that went behind creating that moment.
TM: There’s so much humor in this book, like the scene where you draw your parents as space aliens with these crazy eye-stalks.
MJ: Drawing on a computer is a trip. Literally anything you can dream up you can try it very quickly. What would it look like if my parents had alien eyeballs? I tried so many alien parents. I found that one the most bizarre and haunting. For all the pain in this book—I cried a ton—I did crack myself up an awful lot. I’d be up at three in the morning cackling feverishly.
TM: What kind of reactions to the book have you had from your family and friends?
MJ: My mother says to all of her friends, “Oh, Mira is so creative. Of course I know how it really happened.” My brother said, “What do you think about Hasan Minhaj playing me in the movie?”
TM: You write about the racial micro-aggressions you experienced when your novel came out. How did that impact the decisions you made about publicizing this book?
MJ: Any woman of color on Twitter can tell you there’s an incredible amount of hate. Then throw the identity of “mom” on top of that. As far as making rules for myself, I’m most comfortable talking about myself. I’m protective of my family. I’m also aware that people are really hungry to know how it felt for us, as a way to have more hope or to not have any, and I’m not taking that on. People want to read their tea leaves through the lens of my family. I want to turn that around and say, “This is my family. You take those questions to yours.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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