We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
The Memory Police
The Topeka School
The Hotel Neversink
Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
Night Boat to Tangier
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
The new year brings slight change to the top-half of our Top Ten. The books in fourth and fifth position swapped places, bumping Ducks, Newburyport up a spot, but otherwise 2020 begins just as 2019 ended: with Olga Tokarczuk in first place.
Elsewhere on the list, things get more interesting. Both Jia Tolentino and Adam O’Fallon Price saw their works rise a couple spots: Trick Mirror from ninth to seventh; The Hotel Neversink from seventh to sixth. Bravo, both.
Speaking of cheers, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, capped off six straight appearances on our Top Ten by ascending to our Hall of Fame. It’s the second time Whitehead has reached the Hall. The Underground Railroad made it in 2017. On the other hand, The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, dropped out of our list.
Filling the two free spots are Ocean Vuong and Kevin Barry, as On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous moves from perennial placement in our “Near Misses” to 10th position, and Night Boat to Tangier rides two mentions from our Year in Reading series into the ninth spot. Both Daniel Levin Becker and our own Bill Morris sung its praises. It “wrap[s] inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss” wrote Becker. “It provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence)” wrote Morris.
My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital.
Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo.
As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism.
Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”
Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it.
William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019.
So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes’s is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the “Warren Commission,” the “9/11 Commission Report”, and the “Mueller Report,” Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone.
Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day.
If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder.
“Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement.
Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.”
Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age.
Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax.
Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her.
Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism.
Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders.
Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them.
“He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory.
Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power.
In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen.
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial.
The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece.
Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism.
Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief.
Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia.
“My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules.
No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.”
Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter.
For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times.
Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food. What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris.
Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic.
A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first.
Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Colson Whitehead, Bianca Marais, David Szalay, Chuck Klosterman and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today. And, get the best of The Millions delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up for our free newsletter.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Nickel Boys: “‘As it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it,’ Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) writes in the present-day prologue to this story, in which construction workers have dug up what appears to be a secret graveyard on the grounds of the juvenile reform school the Nickel Academy in Jackson County, Fla. Five decades prior, Elwood Curtis, a deeply principled, straight-A high school student from Tallahassee, Fla., who partakes in civil rights demonstrations against Jim Crow laws and was about to start taking classes at the local black college before being erroneously detained by police, has just arrived at Nickel. Elwood finds that, at odds with Nickel’s upstanding reputation in the community, the staff is callous and corrupt, and the boys—especially the black boys—suffer from near-constant physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Elwood befriends the cynical Turner, whose adolescent experiences of violence have made him deeply skeptical of the objectivity of justice. Elwood and Turner’s struggles to survive and maintain their personhood are interspersed with chapters from Elwood’s adult life, showing how the physical and emotional toll of his time at Nickel still affects him. Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.”
If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about If You Want to Make God Laugh: “Marais’s lovely sophomore novel (after Hum If You Don’t Know the Words) follows three women who connect in surprising ways in a newly postapartheid South Africa. Seventeen-year-old Zodwa, once a promising high school student, returns home pregnant and in disgrace to a squatter town outside Magaliesburg. After nearly 40 years of estrangement, sisters Ruth and Delilah reluctantly return to their family farm near Magaliesburg, each looking to find closure from past mistakes. Each woman has her personal struggles: Zodwa hides the details surrounding her pregnancy and cares for her tuberculosis-stricken mother; former stripper Ruth drinks herself through her third divorce; and Delilah refuses to disclose the mysterious circumstances surrounding her sudden return from a humanitarian mission in central Africa. All their lives become intertwined when Ruth and Delilah find an abandoned newborn on their doorstep. Set against the backdrop of the Mandela presidency, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, and the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, the story offers a look into the staggering emotional cost of secrecy, broken family bonds, racism, and sexual violence. Marais once again showcases her talent for pulling beauty from the pain of South African history with a strong story and wonderfully imperfect characters.”
Family of Origin by CJ Hauser
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Family of Origin: “Hauser (The From-Aways) impresses with her wistful contemporary tale of family bonds and misplaced pessimism. Estranged half-siblings 35-year-old Elsa—a discouraged second-grade teacher in Minnesota—and 29-year-old Nolan—a social media manager for the San Francisco Giants—travel to Leap’s Island, a private island off the Gulf Coast, to investigate the drowning death of their father, Ian Grey. Ian, once a respected biologist, had come to Leap’s Island to join the Reversalists, a small group of researchers who believe evolution is regressing to make each generation worse. The eccentric inhabitants jealously guard their research on the island’s unique duck species, hoping to be the first to prove the theory. Elsa is convinced Ian committed suicide, but Nolan hopes conversations with the researchers will prove her wrong. The pair fall into old patterns of sibling rivalry, and Elsa wrestles with her drastic reaction to learning what caused the family’s rupture 15 years before. Hauser intercuts the siblings’ investigation with flashbacks to their fractured earlier family life and the melancholic backstories explaining each of the Reversalists’ reason for coming to the island. This shimmering take on grief and family will enthrall fans of character-driven stories with its bevy of dashed dreams and cluttered emotions.”
On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On the Clock: “In this spiritual sequel to Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2011 Nickel and Dimed, journalist Guendelsberger takes jobs at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse, an AT&T call center, and a McDonald’s franchise to investigate the sheer implausibility of living on minimum wage and the Kafkaesque features of service industry work. These include the Tylenol- and Advil-dispensing vending machines at the Amazon warehouse, a symbol of the excruciating pain that is an expected part of the job; bosses changing time sheets to deduct minutes employees spent in the bathroom; and screaming customers flinging condiment packets. Guendelsberger’s coworkers are charismatic and charming, and completely unaware that they deserve a lot better from their employers: one of her fellow employees suffers a panic attack that requires emergency services and another attempts dental surgery on herself. Interspersed throughout are references to early 20th-century moguls like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford (who pioneered the use of assembly lines to control workers’ pace, a predecessor to Amazon’s pace-tracking practices), giving historical background on how the plight of today’s overburdened working class came to be. Guendelsberger’s narration is vivid, humorous, and honest; she admits to the feelings of despair, panic, and shame that these jobs frequently inspire, allowing for a more complex and complete picture of the experience. This is a riveting window into minimum-wage work and the subsistence living it engenders.”
Turbulence by David Szalay
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Turbulence: “In Szalay’s latest, after the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted All That Man Is, two air travelers’ lives briefly intersect in the opening chapter on a flight from London to Madrid. A diabetic English woman returning to her home in Madrid from London, where she was visiting her son, who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, faints in her seat during a bout of turbulence, and the Ghanaian businessman next to her finds help. This encounter stays with Cheikh, the businessman, as he arrives home in Dakar to news of a tragic car accident in his family. The book continues with a collection of 12 such fleeting encounters, each, relay-like, linked to the previous by a tangential point of intersection, and each driven and inspired by the liminality of air travel. A witness to the accident in Dakar lands in São Paulo, where he sleeps with a journalist who must catch a flight to Toronto the next morning to interview a writer. The writer flies to Seattle for her grandchild’s birth, where by chance she meets a woman from Hong Kong who is caught at a marital crossroads. Szalay is a pithy writer, capable of startling insights into the nature of loneliness and the human desire for companionship, though there is something thin and underdeveloped to the conceit of this novel. This is a somewhat disappointing effort from a talented writer.”
Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Raised in Captivity: “Klosterman (Chuck Klosterman X), in this irreverent collection of what he calls ‘fictional non-fiction’ stories, creates a multitude of clever scenarios, blasting off with the title story about a wild animal found in the bathroom of the first-class section of an airplane, and careering to the final tale about a hapless man spurred on by a nosy neighbor to continue working on a mysterious contraption in his backyard shed. In these 34 stories, most featuring a hilarious denouement, the author takes on racism, diets, cults, white privilege, and life with Trump as president. Standouts include ‘Execute Again,’ which features a philosophical football coach who teaches his team one play—characterized by the narrator as ‘learning how to foxtrot and moonwalk at the same time,’ the results of which are eye-opening; ‘Of Course It Is,’ which explores the banality of the afterlife; and ‘Pain is a Concept by Which We Measure Our God,’ in which husbands can have a procedure to take on the pain of their wives’ giving birth. No matter the topic, Klosterman’s gimlet eye and trenchant prose bedazzle.”
The Expectations by Alexander Tilney
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Expectations: “Tilney’s rewarding debut concerns a freshman at a New Hampshire boarding school in the ’90s who finds that high school isn’t turning out the way he imagined it would. Fourteen-year-old Ben Weeks arrives at St. James thinking that everything will finally start to go right for him. The school has always been part of his family’s life: Ben’s father, Harry, helped renovate the squash courts, and Ben’s uncle Russell is on the board. Ben’s the best boys’ squash player in the country, but he quickly becomes disillusioned with it. His dreams of having a best-friend roommate are dashed when he’s paired with the sweet and awkward Ahmed Al-Khaled, a target of bullies. Ben also discovers that—due to a series of bad investments—Harry can’t afford to pay his tuition. Since pride and competition with Russell prevent Harry from agreeing to financial aid, Ben agrees to let Ahmed’s rich father pick up the tab. Ahmed starts hanging with a stoner crowd that accepts him, though Ben fears that Ahmed will be caught and kicked out. The author effectively touches on matters of class, societal pressures, and what it really means to be cool. Tilney’s memorable boarding school novel hits the mark.”
We seem to say this every six months or so, but what a year for books. The second half of 2019 brings new novels from Colson Whitehead, Ben Lerner, Jacqueline Woodson, and Margaret Atwood. It brings hotly anticipated first novels by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wayne Koestenbaum. It brings Zadie Smith’s very first short story collection. Riveting memoirs. Coming-of-age stories. With more than 100 titles, you’re going to have your hands full this fall. As always, please let us know what we missed in the comments, and look for additional titles in our monthly previews.
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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Fresh off a Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to the subject of America’s racist history with this tale of a college-bound black man who runs afoul of the law in Jim Crow Florida and ends up in the hellish Nickel Academy, where boys are beaten and sexually abused by the staff. In an early review, Publishers Weekly calls The Nickel Boys “a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” (Michael)
The Need by Helen Phillips: This book had me at “existential thriller about motherhood” but when I found out that the mother in the book is also a paleobotanist, I pre-ordered, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History staring at plant fossils. In case you need more convincing, it has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is on multiple summer reading lists, and is from the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Some Possible Solutions. Also, the cover is gorgeous. (Hannah)
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar: In this modern-day Western, Tomar tells the story of a young woman’s search for her missing friend in the harsh desert landscape along the California-Nevada border. A gritty portrait of small-town life and the violence that plagues it, the novel formally experiments with time and narration. Publishers Weekly praises Tomar for “employing authorial sleight-of-hand…intentionally scrambl[ing] the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives.” (Matt)
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon: Buckhanon’s latest novel, her fourth, takes the reader on a quest to find out why a woman in Harlem disappeared after walking to the roof of her brownstone one day. The missing woman’s sister, Autumn, sets out to solve the case, after learning the police aren’t likely to provide her with answers. Autumn’s life unravels as her grief becomes overwhelming, and she grows steadily more fixated on the plight of missing women. (Thom)
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks: In what Kirkus describes as “finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration,” Horrocks tells the story of Erik Satie and his siblings, Conrad and Louise. Set in La Belle Époque Paris, The Vexations is a finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art. (Adam P.)
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter: Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, is a “natural extension” of her wild and raucous collection of stories, Tongue Party, which Deb Olin Unferth selected as winner of (the now defunct) Caketrain’s chapbook competition. Told in fragments, The Book of X alternates between the story of the alienated and disfigured Cassie, born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, and her fantasies of an alternate life for herself. Scott McClanahan calls The Book of X “our new Revelation,” while Blake Butler compares Etter’s voice to Angela Carter’s, declaring, “there’s a new boss in the Meat Quarry.” (Anne)
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky: Emma Straub says Dermanky’s fourth novel is, “her best yet.” If you’ve read Bad Marie and The Red Car, you know the bar is high and that no writer balances on the sharp edge between comedy and tragedy quite like Dermansky. Very Nice weaves several stories together, a wealthy divorcée in Connecticut, her college-age daughter, a famous American novelist, and a poodle, to ask a timely question—how much bad behavior from a bad man can we take? Maria Semple says it best, “so sexy and reads so smooth.” (Claire)
Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by Wayne Koestenbaum
Poet, literary critic, and all-around cultural polymath Koestenbaum returns with this post-modern, Nabokovian take on creativity, sexuality, classical music, and the circus in his first novel. Drawing on his interests in camp, Queer theory, and the symphony hall, which he’s explored in critical works like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum gives us the evocatively named Theo Mangrove, a polyamorous pianist who fantasizes that the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei will accompany him on his comeback concert in a medieval, walled French city. Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like “After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;” an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (Ed)
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez: Fulbright scholar Jimenez returns to her native New York in her first novel They Could Have Called Her Anything. A subway ride from Queens to the Upper East Side will see you take the F train while switching to the 6 or the Q, for an investment of about 45 minutes, but the actual distance between Maria Anis Rosario and her privileged friend Rocky’s life couldn’t be further apart. Jimenez’ debut explores the unexpected friendship between these girls at the elite private school both attend, a world where even though “certain girls at Bell Seminary were intimidated” by Maria, a connection would be made between her and Rocky across the chasms of race and class which define the city. (Ed)
Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch: The first novel from ffitch, the author of the 2014 short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and a longtime environmental activist living in Appalachia, Stay and Fight is both a social protest novel and the moving story of an unusual family. When Lily and Karen’s son is born, they know they’ll have to leave the women-only land trust where they’ve been living. Helen, who homesteads on 20 acres nearby, invites them to join her, and they settle into a new kind of domestic routine. But over the years the outside world edges nearer, threatening both the family and the Appalachian land that supports them. (Kaulie)
Costalegre by Courtney Maum: Maum’s third novel, her follow-up to I Am Having So Much Here Without You and Touch, is a pivot to historical fiction. Set in 1937, Costalegre is about heiress and art collector Leonora Calaway (modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), who bankrolls a group of Surrealist artists to flee Europe for Mexico. The book, narrated by Leonara’s 15-year-old daughter, has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; the latter of which called it “a fascinating, lively, and exquisitely crafted novel.” Samantha Hunt says that Maum’s latest is “as heady, delirious and heartbreaking as a young girl just beginning to fall in love with our world.” (Edan)
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: Most people probably know Lippman as a bestselling crime novelist, but I was recently introduced to her through Longreads, in her delightfully frank essay “Game of Crones” about being an old mother and staying true to her ambition to write a novel every year. Her latest novel is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows a housewife, Maddy Schwartz, who reinvents herself as a reporter after helping to solve a murder. Maddy becomes involved in another murder case when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of city park lake. (Hannah)
Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández: This debut memoir of a young girl’s journey from Guatemala to L.A. weaves together personal essay and bilingual poetry. Described by publisher Feminist Press as “harrowing, candid, complex,” and by Bridgett M. Davis as bringing us “the immigrant experience in a refreshingly new light,” this one promises to be both timely and aesthetically exciting in its hybridity. (Sonya)
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon): With a cast of characters large enough to populate a mid-size village, Ulitksaya delivers an epic, Tolstoyan Russian novel that may just win her some Anglophone fans but surely will impress no one in the Kremlin. For those ready to invest the time (560 pages), her look at the clash of free will and determinism provides a solid enough critique of the tragic, untidy histories of Russia and Ukraine over the last half of the 20th century in a lithe translation by Polly Gannon. (Il’ja)
Turbulence by David Szalay: In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s latest book, 12 people take 12 flights around the world, touching each other’s lives in profound and unpredictable ways. Labeled as a novel but structured as a series of linked stories, Turbulence explores the interconnected nature of human relationships today. In Alex Preston’s review for The Guardian, he describes Szalay as an author “whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele: A worthy addition to the realm of speculative fiction, this debut novel “imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.” More than just standard techno-challenged-humanity-rendered-atavistic fare, this is a love story. More accurately, the quest for love and its potential in a world demanding to be rebuilt. (Il’ja)
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage: Set in 1978 war-torn Beirut, this tragicomic novel follows Pavlov, the son of a recently deceased local undertaker, as he joins the Hellfire Society – a secret group his late father was a member of. Throughout the novel, Hage, the second Canadian to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, asks what it means to live through war, and what can be preserved in the face of imminent death. In Canada, Beirut Hellfire Society was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. (Jacqueline)
Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Ella, an artistic grad school dropout turned caretaker, is hired to care for Jill, a woman who’s been left a shell of her old self after a traumatic brain injury leaves her largely nonverbal. But as she watches the dynamic between Jill and her loving husband, Bryn, Ella starts to question her own relationships—and get drawn further into the couple’s. Savage’s debut novel, informed by her own time working as a caretaker, gently digs at the roots of what keeps people together in the face of suffering and loss. (Kaulie)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: This anthology of essays by Native writers takes the formal art of basket weaving as an organizing theme, so that the authors, who include Deborah A. Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Kim TallBear, come together to produce something akin to a well-woven basket. Malea Powell writes that the book “offers us nonfiction that reflects, interrogates, critiques, imagines, prays, screams, and complicates simplistic notions about Native peoples and Native lives.” (Jacqueline)
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: This highly anticipated debut is not about sex but rather about “the heat and sting of female want,” according to author Lisa Taddeo, who spent years criss-crossing the country and conducting thousands of hours of interviews with women about the sources and consequences of their desires. The result is a triptych: a North Dakota woman who is labeled “a freaky slut” for reporting an affair with her high school English teacher; an unfulfilled Indiana wife and mother who reconnects with a high school crush and winds up “a tangle of need and anxiety”; and a Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband picks her partners, then watches them have sex. The book has already been dubbed “an instant feminist classic.” (Bill)
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger: Ambition, competition, and the fear of behind left out threaten to rip apart the bond between four families who are offered an unexpected chance at getting their kids into an elite school. The Paris Review notes that this satirical takedown of the concept of meritocracy in contemporary America serves as a timely expose of “the hypocrisy of white liberalism” that drives the pursuit of prestige. Caution: sense of humor required. (Il’ja)
The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: In just two years, Jasmine Guillory has become a New York Times bestselling author and major force (the author of the first romance novel selected for Reese Witherspoon’s coveted book club, for one). Following The Wedding Date and The Proposal, The Wedding Party is one of two novels Guillory has coming out this year—look for Royal Holiday in the fall. (Lydia)
Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno: Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is just as ineluctable as the series of short, silent, black-and-white film portraits by Andy Warhol that they’re named after. This too gives a good sense of the book’s structure: a series of short glimpses that look deeply, and often contain autobiographical components or disquisitions. The effect, says Kirkus, is to “spin around like floating objects on an Alexander Calder mobile precariously tied together with ideas and images. Or rather, take Amber Sparks’ assessment: “If Thomas Bernhard’s and Fleur Jaeggy’s work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby—with Diane Arbus as a nanny— it would be Screen Tests.” (Anne)
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell: Pursell is the founder of the national reading series Why There are Words, as well as the WTAW press, which puts out excellent books each year. Now she publishes a collection of eerie, short (sometimes very short) stories, many of them focusing on themes of mothers and daughters, with themes from folklore and fairytale. Publishers Weekly called the collection “haunting,” “potent,” and “sharp but disturbing.” (Lydia)
What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll: This is a work of memoir by a woman who was raped by Donald Trump, who is the current President of the United States. A haunting excerpt from the book, with an account of the rape, was published here in The Cut. (Lydia)
Coventry by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s Outline trilogy—or as I think of it, The Cuskiad—is a masterpiece of modern literature, a formally adventurous exercise in narrative erasure that explores marriage, divorce, family, art, and representation. In her forthcoming essay collection Coventry, Cusk groups these thematic concerns into three sections, broadly: memoir, art, and criticism—although as Publishers Weekly says, the enterprise is bound by “the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives… something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.” (Adam P.)
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott: If Scott’s talent didn’t catch your attention with Insurrections, his award-winning debut, he’ll draw even more readers with this second book. Cross River, Maryland, the fictional town of his first book, returns in this new story collection. Scott can shift between irreverent and complex in a single story—a single sentence—as in “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”: “David didn’t believe what his older brother preached and wondered if Delante, who now called himself Jesus Jesuson (everyone, though, referred to him as Jeez), really believed, but he didn’t ask.” Also: all praise to story collections like this one that end with an anchoring novella! (Nick R.)
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino’s essay collection is rangy and deft—nothing is treated superficially here. “I wrote this book because I am always confused,” she says in the introduction, but what follows are ardent and skilled attempts to make sense of the world. She tackles our digital lives (“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”), athleisure and women’s bodies (“These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image”), her evangelical childhood and departure from belief (“Christianity formed my deepest instincts: it gave me a leftist worldview, an obsession with everyday morality, an understanding of having been born in a compromised situation, and a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”). Also: contemporary scams, her stint on reality TV, and the panoply of nuptials she attends: “My boyfriend maintains a running Google spreadsheet to keep track of the weddings we’ve been invited to together.” (Nick R.)
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price: The second novel by Adam O’Fallon Price, a staff writer at The Millions, is the rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale of the Sikorsky family, who transform an abandoned mansion into the titular jewel of the Borscht Belt. Inspired by Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel, Price uses a revolving cast of narrators to tell a story that is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dark secret lurking at its core. The novel asks a chilling question about the children who disappear from the towns and woods around the Hotel Neversink: Are they victims of coincidence, or part of a calculated plot to destroy the Sikorskys? (Bill)
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: A collection of eight vigorous, compelling stories provides a storyteller’s insight to how migration to and from the Caribbean affected people’s lives, personalities, and relationships. Lovers, deeply wounded by the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, strive to reunite; an undocumented construction worker pictures his lover and adopted son in the last minute of his life; the christening of a baby reveals the chasm between the three generation of a family. “No one is immune from pain,” as Kirkus Review puts it, “but Danticat asks her readers to witness the integrity of her subjects as they excavate beauty and hope from uncertainty and loss.” (Jianan Qian)
Doxology by Nell Zink: New York City in the ’90s was not quite the hyper-sanitized playground for the super-rich which parts of it feel like today, with Nell Zink giving us a gritty account of the “worst punk band on the Lower East Side” right at the turn of the millennium. As the halcyon days of the 20th-century’s last decade end, grunge seemingly eclipsed with the falling of the twin towers, Doxology uses the personal and musical travails of bandmates Pam, Daniel, and Joe to investigate our current political and environmental moment. True to the Latin meaning of her title, Zink’s Doxology provides a means of praising God in a world where we’re so often faced with the finality of silence. Doxology, rather, provides the cacophony of punk. (Ed)
Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones): The 2018 International Man Booker prize has done it again, this time with a noir murder mystery that is less whodunnit than it is existential inquiry, namely: what are we here for? The protagonist—Janina Duszejko—is a brilliantly rendered Polish Miss Marple, (sort of) who Tokarczuk has asking the hard questions with art that is subtle and penetrating. And, as it turns out, getting her into a lot of trouble at home, with a hard-right leaning Polish press labeling the book “anti-Christian” and the work of “a traitor.” The film adaptation (Spoor) a couple of years back just about shut the country down. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation from Polish sparkles. (Il’ja)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: In 2015, Broom published an essay in The New Yorker about her family’s house in New Orleans that has sat with me since I read it. The piece starts with questions: “In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all. Why is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house? We call it Grandmother’s even though she died ten years ago. Her house, the only one remaining in our family, is a squat three-bedroom in a subdivision just off the River Road, which snakes seventy miles along the Mississippi, where plantation houses sit alongside grain mills and petrochemical refineries.” The next year, she was a Whiting Fellow, and this year, readers can get their hands on the book, a gorgeous work of memoir and reporting about place and family that feels like the apotheosis of a form. (Lydia)
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Apollo wanders through a museum, trying to make sense of war and his own history. A chess-playing automaton falls in love. Dead girls tell the story of a catastrophe and its aftermath. Bucak’s debut story collection is a surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn. The result: “narratively precise” stories that “are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms,” writes The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Kaulie)
Inland by Téa Obreht: In 2011, at age 26, Obreht burst onto the literary scene with her first novel The Tiger’s Wife, an inventive, fable-like retelling of the wars that ravaged her native Serbia in the 1990s. Eight years later, Obreht returns with – wait for it – a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1893. No, we didn’t see that coming, either. Early reviews are rapturous, including one from Booklist that called it “a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.” Yes, tornadic. (Michael)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder): Critically acclaimed Japanese writer Ogawa’s new novel takes place in a society where objects disappear and where the terrifying Memory Police pursue citizens who recall the disappeared objects. The protagonist is a young novelist who discovers her editor is in danger and decides to hide him beneath her floorboards. The Memory Police explores trauma, loss, memory, and surveillance, and will astound readers. Chicago Tribune calls it “a masterful work of speculative fiction” and Esquire writes, “Ogawa’s taut novel of surveillance makes for timely, provocative reading.” (Zoë)
The Overthrow by Caleb Crain: A new novel from the author of Necessary Errors, The Overthrow is a romance and a story of relationships set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, exploring, power, idealism, technology, and the way we forge connections in the dystopian world we’ve created. Keith Gessen calls it “a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book…part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities.” Sign me up. (Lydia)
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda: As we read daily of the horrors of detainment camps at the border, poet Brandon Shimoda directs our attention back to a not dissimilar blight in Grave on the Wall. It’s an elegy for Shimoda’s dead grandfather, Midori, who after Pearl Harbor was incarcerated in internment camps despite having lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Don Mee Choi calls Grave on the Wall “a remarkable exploration of how citizenship is forged by the brutal US imperial forces—through slave labor, forced detention, indiscriminate bombing, historical amnesia and wall.” Shimoda’s remembrance is also for the living, says Karen Tei Yamashita: “we who survive on the margins of graveyards and rituals of our own making.” (Anne)
When I was White by Sarah Valentine: A memoir from the author, translator, and scholar about being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a white person, only to learn at age 27 that her father was a black man. The memoir explores the painful process of uncovering the past, interrogating the decisions her family made, and reconceiving her own identity. Publishers Weekly calls it “a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.” (Lydia)
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers: Powers’s debut novel is the story of the big lie behind the Soviet space program: They can send manned flights up, they just can’t seem to get them back down. And so they are using twins – one who will touch the face of God and the other who will stay behind on terra firm to make sure there’s an acceptable, Kremlin-approved PR tour afterward if things go badly up in space. Which they inevitably do. Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies. (Il’ja)
White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination by Jess Row: “White flight” typically refers to the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, but in this work of criticism, Row extends the term to literature. Combining memoir as well as literary, filmic, and musical analysis, Row argues for an understanding of writing as reparative, and fiction as a space in which writers might “approach each other again.” Kirkus calls it “wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned.” (Jacqueline)
The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown: The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement. Brown, a disability rights advocate and creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign, explores aspects of pop culture, music, family, self acceptance, and love in her essays, all the while challenging society’s assumptions of what it means to be black and disabled. (Kate Gavino)
I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton: Few critics quit understand the implications of our cultural divisions in the warm autumn of the Anthropocene more than University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton. Exploring themes that he’s written about in collections ranging from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Scranton’s second novel returns us to a badly fractured America. A writer named Suzie travels a broken, pre-apocalyptic America that looks very much like our own nation, a place so “highly refined and audacious and dense that nobody care whether it’s bullshit or not.”
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang: The second in Nganang’s trilogy on Cameroon before and during WWII, When the Plums Are Ripe tells the story of the country’s growing involvement in the conflict as the colonized fight to free their colonizer from Axis control. But the book is as much poetry as history, with a structure calling on oral traditions and a poet-narrator who mourns the wounds of war. Publishers Weekly writes that “with lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang… challeng[es] the Euro-written history of colonialism and replac[es] it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.” (Kaulie)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons: A story collection rooted in the vastness and contradictions of Texas and composed by an author who refuses to shy away from the strange, ugly, and interesting, Black Light has been described as “Friday Night Lights meets Ottessa Moshfegh.” What more could a reader want, really? (Kaulie)
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: With racial invective spewed from the Twitterer-in-Chief on down, many white Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their prejudices. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi returns to a subject which he illuminated so well in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,, asking how we avoid both fatalism and despair in imagining what a future, antiracist version of the United States might look like. Kendi’s answers are neither to embrace the myopic obstinacy of “color blindness,” nor the feel-good platitudes of “wokeness,” but rather to acknowledge that the individual responsibility of being antiracist is “an everyday process.” (Ed)
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz: Lenz—a journalist whose profiles and personal essays are absolute must reads—brings a book that combines memoir and journalism. After the 2016 election, Lenz leaves her Trump-supporting husband and her church—and begins to travel to churches across the Midwest to understand the incomprehensible: faith in today’s America. Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book a “slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America.” (Carolyn)
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin: This debut novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola’s Nigerian family as they struggle to assimilate in the impossibly foreign world of Utah. As Tunde’s father chases his version of the American Dream and his mother sinks into schizophrenia, Tunde will be forced to spend his childhood and young adulthood seeking elusive connections—through his stepmother and stepbrothers, through evangelical religion, through the black students at his middle school and the fraternity brothers at his historically black college. This is a novel that will force readers to rethink notions of family, belonging, memory, and the act of storytelling. (Bill)
Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen): Set in the near future, this novel, which Kirkus describes as a “thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor,” tells the story of Britta and Babak, who run an agency that provides suicide bombing candidates to activists/terrorists. In this post-Angela Merkel Germany, their agency provides a needed antidote to both the conservative government takeover and liberals’ passive acceptance of the new order. When two unknown suicide bombers show up in an airport, things get complicated. (Jacqueline)
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt: NEA Fellow Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel is as bold and unflinching as its title suggests. The book follows suburban Maryland-born and raised Denny as she literally runs away from her grief and inability to confront mortality, that has come in the form of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. As she flings herself into the wilderness, Denny is wildly unprepared and accompanied only by her imagination (& her imaginary friend, Gene) in what appears like a slow form of suicide. Goldblatt nails suburban MD ennui, outdoor unpreparedness, gritty sex scenes, and a refutation of sentimentality in what R.O. Kwon calls a “blazing feat of a book.” (Anne)
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: At 56, Jacqueline Woodson is moving and shaking in both YA and adult literature realms. Her new adult novel brings together a clash of social classes via an unexpected pregnancy. Another slim, compressed volume à la Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone moves “forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length.” Two words: can’t wait. (Sonya)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Akin by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue is one of our most versatile writers. She does many things well, including historical fiction, middle grade series, and scripts for screen and stage. Akin, like her international bestseller Room, is positioned as contemporary fiction. It’s about a retired professor who plans to travel to Nice, France to discover more about his mother’s wartime past. Two days before the trip, circumstances mean he must take charge of his potty-mouthed pre-teen nephew. As the pair travel together, they uncover secrets about their family and discover a bond and, as the publisher’s blurb says, “they are more akin than they knew.” (Claire)
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke: The universe will soon award us with a new Attica Locke novel! Heaven, My Home is the follow-up to Locke’s Edgar Award-winning thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, and it once again centers on black Texas Ranger Daren Matthews. This time, he’s pulled into the case of a missing nine-year-old boy—and the boy’s white supremacist family. The jacket copy declares: “Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.” Attica Locke is one of the best writers working today, and I cannot wait to read this. (Edan)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois: A terrible snowstorm can derail a well-planned life, and two feet of snow in one day was “the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe.” Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is “flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.” Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read. (Nick R)
The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye: Goncourt and Femina Prix-winning, French-born and Berlin-based Ndiaye brings us another woman-centered novel, this time about a GFC— Great Female Chef. The story is told from the perspective of a male sous-chef (and unrequited lover), from a perspective years onward. Ndiaye’s work is often described as “hypnotic,” so perhaps add this one to your summer-escape TBR list. (Sonya)
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker: Award-winning poet Morgan Parker offers a new coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist that just can’t seem to figure it out. From spending her summer crying in bed to being teased about not being “really black” by her mostly white classmates, 17-year-old Morgan can see clearly why she’s in therapy. Parker’s account of teenage anxiety and depression will speak to readers of all ages, and the prose’s mix of heartbreak and hilarity makes it a prime candidate for film adaptation. Are you paying attention, Netflix? (Kate Gavino)
The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball: In what Publishers Weekly called an “atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing tale of haves and have-nots,” Ball (Census) returns with a novel about a society that has rejected equality and embraced brutality. Through vignettes, the novel reveals how the world descended into madness. A dystopian tale imbued with empathy, philosophical musings, and questions about compassion, generational trauma, and humanity. (Carolyn)
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Patti Smith started writing this book on the Lunar New Year’s Day in 2016; she carried the project “in cafes, trains and strange motels by the sea, with no particular design, until page by page it became a book,” as she announced in her Instagram. This memoir evolves around the transformations both in her life and the American political landscape. Intriguing, disturbing yet humorous, with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction blurred, Smith’s work is unlikely to disappoint. (Jianan Qian)
Fly Already by Etgar Keret: Keret’s new short story collection offers all the virtues readers have come to expect from the oft-New Yorker-published Keret: intelligence, compassion, frustration with the limits of human communication, and a playfulness that stays on the right side of whimsy. Whether it’s a father’s helpless desire to protect his son, a boy failing to obtain weed to impress a girl, or two people sharing a smoke on the beach, Keret’s deep interest in human connection feels important in our fractured times. As George Saunders says, “I am very happy that Etgar and his work are in the world, making things better.” (Adam P.)
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah: A novel of the group of people who carried David Livingstone’s body (along with his papers and effects) 1500 miles so that he could returned to England, narrated by Halima, the expedition’s cook, and a formerly enslaved man named Jacob. Jesmyn Ward writes, “A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” (Lydia)
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside): No contemporary French writer has interceded into the current Anglophone imagination quite as completely as Michel Houellebecq. From novels like The Elementary Particles to Submission, the cynical Houellebecq has explored everything from existentialism to sex tourism, through a voice that is simultaneously traditionalist and nihilistic, and critics and readers have argued how seriously we’re to take the reprehensible—racist, mysoginist, Islamophobic, colonialist—positions of the writer or his characters. Serotonin follows Florent-Claude Labrouste, a depressed libertine and former agricultural engineer who eventually rejects psychotropic medication in favor of a sojourn to the cheese-country of Normandy racked by globalization, where he becomes involved in an insurrection which looks very much like the gilets jaunes movement. Even while Houellebecq’s politics can be reprehensible, ranging from embrace of Brexit to denunciations of #MeToo, Serotonin’s observation of a contemporary capitalism where “people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed” is instrumental in understanding not just France or Europe, but the world. (Ed)
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin: In her debut memoir, Austin, a single black woman, writes about her journey to adopt a black boy out of foster care. In a recent interview, Austin said, “Ultimately, I wrote Motherhood So White out of necessity. I wanted black mothers who come after me to have multiple perspectives on motherhood, not just the mainstream definition of who gets to be a mom in America. I want white mothers to see black mothers on the page and know that we are all allies in the quest for raising compassionate children.” (Edan)
Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkseworth): World Literature Today calls this set of linked stories a “haunting requiem for the soul’s death in the wake of postmodernity.” Translation: Drndic’s trademark absurdist humor and image rich style assure that this slim collection will get the synapses firing. (Il’ja)
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: In 2016, Amitav Ghosh published The Great Derangement, which argues that contemporary literary fiction, among other art forms, seems unable to directly confront the scale and impact of climate change. In an article for The Guardian, Ghosh writes, of the extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” Now, the author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy has written a novel that seeks to make a change in that tradition. Gun Island tells the story of rare books-dealer Deen Datta as he travels from India to Los Angeles to Venice, encountering people who will upend his understanding of himself, the world, and the Bengali legends of his childhood. (Jacqueline)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong: Three women from disparate backgrounds—Ireland, Cincinnati, and Japan—tell the story of one man: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek author known for his books about Japanese legends and cultures. In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like her first novel, The Book of Salt, The Sweetest Fruits leads readers on a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling. (Kate Gavino)
Chimerica by Anita Felicelli: A fantastic, fantastical book built around the country of “Chimerica,” wherein a Tamil American trial lawyer is hard at work on a case…which happens to be a defense of a talking lemur come to life. Set in locations ranging from Oakland to Madagascar, Jonathan Lethem calls Chimerica “remarkable…a coolly surrealist legal thriller—in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive—that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own.” (Read Felicelli’s conversation with Huda al-Marashi at The Millions here.) (Lydia)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: The protagonist of Levy’s newest would do well to avoid Abbey Road, where he is hit by a car twice, once in 1998, right before a trip to East Germany to bury his father’s ashes, and once again in 2016. From these two brushes with death, Levy spins one of her typically entrancing narratives, one that, like Hot Milk, explores cross-cultural encounters and the strange, intense, and occasionally monstrous nature of familial ties. (Matt)
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: The fourth book from Australia’s Tumarkin, whose previous works have been shortlisted for several major literary prizes Down Under, Axiomaticsharply examines how we think about the force of the past on the present in a blend of storytelling, criticism, and meditation. The book spirals out from five axioms—think “Time Heals All Wounds,” “History Repeats Itself,” and “You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice”—to consider stories of struggle, trauma, and the strength of human relationships, creating a new and powerful nonfiction form along the way. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer: I hadn’t thought it possible to write beautifully about chemotherapeutic drugs until I read the excerpt from poet Anne Boyer’s The Undying that was published in The New Yorker. Witness: “Adriamycin, is named for the Adriatic Sea, near where it was discovered. I like to think of this poison as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would like to go, but it is also called ‘the red devil,’ and sometimes it is called “‘the red death.’” Boyer’s memoir covers developing breast cancer at 41, her treatment, and her double mastectomy, as well as scrutiny of a capitalist driven medical industry. Boyer’s memoir is a “haunting testimony about death that is filled with life,” according to Kirkus. (Anne)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: Fans of the great Irish writer Kevin Barry have reason to rejoice. The prize-winning author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island and Beatlebone is out with a scalding little hotwire of a novel called Night Boat to Tangier. The setup would’ve delighted Beckett. On October 23, 2018, two aged-out Irish drug-runners, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmon, are sitting in the waiting room of the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. What are they waiting for? Maurice’s estranged daughter. As they wait, the men spin a reverie of past betrayals, violence and romance, with asides on drink, masturbation and the imminence of death. As always with Barry, the writing is slippery, slangy and sinewy, and a pure delight. (Bill)
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware: How long does it take to investigate, narrate, and illustrate an entire consciousness during one half of a typical day? In Chris Ware’s case, almost two decades. Across 350+ pages, Ware’s graphic novel unfolds like a Joycean spin on Grouse County, Iowa, depicting the melancholic, yearning thoughts of Midwestern characters moving through realities shared and cloistered. Doing that at all—let alone in 18 years—is superhuman. (Nick M.)
Find Me by André Aciman: In a most-anticipated list, Aciman’s Find Me may be the most anticipated of all. Set decades after Oliver and Elio first meet in Call Me by Your Name, this novel follows Elio’s father Samuel, who while traveling to Rome to visit his son meets a young woman who changes his life; Elio, a classical pianist who moves to Paris; and Oliver, a New England college professor and family man who yearns to return to Italy. I’m aching to read this and I know I’ll be aching while reading it too. (Carolyn)
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as “a powerful allegory of our troubled present.” Set in late 1990s Kansas, it centers on a lefty family in a red state. The mother is a famous feminist author; the father, a psychiatrist who specializes in “lost boys.” Their son, Adam Gordon, is a debate champion who unwittingly brings one of his father’s troubled patients into his friend group, to disastrous effect. (Hannah)
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Grand Union is the first short story collection of Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, among others. Ten unpublished new stories will be put alongside with ten of her much-applauded pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Everything, however familiar or small it may seem in daily life, glows in Smith’s brilliant observation. Grand Union is a wonderful meditation on time and place, past and future, identity and the possibility of rebirth. (Jianan Qian)
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones: A 2014 NBCC finalist for his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, How We Fight for Our Lives tells Jones’ coming-of-age as a black gay boy and man in the South via prose-poetry vignettes. From the publisher: “Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze.” (Sonya)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay is a propulsive and well-plotted novel set in Los Angeles where crime and tension are at an all-time high. In Cha’s narrative that explores race, class, and community in Los Angeles, her characters must confront their histories and truth. Catherine Chung describes Your House Will Pay as “a devastating exploration of grief, shame, and deeply buried truths.” (Zoë)
Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz: In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome. (Nick M.)
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Hiroshima-based fiction writer Hiroko Oyamada has been called one of the most “powerfully strange” new voices to emerge from Japan of late. No surprise then that she cites Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as influences. This fall New Directions is publishing The Factory, Oyamada’s first novel to be translated into English, and that was inspired by her experience working as a temp for an auto worker’s subsidiary. The Factory follows three seemingly unrelated characters intently focused on their jobs—studying moss, shredding paper, proofreading documents—though trajectories come together as their margins of reality, and the boundaries between life within and beyond the factory dissolve. (Anne)
Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, but concealed in those conservative, anonymized figures is the mind-bending enormity of 33,000,000 individual women and their stories. In her latest memoir, Jeannie Vanasco shares hers. Remarkably, Vanasco interviews the former friend who raped her 15 years ago, interweaving their discussions with conversations involving her close friends and peers to produce an investigation of trauma, its effects, and the ways they affect us all. “Courageous” is an inadequate word to describe this project, let alone Vanasco herself. (Nick M.)
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré: le Carré is set to offer his 25th novel since debuting with Call for the Dead back in 1961. And though the territory is familiar—London, a played out spy, a web of political intrigue—there is nothing tired in the author’s indictment of modern life: we are fickle, selfish, dogmatic, narrow minded and too often cruel bastards. The whole lot of us. My advice: if you have been stuck on thought that Le Carré is writing “spy novels” and you don’t like “spy novels”, you need to rethink. There is perhaps no more thrilling chronicler of the human condition working today. His stories are about people with secrets. You know, us. (Il’ja)
False Bingo by Jac Jemc: The unsettling horror that made Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It such an unnerving read has mutated into an uneasiness that infiltrates the everyday lives depicted in False Bingo, Jemc’s second book of short stories. Jemc’s characters are misfits and dislocated, and their encounters often cross the line where fear becomes reality. There’s a father with dementia who develops an online shopping addiction and an outcast mulling over regret as he taxidermies animals. In essence False Bingo is a “collection of realist fables exploring how conflicting moralities can coexist: the good, the bad, the indecipherable.” (Anne)
Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber: Haber, who has been called “one of the most influential yet low-key of tastemakers in the book world,” is about to raise it to up level with the debut of his novel, Reinhardt’s Garden. This absurdist satire follows Jacov Reinhardt and scribe as they travel across continents in search of a legendary philosopher who has “retired” to the jungles of South America. It’s “an enterprise that makes Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo … come off as a levelheaded pragmatist,” says Hernán Díaz. While Rodrigo Fresán calls it “one of those perfect books” on the level of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. (Anne)
Older Brother by Mahir Guven (translated by Tina Kover): Awarded the Prix Goncourt for debut novel in 2017, Older Brother takes on the Uberization of labor alongside a look at immigration, civil war, and terrorism through the story of two brothers from a French-Syrian family, and their father, a taxi driver whose way of life is utterly at odds with those of his sons. (Lydia)
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok: In Last of Her Name, the new collection from Chinese author Mimi Lok, the stories’ settings cover a little bit of everything—British suburbia, war-time Hong Kong, modern California—and the diasporic women at the heart of each piece are just as eclectic. The effect is a kaleidoscope of female desire, family, and resilience. “I can’t think of a collection that better speaks to this moment of global movement and collective rupture from homes and history, and the struggle to find meaning despite it all,” writes Dave Eggers. (Kaulie)
The Girl At the Door by Veronica Raimo: Let’s say you fall in love while on vacation. The guy, a professor, seems great. You leave your country and move in with him. You get pregnant. You’re happy. Then: A girl shows up at the door. She’s your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a former student, with details about a violent, drawn-out affair. What now? That’s the premise of this novel, one that dissects sexual harassment and assault from the point of view of both the professor and his girlfriend. Raimo has published two novels in Italy; this is her English-language debut. (Hannah)
Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: This debut novel set in the mountains and hollows of Eastern Tennessee will charm you with its warmth and love for its characters, a cast that includes a dog named Crystal Gale. (Which has to be one of the best pet names in fiction.) The novel centers on Lucy Kilgore, a young woman who was planning to leave small town Tennessee but instead ends up getting shotgun-married to Jeptha Taylor, a bluegrass musician with a drinking problem. With too little money and too much alcohol in their lives, their little family is doomed from the start, but Lucy can’t help trying to hold everyone together. (Hannah)
A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso: A collection of stories about told from the perspective of a Mexican-American man born to poor parents and making his way through the elite institutions of America. Luis Alberto Urrea calls the book “a world-class collection.” (Lydia)
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm-owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly-deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Would you be the nanny to your ex-best-friend’s stepchildren? Yes, really? Okay. What if they were twins? Still with me? What if they exhibited strange behaviors? Still on board? What if they spontaneously caught fire when agitated? Yes? Then you must be the kind of character that only Kevin Wilson can pull off, in this, his third novel that marries the fantastic with the domestic. (Hannah)
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin American writers and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears by Johannes Anyuru (translated by Saskia Vogel): Anyuru, a Swedish-Ugandan author, took home the Swedish-language August Prize for Fiction for this tale of authoritarianism and hate in modern Europe. After terrorists bomb a bookstore for hosting a provocative cartoonist, one of the terrorists has a vision of the future she may have brought about. Years later, a psychiatrist goes to visit her in the clinic where she’s been institutionalized, and she informs him she’s a traveler from an awful, dystopian future. As she describes a world in which “anti-Swedish” citizens are forced into a ghetto called The Rabbit’s Yard, the psychiatrist grows convinced that her sci-fi predictions are the truth.
What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books – novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels – and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)
The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)
Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)
What did I read this year?
I read the news, in the morning, although I consistently didn’t want to, although I had trouble denying that reading it was hurting me in grave ways. I lay in bed and stared at my phone and scrolled through logs of disaster, finding out who tweeted, what burned, who died, what drowned, and who lied to authorities. I shut off the vibration alerts on my phone for incoming text messages, yet I somehow failed to do this for alerts from the New York Times. (This meant that when my phone buzzed at dinner, it wasn’t a friend, but the Gray Lady.) I never tweeted but I stayed on Twitter, my go-to source for polling nerdery. I got off Facebook and felt a lot better. I felt the way I did when I quit smoking.
I read a number of lists—of people, organizations and groups—that fight police brutality, that fight brutality that needs to be policed, that fight to enlarge a shrinking franchise and that fight to stop people from shooting other people when they want. I gave some money, then felt bad that I wasn’t giving more money, so I gave more money, but then I ran out of money, because I’m still in grad school and I don’t have a lot to begin with. I read advice from a number of activists who said: You do what you can. And I did! I did what I could.
I read, among other things, listicles, explainers, quizzes, parodies, anecdotes, tweet threads, and jokes. I read the details of pointless feuds that seemed to have a point when they were happening. I got very mad at people who deserved it, mainly those who think, for some reason, that Donald Trump is not a waste of oxygen, and I decided to banish those people to one of the lesser moons of Neptune. I know some people who say I’m draconian, and they’re getting banished, as well.
I had trouble sleeping, repeatedly, because I stayed up with my tablet and read all the takes, good and bad. I don’t think I learned a single thing but I did feel “with it,” somehow. I became convinced that I’m giving up a lot these days to be “with it.” I felt old, and wondered if it’s possible that everyone I like feels old now, that everyone I like is (in some form or other) immeasurably sad and exhausted. I found myself overwhelmed by the need to stop talking, by my sense that everything is now terribly, terribly loud.
I read fiction, also, in a way I didn’t have to when I was in college, when I thought writers were magical beings and I read obsessively, constantly. I have to make myself read now! There’s almost nothing about my life more shameful than this fact. I no longer treat fiction like water in a pool in Death Valley. I have to work at reading, plan for it, stick to it. I have to stay in my chair. And this begs the question (for people who don’t read): do I need to read fiction, now?
Of course I do, imaginary philistine. Nothing compares to it, still. There isn’t anything else I can think of that makes me believe in a God. And sometimes, it seems apparent that everything that simplifies my life, everything that bills itself as a shortcut to a better, smarter self, is in fact an elaborate distraction from the need to keep reading more books. That’s all Facebook is, in the end—a site that doesn’t want me to read. I’ll be the first to hold a party if the whole thing gets forcibly shuts down.
First among the books that saved me from darkness was The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. I’ve been a fan of the author for years, and this is a staggering work—it’s finely plotted, brutally detailed and both unflinching and tender. I look forward to the inevitable movie, and knowing that the book was much better.
Next up: The Visiting Privilege. Read together, the stories within it confirm a widely known fact: Joy Williams is one of the greatest writers of short fiction in this country. Her work is tight, surprising and strange, with an undercurrent of menace that never feels forced, or contrived. What I’m saying is: She knocked on my back.
I also read My Brilliant Friend, finally, but so many people have praised this book I don’t think I need to add to the chorus. What I do want to praise, however, is Blowout, a collection of poetry by Denise Duhamel which is among the best things I’ve read in a very long time. Loosely tracking the end of and the narrator’s subsequent years of singledom, the book is affecting, mellifluous, and conversational, a rare book I couldn’t stop reading. I don’t read enough poetry in general, and Blowout made that fact clear.
Next year, I look forward to reading about the new Democrats in Congress, and reading little else apart from more books, and fewer things that aren’t books, of all kinds.
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In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.