Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rachel Cusk, Kevin Barry, Mona Eltahawy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Naomi Klein, Dan Kois, and more—that are publishing this week.
Coventry by Rachel Cusk
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Coventry: “Memoirist and novelist Cusk (Kudos) turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection. Broken into three sections, the volume takes its title from an English term for ‘the silent treatment,’ which typified how Cusk’s parents disciplined her as a child. The opening chapters focus on memoir, but within the context of broader questions about society, families, women and work, and what makes a home. Cusk tackles, in addition to her fraught relationship with her parents, life after separating from her husband and with her daughters as they become teenagers (in the deliciously titled ‘Lions on Leashes’). In the second section, she examines art and its creation, in one piece grappling with ‘women’s writing’ in terms of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir (‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’). The final section ventures into literary criticism with analyses of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, D.H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning, and Edith Wharton. There is an element of stream of consciousness to Cusk’s prose, with its effortless transitions from one idea to another. However, the overriding thread binding her essays is the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives. It’s something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.”
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Night Boat to Tangier: “A pair of Irish drug runners who’ve seen better days haunt a ferry terminal in southern Spain in search of a missing woman, in Barry’s grim and crackling latest (after Beatlebone). Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond had a long and profitable run in drug smuggling, but now, with both just past 50, they are out of the business after a decline in their fortunes. The two stalk the ferry terminal in search of Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, whom they haven’t seen for three years but believe will be showing up on a ferry there, either coming from or going to Tangier. As the men wait and scan the crowds, they reminisce on better days and an unfortunately textbook betrayal, and flashbacks to pivotal moments in Maurice’s adult life reveal a torturous history. Whether Dilly is actually Maurice’s daughter is an animating question of the narrative, along with what the men’s true intentions are. Barry is a writer of the first rate, and his prose is at turns lean and lyrical, but always precise. Though some scenes land as stiff and schematic, the characters’ banter is wildly and inventively coarse, and something to behold. As far as bleak Irish fiction goes, this is black tar heroin.”
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls: “In this fed-up, rage-fueled ‘big fuck-you to the patriarchy,’ activist and journalist Eltahawy (Headscarves and Hymens) thrusts ‘tools to fight back’ into the hands of women and girls: in themed chapters, Eltahawy exhorts her peers to embrace their power through the energy of anger, attention seeking, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust. She lets no one off the hook, calling out the Muslims who defended the man who sexually assaulted her while she was on hajj and the racist Americans who vilified Muslim men during her #mosquemetoo response, feminists who accept the crumbs offered to them by the patriarchy and promote milquetoast ideas of ‘girl power,”’U.S. Republican white women complicit in misogyny and racism, and women who call for civility in discourse or who disavow violent responses to violence. But Eltahawy’s arguments come through with as much intelligence and clarity as passion and evocative imagery; they are built on facts about racism, capitalism, and homophobia, as well as her own and others’ experiences. Eltahawy not only gives frustrated women permission, but demands that they ‘defy, disobey, and disrupt.’ This bold, rampaging manifesto is far past the edge of mainstream feminism, but it’s so viscerally motivational that even those more moderately inclined may find themselves intrigued.”
We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Are the Weather: “In an unconventional but persuasive manner, novelist Foer (Here I Am) explains why taking meaningful action to mitigate climate change is both incredibly simple and terribly difficult. Writing from an intensely personal perspective, he describes the difference between understanding and believing, making clear that only the latter can motivate meaningful action. He argues that the dichotomy between those who accept the science of climate change and those who don’t is ‘trivial,’ because ‘the only dichotomy that matters is between those who act and those who don’t.’ Foer makes the case that animal agriculture is the dominant cause of climate change, concluding that ‘we must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is as straightforward and as fraught as that.’ While he calls for everyone not to eat animal products before dinner (at the very least), he is not shy about discussing his own hypocrisy, disclosing his lapses back into meat-eating after writing a book-length treatise against it (2009’s Eating Animals). Foer’s message is both moving and painful, depressing and optimistic, and it will force readers to rethink their commitment to combating ‘the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced.'”
The Second Founding by Eric Foner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Second Founding: “In this lucid legal history and political manifesto, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Foner (The Fiery Trial) explores how the ‘Reconstruction amendments’—the 13th, 14th, and 15th, which abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship, and acknowledged black men’s political rights—have been interpreted over the past century and a half. Foner begins with Congressional debates immediately after the Civil War about what ‘freedom’ could and should mean in the context of the liberation of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Most relevantly for today, Foner depicts the disagreement among both Democrats and Republicans about who should have, and be allowed to use, the right to vote. He points out that, as recently as 2013, the Supreme Court has failed to use the 15th Amendment to oppose state laws that, while not specifically mentioning ethnicity or race, make it difficult for nonwhite citizens to vote, and has refused to bar discriminatory practices of private citizens, in seeming contradiction to the 14th Amendment. In Foner’s view, the current moment represents a ‘retreat from racial equality,’ but the rights promised in these amendments also remain ‘viable alternatives.’ Readers invested in social equality will find Foner’s guarded optimism about the possibility of judicial activism in this area inspiring, and both casual readers and those well-versed in American legal history will benefit from his clear prose and insightful exploration of constitutional history.”
On Fire by Naomi Klein
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Fire: “Klein (This Changes Everything) makes a case for a Green New Deal in a treatise high on passion, but low on specifics. It consists largely of reprinted writings—reporting, think pieces, public talks—with brief notes providing updates. After an account of speaking at a 2015 Vatican press conference on Pope Francis’s climate change encyclical, Klein comments that the Church’s encouraging gesture now seems overshadowed by a lack of accountability over its sexual abuse crisis. These retrospective pieces lack the urgency of the book’s lengthy introduction about fostering ‘economies built both to protect and to regenerate the planet’s life support system and to respect and sustain the people who depend on them.’ In the brief epilogue, Klein returns to the book’s main thrust and argues the Green New Deal still has a ‘fighting chance.’ But even that formulation acknowledges the difficulties involved, and her more extravagant proposals—for instance, transforming every post office in her native Canada into a ‘hub for green transition’—don’t encourage confidence in her ambitious program. Klein’s cri de coeur (‘when the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve’) will galvanize some and depress others.”
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Single Thread: “Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) celebrates the embroiderers of Winchester Cathedral in this appealing story of a 38-year-old spinster who learns needlecraft from real-life embroidery pioneer Louisa Pesel. In 1932, Violet Speedwell is what newspapers of the day call a surplus woman: unmarried and likely to remain so. Working as a typist in Winchester, Violet visits the cathedral, where she admires the intricate canvas embroidery on the kneelers, cushions, and other accessories. She joins the Winchester Cathedral Broderers Group and, after an unpromising start, becomes proficient under the mentorship of group founder Louisa Pesel. A fellow embroiderer introduces Violet to Arthur Knight, a 60-year-old married bell-ringer who, like Violet, has suffered the death of a loved one. Arthur protects Violet from a stalker and takes her to the bell tower to show her the ropes. Violet’s confidence grows as she learns to handle a needle, her mother, and her own desires. Chevalier excels at detailing the creative process, humanizing historical figures and capturing everyday life. With its bittersweet romance and gentle pace, Chevalier’s latest may be less powerful than her best novels, but it vividly and meticulously shows how vision, teamwork, and persistence raise needlecraft from routine stitching to an inspirational and liberating art.”
The Heart and Other Viscera by Félix J. Palma
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heart and Other Viscera: “In Palma’s solid collection, following his The Map of Time trilogy, the surreal collides with the deeply mundane in transformative ways. In these stories, the protagonist—almost always a man down on his luck or depressed in some way—encounters something extraordinary. This might be a magical train set, where an avatar painted in one’s likeness placed inside it can traverse the world (‘Roses against the Wind’); a new apartment that’s perfect in every way, except for the man behind the curtain in the den (‘The Man behind the Curtain’); or, in the title story, a man who gives pieces of his body to his lover on birthdays and anniversaries. In the most ambitious story, ‘The Seven (or So) Lives of Sebastian Mingorance,’ Palma pulls off the impressive juggling act of considering one man and all the different directions a day in his life could have gone, with all seven alternative Sebastian Mingorances occupying the same room at one point. The scope of Palma’s imagination is undeniable, even if his female characters suffer for it—all of them are objectified or otherwise treated as accessories to the plot, and most meet rather gruesome fates. Palma proves he is an assured, creative writer with a knack for the unsettling.”
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red at the Bone: “Woodson’s beautifully imagined novel (her first novel for adults since 2016’s Another Brooklyn) explores the ways an unplanned pregnancy changes two families. The narrative opens in the spring of 2001, at the coming-of-age party that 16-year-old Melody’s grandparents host for her at their Brooklyn brownstone. A family ritual adapted from cotillion tradition, the event ushers Melody into adulthood as an orchestra plays Prince and her ‘court’ dances around her. Amid the festivity, Melody and her family—her unmarried parents, Iris and Aubrey, and her maternal grandparents, Sabe and Sammy ‘Po’Boy’ Simmons, think of both past and future, delving into extended flashbacks that comprise most of the text. Sabe is proud of the education and affluence she has achieved, but she remains haunted by stories of her family’s losses in the fires of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The discovery that her daughter, Iris, was pregnant at 15 filled her with shame, rage, and panic. After the birth of Melody, Iris, uninterested in marrying mail-room clerk Aubrey, pined for the freedom that her pregnancy curtailed. Leaving Melody to be raised by Aubrey, Sabe, and Po’Boy, she departed for Oberlin College in the early ’90s and, later, to a Manhattan apartment that her daughter is invited to visit but not to see as home. Their relationship is strained as Melody dons the coming-out dress her mother would have worn if she hadn’t been pregnant with Melody. Woodson’s nuanced voice evokes the complexities of race, class, religion, and sexuality in fluid prose and a series of telling details. This is a wise, powerful, and compassionate novel.”
How to Be a Family by Dan Kois
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Be a Family: “Kois, a parenting podcaster and editor at Slate, believed that he, his wife, and two daughters ‘were doing being a family wrong’ and tells of his radical step to rectify their situation. He decided they should spend 2017 living in new locations far from their Arlington, Va., home, spending three months in each location. The experiment’s results are varied and delightful to read about: their happy idyll in beautiful Wellington, New Zealand, is packed with friendly neighborhood barbecues and a rejection of American helicopter parenting. The Dutch in Delft, in the Netherlands, seem a cooler lot and obsessed with ‘normalcy,’ though Kois—a serial enthusiast—is entranced by their social cohesion and bicycles. Bug-infested Samara, Costa Rica, is appealingly laid-back, though its roughness starts straining family ties. Back in the vaunted ‘Real America’ of Trump-voting Hays in western Kansas, Kois is as intrigued by the close-knit religious town as he is with the locales abroad. He fills his narrative with both ironic, self-deprecating humor and earnest soul-searching (‘A place never solves anything’) as he comes to the realization that ‘you can’t actually change your kids but your kids change nonetheless.’ This ‘foolhardy jaunt’ into experimental family life–hacking consistently pleases and surprises.”
With the news of Simon & Schuster’s conservative Threshold imprint acquiring — via $250,000 advance — a memoir by “that person” (whom I’m declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?), the outcry was swift, accusing Simon & Schuster of cynically capitalizing on and rewarding hate speech and normalizing white supremacy.
I don’t disagree with those sentiments, but I didn’t jump into the fray because, quite honestly, I didn’t know how I felt. There are a lot of issues at play: hate, misogyny, capitalism (i.e., publishing as a business), coexisting with my reality as a writer fortunate enough to have a supportive publisher. And that publisher is Simon & Schuster.
I had an 800-page manuscript that I had taken 10 years to finish; literary fiction is never a clear moneymaker, long novels are problematic from, if anything, a production point of view (all that paper, all that ink, the increased shipping costs), and yet my editor took me on for a nice five, not six-figure, advance. Even better, she had also just taken on a prizewinning Korean American author whom I admired, whose first book had also come out with an independent press. My editing process at Beacon Press was fairly straightforward because the novel was ready to go. With the current novel, there are structural issues, and a team of editors have rolled up their sleeves, put the tome on a metaphorical lift, and gotten just as sweaty and dirty tinkering with its guts as I have. I’m relieved that, even as the years slide by, they talk only about getting the book right, rather than pushing out “product.” In short, I’m living a dream I’d had as a child banging out stories on my hand-me-down typewriter and selling them — to my parents.
Like many, I was horrified that a person who Twitter had deemed so odious/dangerous it banned him from the platform was being given another platform, a paid one, in short order.
Protest is often the only way to get a company’s attention. And it can have results. But it’s not always the results that were intended, or wanted. For instance, after the outcry over the “sadistic contents” of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, three months before the book’s publication, it was dropped by the publishing house….Simon & Schuster. CEO Richard Snyder explained, “It was an error of judgment to put our name on a book of such questionable taste.”
But the book was just as quickly picked up by esteemed editor Sonny Mehta and published by Random House’s prestigious Vintage imprint.
Irrespective of the nature and quality of these two books, it’s instructive to examine these unintended consequences. Books are indeed published by corporations, which need to sell to stay in business. But as much was we like to treat books as “widgets,” they aren’t interchangeable goods or services. Each one is written by an author or co-author.
In an overcrowded publishing market, bad attention can be just as valuable, perhaps more so, as good attention. The brouhaha over American Psycho certainly branded it into America’s cultural consciousness; the book is still robustly with us, it recently turned 25 and just appeared on Broadway as a musical (!), i.e., trying to kill it with bad publicity may have done exactly the opposite.
The second thing to consider is unintended collateral damage. Many people objected to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it not only helped keep Random House (now Penguin Random House) in the black, it brought in so much revenue that every employee, from “top editors to warehouse workers,” received a $5,000 bonus.
So what’s the opposite of a rising tide?
When I heard the calls to boycott Simon & Schuster, that reviewers were going to refuse to review, authors were vowing not to blurb S&S authors’ books, a bookstore tweeted that it wasn’t even going to stock any S&S books, I felt a bit of a chill. I had no urge to write my editors, because they had zero to do with the decision to acquire that book. Publishing firms are “houses” with huge family trees, divided into specialized groups called imprints. While imprints are not wholly autonomous, they each have their own eco-systems. I write literary fiction and publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint. Simon & Schuster also has several other general interest imprints, specialized imprints, and several children’s book imprints, as well as Howard Books, which publishes for the Christian marketplace. Should its Folger Shakespeare Library imprint be penalized for an acquisition by Threshold Editions, a conservative writers’ imprint (that has also published Donald Trump and bona fide war criminal Dick Cheney — with no outcry)?
The calls to boycott are continuing after Simon & Schuster (the company) has stated it intends to go ahead and publish the book in question. So what, then, is the endgame?
Professor Matthew Garcia, who wrote From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement and who has studied boycotts for years told me that “The boycott of S&S will be tricky. It requires a campaign and a set of goals. First, is there an organization willing to put the time in to organize and pursue the campaign the way the United Farm Workers did?”
Good question. I personally feel that protecting healthcare, especially Medicaid and Medicare, is one of the most important things we need to do right now.
“Second, that organization needs to do what UFW did with grapes — identify what percentage of the product’s delivery to market they need to effect in order to have S&S respond,” Garcia said. “In the UFW case, they did not hit all sellers of grapes equally. They targeted the biggest sellers, and set as their goal to reduce sales by 10 percent in 10 of the top markets. They did that by knowing what amount would hurt their bottom line, and produce the biggest seller’s capitulation. I imagine the organization that pursues a boycott of S&S would have to identify the same profit margins for the company and what it would take to tip them in order to identify effective goals.”
Books, though, aren’t an undifferentiated product like grapes. There’s a lot of untethered anger that’s much more than about one guy, one book deal, one company. People are mad as hell (rightly so) about the rise of the so-called “alt-right” (a.k.a. white supremacists). But how do we try to harness this anger productively? Successfully boycotting S&S is not going achieve what many of us really want — which is to boycott 2016.
But if we’re going to try to get Simon & Schuster (and CBS, its parent company) to listen, what books should boycotters target to get to the United Farmworkers’ 10 percent threshold? Probably the big ones like…the Bruce Springsteen memoir. Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Maybe Shonda Rhimes’s bestselling memoir, Stephen King’s latest? How about Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything — cited as one of the “Seven Books You Need to Understand (and Fight) the Age of Trump“?
Even if such a boycott was successful in harming the bottom line of a publisher, how do we know in a capitalist society that the publisher wouldn’t then make up the difference by publishing even worse things or being less inclined to take risks? S&S started Salaam Reads, a imprint for Muslim-themed children’s books. Why not starve “that person’s book” financially and publicity-wise, and instead buy two books from Salaam Reads?
Bookstore owners and buyers, who are the most direct link in all of this, are starting to formulate statements and implementing plans. Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, a Boston-area store set to open this spring, is a writer herself, and she told me that she and her husband have decided “Belmont Books won’t sell this book.” She adds, “Though I do want S&S to feel the heat for this decision, boycotting all S&S authors seems neither fair nor likely to be effective. More likely, the boycott generates lots of publicity for the book, raises the hackles of the anti-PC, pro-[‘that person’], pro-Trump crowd, and, in the end, rewards S&S and [‘that person’].”
On the other coast, Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, a 40-year-old institution, which is, she said “specifically located in the historic Haight Ashbury” section of San Francisco will skip over “that person’s” book (and anything from the Threshold Editions imprint), cut the number of S&S books, and, of the remainder, donate any profits from S&S books to the ACLU “for the foreseeable future.”
The extremity of what’s coming requires we actually lay out on the table what we stand for. If we stand for a free exchange of ideas, we have to support publishing. Can we instead reject this person’s ideas and collectively stop giving him a platform? If publishing is a business, can we vote with our dollars and our attention (cultural capital)? Store owners can decide whether to stock this title or not, reviewers can review or not. But a blanket boycott of any publisher’s books makes no sense. It’s burning down the house because you saw a spider.
They say it is a symptom of aging when one begins to see historic catastrophe looming in the events of the world. “Times are bad,” Cicero is supposed to have said in the first century B.C. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” I’m not the first to remark that this same Ciceroian sentiment sums up plenty of recent articles to the tune of Millennials, amirite tho? All the same, sometimes the center really cannot hold. Things do fall apart. The widening ocean gyre turns and turns and is full of plastic. What if the falcon really cannot hear the falconer? And what rough and bloviating beast, with fake tan and tawny comb-over, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It is when the passionate intensity of the world’s worst aspects gets too much that I turn to the conviction of books. When I decided to take the books that had the biggest impact on me this year down from the shelf and lay them like tiles on the bedspread, I noticed a theme. They were all, in some way or other, about our broken world. Taken together, they formed a kind of atlas, articulating the wounded geography of the Earth’s subtle body: the Republic of Community, the Sea of Politics, the United States of Racism and Rape Culture, the Desert of Personal Tragedy, and the Empire of Environmental Loss.
It went like this.
I read Eula Biss’s On Immunity early in the year. Although it is ostensibly about vaccination, like all excellent nonfiction it transcends its stated focus. It is about community, and how we imagine the boundaries between self and other, between “us” and “not us.” It addresses our human permeability and the fact that no matter how much we may seek to isolate ourselves, even at the most basic biological level we as human beings are all in the same boat.
Speaking of community, I also read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. As someone familiar with the politics and history of the Middle East, I am sometimes asked if I can recommend “the one book” a person might read who wished to understand the region better. I will now recommend this book. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good place to start.
On the environment, I read four books that worked especially well when taken in chorus. They were: Waste by Brian Thill, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn. Thill describes types of human detritus, from excess browser tabs cluttering our laptop screens to the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy that will be dangerous long after the demise of everything else we have ever created. Kolbert takes the reader on a tour through the shrinking biosphere, and Klein delineates the forces of greed that lie behind its destruction. Hohn’s Melvillian odyssey brings an essential element of the personal — the frail, the tender, the humane — to what is so often sweepingly abstract about the ecological wars we are waging.
I read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, back-to-back in about 48 hours; both, in their own way, a kind of manifesto. I read the first with nodding recognition, and the second with a deepening sense of what my privilege as a white person has shielded me from. I recommend them as companion works.
I loved the novel Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which consists of many different ways to tell the same story, or variations on a theme. I was floored by it for similar reasons that I loved a retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter I saw at MoMA many years ago: the use of multiple styles in an attempt to find the truth. Richter is an artist whose work has taken so many different forms, from abstract pigments scraped across a canvas to the most impressive photorealism. When all viewed together, his works look like many different attempts to break into the same room, by a person so intent on reaching it that he’ll try anything. The nature of this room that he’s trying to break into by any means necessary remains something of a mystery; its opacity is not entirely breached. So too, with Mr. Fox. Still, the sheer inexhaustibility of the attempts suggests the transcendent importance of whatever lies, or crouches or, probably, glows within its locked walls. This is how I felt reading Oyeyemi, once I got a sense of what she was playing at.
I want to say that I’ve included Mr. Fox here because it is a kaleidoscopic take on love and pain; that the whole world is a kaleidoscope of love and pain, of beauty and nothingness, problem and solution. I want to say that our view of it is kaleidoscopic, the colors tumbling and rearranging themselves with each turn of the lens. The theme of my reading this year was of our tumbling, broken world, yes, but also of the light that fills it. This light was perhaps best expressed in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The scope may seem small: one person, existing in the physical world, while trying to cope with the loss of another person. But it isn’t small. Because what good are empires, or politics, or the Earth itself, if we do not have the ones we love beside us? Things fall apart, it’s true. But it was cathartic to run through the dark, wet forest with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and to come out into the light again; one falconer at least who brought her wild bird to heel.
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