Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion. —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth. —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations. —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered. —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]
Listen to this and other great longform stories read aloud with the Audm app, now available in the App Store. 1. So one time you enter this beauty pageant. It seems like a good idea at the time, and hey, why not? Then you get third place and have to spend the year being a princess, travelling around doing parades and shows in this royal-blue off-the-shoulder gown and a purple cloak with fake fur trim, and this crown. "You" is me. It's from a short story I wrote about it a few years afterwards. I was 15 when I took my short, cold dip into pageant life, and I can't shake that naive voice. I slide into it when I talk about that time, which isn't often (I never published the story). A fog descends, not just at the thought that it was me swanning around western North America in a rhinestone tiara. Like a lot of smalltown girls, I gave a good impression of agreeable calm -- like a lake. When I think of myself and my friends then, I see us holding still in spite of all the usual teen infernos, as if just about to be photographed. The Lady of the Lake is a young woman who has a personal presence that leaves a favourable and lasting impression. She has the integrity to meet anyone in an honest and genuine manner, the self assurance and judgement to converse intelligently, the finesse to meet dignitaries in any social setting, the natural warmth and grace of a young lady, as well as the intelligence, and excellent public speaking skills. Combined with the fact that she has an awareness of herself as an individual, and you have the young woman who is the Ambassador of Kelowna. This is from the curiously antique-sounding pageant website. Or maybe not so curious, given that the competition began in the 1930s, when my British Columbia city was hauling itself up from its one-horse-town roots. It hit its stride in the 1950s, when the winner's every move was reported breathlessly in the news. “Lady of the Lake” is Miss Kelowna's alternate title, straight out of King Arthur, wherein the Lake spits out Excalibur and the Lady is Lancelot's foster mom. Kelowna has a lake of its own, and its parade float is covered in blue tinsel to approximate it. The real lake is narrow and very deep, and home to more than one lost corpse. I used to swim down as far as I could off my grandmother's wharf with one of those disposable underwater cameras, trying to photograph bones or ghosts. Photographs eat your soul, right? (We all talked like that, in questions.) But that's what I think about when I think about that time: being looked at. This was the early 1990s, pre-cellphones, pre-Instagram, but in training the pageant candidates developed an alertness for cameras, like animals for danger, or for food. We learned how to wave (one from the elbow, two from the wrist). How to eat soup (dip the spoon away from you, it looks less greedy). How to sit down (edge of the chair, legs angled to one side, ankles uncrossed). How to close a door (behind you, without turning around to look). How to exit a car without displaying your unmentionables (press your legs together and swing them out first). What unmentionables to buy for beneath evening gowns and suits ("Cinnamon" was an approved shade for nylons. So was "Nude"). How to pose: three-quarter turns, feet in third ballet position, arms at sides, chins slightly down. Look up at the lens from under your eyelashes. I loved it. This was stuff I would never have learned anywhere else; my parents were bookish and kept to themselves. The ladies who ran it, the 30-ish Trainer and the 60-ish Director of Royalty, insisted this was not a beauty pageant, but they took femininity seriously. They looked the part, never without jewelry and full hair and makeup. Here was arcane knowledge: This is how it's done. I remember going to the drugstore for their recommended French-manicure polish and touching a bottle of Witchcraft brand on the shelf. That's how it all felt, occult. Initiation. Ritual. Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts, watered down for middle-class Canadian girls. 2. Men start things for me. Two of them, friendly and middle-aged, from a local service club, get my name from school, and one evening they come to my house to meet me and my parents and ask if I will be their sponsored candidate for 1991-92. They sit in the living room and politely accept cheese and crackers and ice water. The glasses sweat as the men chat with my dad about ski lifts and construction. My mother keeps out of it. My younger siblings lurk in my view at the top of the basement stairs, narrowing their eyes identically when the conversation turns to me. Why you? I sit next to the fireplace, keeping my back straight and ignoring them. I'm flattered to be asked, persuaded easily, as I am into most things. The men are full of good cheer. The club buys me a dress. I pick blue velvet. The club's name goes on the white satin banner I have to wear over it. A couple of my more academic or proto-feminist friends are dumbfounded by my decision. But Why not is a minor refrain with me, and I'm used to pleasing adults. I usually choose Truth in Truth or Dare, so I can lie pleasantly if necessary and escape. This candidacy feels like a dare, and I take it. It plays into my inner perversity, doing something that already feels bizarre and out of time. I have long hair, I like makeup. I play piano and flute, I get good grades. I look at myself in the mirror frequently. A bloodier part of me, the part that pours out gothic tales in a flowery journal and occasionally startles the English teacher, knows to stay in its kennel. But it's easy enough to move between selves. I want to see me as you see me. Joyce Carol Oates makes this a refrain in Blonde, her psychological portrait of Marilyn Monroe. But I think it goes beyond that.How thick a shell can I build, so you can't see me at all? 3. The competition takes months. There are nine candidates, all sponsored by local shops and clubs and societies. I'm the youngest, the oldest is 20, the upper age cutoff. Two girls are Asian, the rest white. Most of us have biggish 1991 hair. There is much friendliness, sisterliness, at training nights and the local events we are sent to. We wear matching boxy suits and white heels. We hear over and over in speech practice about respective career plans (teaching, beauty therapy, "a singer in Japan," the law) and causes (children, mostly). Some of the girls are deeply earnest about all of it, with stage-mothers bustling in their wake. If you win this, you go on to more pageants, ideally to Miss Universe. Win that and then what? Then you win. No one is mean. There's a Miss Congeniality trophy at stake. But first blood outs itself at the talent competition. Our hackles shift as we side-eye each other's outfits and abilities. What can you do? For me, this question goes two ways: what is your talent, and what are you supposed to do about it? One of the more outspoken girls talks petulantly about a candidate from another year who played a video of herself synchronized-swimming while she did ballet live, in a costume she'd made herself, also singing at the end. The sense of injustice is visceral. Showing off is not what you do with your talents. But what do you do, then, if you have to perform them in public? This part is held one evening at the Centennial Hall in the middle of the sports fields, with its chalk-dust smell and its raised curtainless stage. A girl puts on a felt beret and shows off her art. Another performs a liturgical dance in a white robe. There are a couple of jazz routines, a dramatic monologue in a fetus's voice. I play the flute to a fuzzy tape-recording of myself playing the piano. The Trainer stops me backstage and powders more blush on my cheeks and forehead. More smell of dust. I get out there and do reasonably. In spite of nerves and hissing worries about being showoffs, we're all enjoying being looked at onstage. Doing something that merits being looked at. We know this is what we're here for. The audience is gravely favorable. A full house, half-visible in the dark, but no cheers, just long gentle applause for everyone. One of the girls is tearful afterwards. She sniffles, "I want to do it again." I'm not sure whether she means she wants to do her song better, or just to be on stage again. She's inconsolable. We circle her, pat her. As it turns out, my flute and piano and I win this part. Standing alone on the stage again, I feel I had nothing to do with it. I'm always surprised by things that happen to me. And I'm tired. The training nights are getting longer and more frequent, as are the weekend charity events. School ends, and we do a summer fashion show for a full house. The pageant is approaching like an express. We inhabit our bodies more and more uneasily, though we go over and over walks and turns for the evening gown component, and the Phantom of the Opera jazz-dance routine we're all in. There's a judges' question we each have to answer at the end of the big night, and the practice answers get sharper, and at the same time less sincere. No one says she doesn't want a career or a cause, but a flabbiness has struck the responses. Yeah whatever, I want to be a teacher, I guess. Will we ever need careers? Aren't we enough, doing this? Isn't this what we're here for? 4. Then it's late August and the valley is soaked in heat. I've been avoiding tan lines all summer because of my strapless blue velvet. And it's time. On pageant day, I get my hair done in long spirals, though it's already curly. I take a bubble bath and it sags. My mum has caught a whiff of the stage mothers by now and starts to fuss around my head, but I tell her to leave it, and I get myself into my blue velvet dress and white banner. My heart is thudding like an old machine. When I arrive at the hotel hours early to get ready for the night, the candidate trainer clacks her tongue and attacks me with bobby pins. "They need to see your face," she tells me, looking hard into my eyes and puffing my hair above my forehead. I close them against the hairspray bomb until she's pleased with her work. She touches my cheek softly, an uncharacteristic gesture, checking me like a grocery store fruit. The hotel is older, built to look modern in 1961, and still the most formal in town. The water in the central courtyard's outdoor pool shifts and glitters. People in swimsuits watch from their lounge chairs as we dart back and forth between dressing and rehearsal areas. A woman is lying facedown, her white bikini top undone, the man beside her massaging her tanned back in slow circles. In a sudden sweat I thank God there is no swimsuit competition; I don't think I've considered that possibility until this moment, and it's nauseating. It's not the abrupt hint of sex that scares me. Teenage pageants are resoundingly asexual, or at least the outer rind of them is, in spite of being all about bubbling femininity and strapless dresses, in spite of male-gaze theory. Those father-daughter Purity Balls are cousins. Girls doing what they ought to do, while everyone waltzes around the fact that they're getting old enough to do what they want to do. I stare at the half-naked woman on the lounge chair. It hasn't occurred to me that people might look at us that way, though one of my indignant friends told me that prostitution and pornography are exact equals to what I'm doing. But those analogies are too easy. They don't take into account the hiding in plain sight. And this woman isn't hiding. She couldn't care less who looks at her. The nauseating part is that I never think things through. I see that now. I don't want to be stared at, but here I am, asking for just that. The ballroom begins in darkness. The emcee is a slow-voiced AM radio host. The judges are local celebrities, two women and the token man. We know them by now, we've seen them watching us. And we know each other, we watch one another more closely. These are all smart girls, and tonight, waiting to go on, I see the way they use or screen their smartness. One is grieving her mother's recent death, hoping to make her proud, but she rarely brings up this fact, though others might have. Her eyes swim with tears now. One, who has little chance, stands with military straightness in the knowledge that her candidacy has given her family undreamed-of pride. A couple inhabit their bodies with ease and proficiency, in tighter gowns than the rest of us, shifting their breasts in their bodices, posing better. They look as if they were another species, bred to this. We do everything we've trained for. The judges' surprise questions come towards the end. They ask me whether young people today should have goals and I'm momentarily flummoxed. Is the question stupid? Is it deeper than I'm seeing? Do they want us to have goals? Should I say No, they should not? I don't argue. I come up with something about physics, and my struggles with it, that somehow relates. The two in the tight gowns are asked about whether men and women are different (yes, but equal! Like hands!), and about heroes (people with cancer!). One of them tells me later that "Hitler" was the first word that popped into her head, but her big hazel eyes never showed a fleck of obscenity. She is very good. The purple cloak she ends up with suits her. She wins, after last year's Princess revenges herself on the Queen with a farewell speech about how she ate too much Mexican food on a trip to Washington. The other tight-gown girl is second. I am third, and dazed, and thinking Now what. The tiara is now what. Its combs gnaw at my scalp as I'm crowned, and the three of us stand on the low stage doing our wave to the long, packed room. Some of my friends and family are there, grinning in amusement or bemusement. As we walk off, escorted by scarlet-coated RCMP officers, Lionel Ritchie's "Ballerina Girl" plays loudly. The Director of Royalty takes us aside. She tells us we're now living in a goldfish bowl, and all our movements will be scrutinized by the public. Her lined face is plentifully made up. Her heavy earrings tremble as she talks. She's been running this show for years, she lives for this. She radiates joy. It hits me in the chest, like heartburn. 5. The watching goes on. The Director and her husband chaperone us during all our royal duties. He drives quietly, doing his male part. We three new royals are crammed together in the backseat of their compact Chevrolet, listening to Abba tapes or to the Director talk about World War II and why she will never buy a Japanese car or wait in line for a restaurant. It's not something we do. We travel to parades and other pageants around BC and Alberta and Washington State. It's another planet, all of it. We model wedding dresses and sportswear. We meet other royalty and exchange city pins. We meet Superman, Christopher Reeve, at the Calgary Stampede, a few years before he falls and is paralyzed. In our matching gowns and cloaks, or matching suits, or matching snowsuits, and always in crowns, we ride the City of Kelowna float with its blue tinsel. Floats lumber, parades are long. The driver, a realtor, is hidden underneath with the controls. I can just see the back of his head from my place left of Ogopogo, our resident lake monster, staring bland and bug-eyed from the top. I wave until my shoulder shakes, I smile until my jaw trembles and migraine stabs my left temple. The Queen is sometimes handed solo gas-station roses in plastic tubes, or asked for autographs. I'm impressed by her easy handling of these peripheral guys, these dumb spider mates. She and the First Princess get along splendidly. They don't wear unmentionables under their nylons, avoiding panty lines altogether. They're not shy about showing me how this works. They idly discuss whether posing for Playboy one day would be a good idea.They've already staked their claims on womanhood, and they don't know what to make of me. The Queen tells me, "You're so innocent." I'm not sure if she's exasperated or curious. I use my innocence as a shield, pretending not to understand what they talk about half the time, though I'm always listening. They snap my bra, do my hair, hide my textbooks, tease me about sex, paint my nails, lend me earrings, rub my neck, make me share a bed with one of them everywhere we go. The rooms are always doubles. The motels are always functional. In small bathrooms, I take long showers to be alone for a while. At many events, we're paired up with local high-school boys as escorts. I find this humiliating and hilarious, as most of the boys seem to. One of them tells me he's doing it for a PE credit. We usually dance one or two dances and then I try to bow out and sit on the sidelines, tiara-ed and smiling gamely. One night I end up with a boy I'd known in primary school. We haven't seen each other in years. We leave the gym for air and stand around looking at the stars and laughing. Our reunion makes me bizarrely joyful, as though my actual life is still tethered to me. As though I have a life. I feel it then, shifting around in my chest under my strapless bra. 6. I remember a lot of disconnected details like this. The stars, the helpless laughing, the welts from control-top underwear, the pads in the balls of high-heeled shoes to ease pain. At one parade, a little girl with brown braids and a purple shirt asked me if I was a real princess. She was suspicious. I liked kids, I babysat all the time, but I curtly told her no. I'm not real. I found the blue velvet dress in the garage a while ago. It smells, but I tried it on anyway. It just fits (it has a full skirt). But teenage me still doesn't seem to have quite existed in this world. Stacy Schiff's recent book about Salem in 1692 makes clear that the original accusers at the infamous witch trials were very much adolescent: The neighbor made me do this. I don't like her. She pinched me. I'm tired all the time. The men and the hints of sex only entered the story later: She bewitched me. She made me think of her constantly. Her form came to my room at night. The way things slide away from you. You start them, then they escalate, they're not in your control. You can only watch. We looked a little witchy in the early 'nineties, given free rein. Black dresses and tights, dried-blood lipstick. I got my driver's license during the pageant year. I passed without having to parallel park; the examiner and I had the same name, so he let me off the hook, saying it was a wonderful coincidence. After being introduced to the mayor with the other candidates that night, I got to take the family Honda out by myself for the first time. I was still in my boxy suit and nylons, my white heels thrown into the passenger seat so they wouldn't scuff. I drove everywhere, aimlessly, for hours. It occurs to me now that what I felt like was one of those teen witches flying off on a broomstick through the night over Puritan New England. Surveilled, questioned, harnessed by someone else's power, but turning it around. Watch me now. Image: Wikipedia
The Witches, Stacy Schiff's novelistic examination of Salem in 1692, reveals how religious literalism and paranoia was baked into the New England soil. The first capital crime of the colonist's legal code was idolatry. The second, Schiff notes, was witchcraft: “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.” Less than a year after Schiff’s book comes The Witch, the directorial debut of Robert Eggers. Labeled a “New England Folktale” and set in 1630, The Witch feels like an apocryphal precursor to the mania in Salem. The film begins with a town council banishing a Puritan family, likely based on the unidentified sins of William, the father. While the family soon appears happy enough on their own small, secluded farm, they are manacled by faith. The family does not simply believe in God; they fear the divine. Prayers are laments. God, impatient and unkind, is watching. William, it seems, has recreated God in his own image, imbued him with fire and vengeance, and not a small amount of interest in their farm and clan. We never learn much about the community from which the family has been cleaved, but we can assume that a literalist becomes even more literal when he reads sacred text alone. That said, William is more eager than evil. He casts judgments rather than aspersions. He truly loves his wife, Katherine, along with his children. His young son, Caleb, is industrious, a good hunting companion. Twins named Mercy and Jonas are mischievous, and claim to communicate with one of the family’s goats, named Black Phillip. Mischief is a precursor to misery. Early in the film, Thomasin, the family's teenage daughter, is playing peekaboo with the family's newborn, Samuel. She closes her eyes, and the boy vanishes in a moment. A dark figure shadows through the forest with the baby, leading to a shocking scene of midnight ritual. Although it might be a product of its 17th-century setting, The Witch feels like a film that we should not see; events that belong on parchment, that are too legendary for moving images. Anthony Lane sees the farm's setting “on the verge of a forest” as the “classic habitation of a fairy tale.” He compares the film to the stories of the Brothers Grimm or the Venice-set Don’t Look Now. Both comparisons are merited, but there is a distinctly American tinge to The Witch, and it is not merely the fact that tales of baby-snatching witches were also a continental staple. Schiff writes that “As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures.” European witches flew; their displays of power were more vulgar. In contrast, “Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last for three years. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises. The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen.” The devil works in mysterious ways. The devil in The Witch has his eyes on young Thomasin. In one scene after the newborn’s disappearance, Mercy and Jonas heckle their older sister near a river. Thomasin takes their bait and pantomimes as an actual witch, documenting the hellish actions she would take with children. The performance is too perfect: the twins know it, and the viewer knows it. Yet Eggers has more of a story to tell. The Witch is purely a New England tale, a descendent of Nathaniel Hawthorne. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, Nathaniel Hawthorne returned to his hometown of Salem. There he wrote “Young Goodman Brown” among other stories. A tale of a man discovering the “fiend” in his own “breast,” “Young Goodman Brown” reads as the product of Hawthorne’s own cloistered life. In an 1837 letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hawthorne wrote “By some witchcraft or other, for I really cannot assign any reasonable cause, I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.” Malcolm Cowley thought Hawthorne’s “self-imprisonment” in Salem was an essential time in his artistic life; those years were “his term of apprenticeship and his early travels, corresponding to the years that other American writers of his time spent traveling in Europe or making an overland expedition to Oregon or sailing round Cape Horn on a whaler...Left alone, he traveled into himself and worked or idled under his own supervision. It was the Salem years that deepened and individualized his talent.” “Young Goodman Brown” demonstrates that talent. It is one of those tales anthologized into simplicity, a staple of American Literature high school reading lists. Yet the story remains clever and rather chilling. Brown sets off on a journey that “must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise.” His wife of three months, Faith, is worried. She has good reason to be; Brown is heading for the wilderness. The story never hides his “present evil purpose,” and that forms the first connection with The Witch. New England horror is less about surprise and more about the slow burn of suffering. In Hollywood, horror sneaks into your home, leaps from behind doors; in New England, horror festers in your soul. Brown meets the devil in the forest. The path he has taken was lined with the “gloomiest trees,” which “closed immediately behind” his entry. The devil knows his grandfather and father; in fact, “I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman.” Of course, this is typical Salem fare: the devil is in each of us. Yet Hawthorne, like Leo Tolstoy, remains long enough in the moments of his stories to force us to look deeper. Brown continues alone into the forest, which becomes transformed. Trees creak, wild beats howl, and even the “wind tolled like a distant church bell.” It seemed as if “all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” That shift -- “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” -- weds Hawthorne to The Witch. If Thomasin is the potential vessel for evil, then her father opens the door for the devil. William’s lie about the disappearance of his wife’s silver wine cup becomes an act of betrayal. Whereas at the start of the film he might resemble, in stature and temperament, the father from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, he might best be considered Goodman Brown. The burning light of God has blinded him to the evil in front of his face. As Hawthorne’s tale enters its final quarter, Brown becomes maniacal as the “benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together.” He discovers what resembles a witches’ Sabbath in the forest, lead by the devil. Brown and his wife are about to be the newest converts, ready to be baptized in sin. Yet in a move so common in such tales, Brown finds himself “amid calm night and solitude” in the tranquil forest, with no sign of the fiery ritual remaining. Hawthorne’s extended description of the dark Sabbath shows that its reality was present in Brown’s soul -- the only place that matters. In The Witch, characters carry the forest to their farm, their beds, their hearts, and then return to that darkness for more. Unlike Brown, what they experience is fully real, quite bloody, and surprisingly disturbing. The Witch is worth watching for a new approach to old horror: the feeling that we have heard this story before, and that is exactly why it scares us so much.
“My idea of the ideal literary dinner party remains locking a book under my left wrist while conveying risotto to my mouth with my right at the kitchen table.” Stacy Schiff talks literary dinner parties and more in this week’s New York Times By the Book column. Schiff’s latest, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is out this week.