We Can't Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Schulz, Attenberg, Yanagihara, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Kathryn Schultz, Jami Attenberg, Hanya Yanagihara, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Lost & Found by Kathryn Schultz
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lost & Found: “‘Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,’ writes Pulitzer Prize winner Schulz (Being Wrong) in this stunning memoir. As Schulz recounts, she contended with the pain and ecstasy of both narratives colliding when she fell in love with her future wife, C., 18 months before Schulz’s father died. She explores the grief of loss and joy of finding through penetrating reflections on the life of her father, a deep thinker with an endless appetite for the world; an ‘intimate study of [her] beloved’ wife; and philosophical forays into literature, poetry, and art. She ruminates on the ‘intrinsic pleasure of discovery’ in quest narratives, is reminded how ‘the entire plan of the universe consists of losing’ when C. reads her Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and thinks of her father’s memorial service, one of the ‘greatest parties I ever attended,’ when remembering C. S. Lewis’s quote that ‘we all have… many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst.’ By the end of these exquisite existential wanderings, Schulz comes to a quiet truce with her finding that ‘life, too, goes by contraries… by turns crushing and restorative… comic and uplifting.’ Schulz’s canny observations are a treasure.”
I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Came All This Way to Meet You: “Novelist Attenberg (All Grown Up) meditates on the virtues and vices of an unscripted life in this sparkling memoir. In vivid essays, Attenberg recalls her couch-surfing years in her 20s, an assault she survived in college (‘That moment remains a burning hot coal in my chest’), and teaching fiction in Vilnius, Lithuania, as a ‘newly moderately successful writer’ in 2013. She writes of her decision to eschew tradition in pursuit of art and adventure, but how, at age 40, she began to envy her more grounded, married friends: ‘I did not want… the husband, the kids. But I did want that refrigerator full of food.’ The tension between rootedness and wanderlust makes for brisk descriptions of locale: from Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification, where she ‘had birthdays… and went broke several times,’ to New Orleans, where she wrote ‘religiously, daily,’ to a chapel made of bones in Portugal. Though her narrative flits around in time and space, her writing emerges as a bedrock from which to both grow and settle into. From the vantage point of 2020, she observes: ‘We are all homebound…. We can’t go back to the same way…. Everything is just sideways.’ Tilted or upright, Attenberg’s story shines with wit and empathy.”
The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Stars Are Not Yet Bells: “Assadi (Sonora) returns with a lyrical and melancholic tale of grief, love, and a marriage’s open secrets, narrated by a woman who has Alzheimer’s. In 1941, Elle Ranier and her jeweler husband, Simon, moved from New York City as young newlyweds to a remote island off the coast of Georgia in search of a variety of jewel akin to diamonds and known locally as the ‘blue legend.’ Many people have drowned while seeking the minerals, which are believed to lie at the bottom of the ocean, and Simon’s fruitless search eventually leaves his business in shambles. Now, in 1997, Elle remembers her previous lover, Gabriel, in Brooklyn, whom she arranged to work with Simon on the island after claiming he was her cousin, and who died shortly after they arrived. Then, in 1961, Simon grows close with a geologist hired to prospect for the jewels. Elle’s reminiscences become hazy as a result of her Alzheimer’s, though ‘for a while, life remained in [her] bright dreams,’ which evokes a sense of magic with images of mermaids and fairies. As the story of the trio’s arrival to the island and their subsequent misfortunes gradually unfolds, Elle circles around the secrets about her and Simon’s relationships with other men. The beauty of Assadi’s prose and the splendid depiction of a love that transcends death make for a singular rendition of an oft-told story. This will leave readers undone.”
Yonder by Jabari Asim
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Yonder: “Novelist and cultural critic Asim (We Can’t Breathe) delivers a searing and redemptive story of slavery and survival. Set in the antebellum South, it is narrated primarily by enslaved people who call themselves the ‘Stolen’ and white people ‘Thieves.’ To sustain themselves through the cruelties of their owner, Cannonball Greene, a philandering pseudo-intellectual planning a study of Africans in America, the Stolen rely on their rituals and bonds. Inspired by myths of the Buba Yalis, Zander, a teen, believes he will one day fly like his African ancestors. Cato eases the shattering grief of his lover’s death by adding her name to the seven words chosen by the elders for each Stolen at birth, in the belief that ‘words were mighty enough to change [their] condition.’ William doubts the power of all words, trusting action instead. When he stops Cupid, the plantation’s slave foreman, from bullying Zander one night, the two men fight. Cato steps in and kills Cupid, then helps William bury him in the woods. Faced with Greene’s rage, the others, heeding the promises of freedom offered by an itinerant Black preacher, consider a risky escape. Asim convincingly portrays what W.E.B. Du Bois would later term ‘double consciousness’ among the Stolen: ‘All of us have two tongues,’ an unnamed Stolen says, distinguishing between the ‘lament cloaked in deception’ used for their enslavers and the rich, transgressive language used among themselves. At once intimate and majestic, the prose marries a gripping narrative with an unforgettable exploration of the power of stories, language, and hope. With a bold vision, Asim demonstrates his remarkable gifts.”
Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shit Cassandra Saw: “Kirby’s excellent debut collection follows a series of women empowered by new circumstances, sometimes with fantastical results. In ‘A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,’ a man tells a woman to smile, and she responds by revealing a mouthful of fangs, which she uses to bite off the man’s hand, ‘crack[ing] the bones and spit[ting] them out.’ Another woman in the same story uses her ‘laser eyes’ to transform a man who gropes her into the exact change for her bus fare. In ‘The Best and Only Whore of Cwm Hyfryd, 1886,’ the women of a Welsh settlement in Patagonia are generally too tired to have sex with their husbands, leaving the job to a sex worker. That woman, meanwhile, writes letters home to her brother and pretends to be married. The prose is sharp and calibrated to suit each of Kirby’s temporally and geographically diverse settings. She is even able to wring pathos from a story written in the format of a Yelp review, narrated by one of the rare male voices in the book, in the very funny ‘Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star,’ in which reviewer Gary F.’s account of a miserable night at the Crab Shack slips into a chronicle of his crumbling marriage. It’s all accomplished through risk-taking and assured, well-developed craft. This is remarkable.”
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mouth to Mouth: “Wilson (Panorama City) explores the intertwined fates of two inscrutable men in the Los Angeles art world of the early 2000s in this shifty work of psychological suspense. The unnamed narrator, a novelist delayed at the airport on his way to Berlin, runs into an old college acquaintance, Jeff Cook. Jeff invites the narrator to the first class lounge, where he tells him a long story. Twenty years earlier, while strolling along the beach, Jeff resuscitated a drowning stranger, Francis Arsenault, a successful art dealer who showed no interest in his savior. Jeff, by contrast, attempted to learn everything about Francis, and ingratiated his way into Francis’s gilded life—insisting to the narrator that his motives, though obscure even to himself, were not necessarily mercenary. Francis is a prickly figure, a ‘master manipulator’ whose bullying and shady business practices caused the upright Jeff to belatedly question whether Francis was worth saving. Though the frame narrative can feel contrived, and Francis might not be as memorably monstrous as, say, Graham Greene’s Harry Lime, the extended scenes of self-fashioning and occluded vision make good use of Patricia Highsmith’s influence. There’s plenty of satisfaction in watching the characters navigate the blurred line between plausibility and truth.”
The Boy We Made by Taylor Harris
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Boy We Made: “Essayist Harris weaves a medical mystery, love story, parenting memoir, and tale of survival in her stunning debut. When Harris’s sweet-natured 22-month-old boy, Tophs, started showing a host of inexplicable symptoms—including hypoglycemia, developmental delays, and speech and language difficulties—she was forced to reckon with the ways in which his health issues stoked anxiety issues that she’d spent most of her life battling. In writing that is heartfelt and raw, she recounts her distress at the evasive explanations that she received from doctors as her son underwent test after test, while braiding in reflections on motherhood (‘Being a Black mother in a… country, built for whites was hard’), faith, and the idea of existing within liminal spaces: ‘Caught somewhere between ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet’…. It was getting harder to see what, if anything, was being formed in Tophs, in me, or in us as a family through this search for answers.’ Though medical professionals believed Tophs had ketotic hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood glucose levels drop unexpectedly, Harris and her husband never received a conclusive diagnosis. But out of that uncertainty grew a love and calmness that Harris couldn’t have foreseen, and a story of acceptance that mesmerizes with its vulnerability: ‘He had always been my son…. It was my job to let him be.’ This is astounding.”
High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about High-Risk Homosexual: “In this crackling debut, Gomez recounts his coming-of-age as a queer man, passionately exploring what it means to celebrate one’s identities and to make space for joy in the most unlikely places. ‘In a world desperate to erase us, queer Latinx men must find ways to hold on to pride for survival,’ he writes, ‘but excessive male pride is often what we are battling, both in ourselves and in others.’ In essays packed with dry wit and searing cultural insight, Gomez blows open this paradox as he contends with the difficulties and traumas of compulsory heterosexuality that were forced upon him growing up in his Nicaraguan family. He brings readers on an exhilarating trip through his teens in Central America, where bloody cockfights at his uncle’s bar pulsated with machismo; reflects on meeting a group of encouraging trans sex workers, whose simple freedom both terrified and enticed him as a young gay person; recounts his awkward attempts to navigate hookup culture in his early 20s in Florida; and reflects on how taking PrEP instantly labeled him medically as a ‘high-risk homosexual.’ The result transcends a simple coming-out story to instead offer a brilliant and provocative interrogation of sex, gender, race, and love.”
Wahala by Nikki May
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wahala: “In May’s breezy if overdramatic debut, the mutual friendship of three Anglo-Nigerian women is threatened by an interloper, a Russian Nigerian on a revenge trip. Isobel Adams holds a particular grudge against each of the successful and ambitious women who have been best friends for 17 years. There’s Boo, one of the numerous children Isobel’s father had with multiple women; Ronke Tinubu, the daughter of the man who had an affair with Isobel’s mother, and who now dates the man Isobel wants; and Simi, Isobel’s friend since they were five years old, who describes Isobel in a conversation with the others as ’embarrassingly rich,’ and whose father has been in a longtime feud with Isobel’s. May’s characters, despite all their accomplishments and intelligence—Ronke is a dentist, Boo has a PhD in bioinformatics, and Simi works as a brand executive for a fashion house—are easily taken in by Isobel, due to Isobel’s willingness to help open doors for them. After Isobel manipulates her way into the trio’s lives, someone in their orbit winds up violently killed. While some of Isobel’s destructive behavior is outlandishly implausible, May’s nuanced exploration of race and gender makes this refreshing. This will leave readers intrigued to see what May does next.”
Call Me Cassandra by Marcial Gala
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Call Me Cassandra: “In Cuban poet and novelist Gala’s lyrical and elegiac return (after The Black Cathedral), a young man grows up feeling stifled by life in Castro’s Cuba. At 10, Rauli Iriarte is effeminate and bookish, imperiled by the strict gender roles embodied by his violent brother, drunken father, and unsympathetic school board. He’s more comfortable in the company of his mother and his father’s Russian mistress, Svetlana. As it happens, Rauli is also Cassandra, the Greek prophetess of ancient myth, cursed with the knowledge that he will die as a young soldier in Angola, where he is dispatched as part of the Cuban Intervention. There, on ‘a continent full of ghosts, the ghosts of kings, dark ghosts of dark wizards,’ he is simultaneously swept up in the Trojan War and forced to relive The Iliad’s cycle of death and carnage. Lodged irrevocably between genders, historical periods, and legends, Rauli—who’d rather be acknowledged as Cassandra—must find meaning and purpose in a life he knows to be tragically foreshortened. It’s a fascinating premise, but not a whole lot happens. Still, Gala’s prose, elegantly translated by Kushner, perfectly conveys the protagonist’s dual realities (‘We are but shadows set on the canvas of this life, my Zeus,’ he thinks, while on the battlefield). In the end, the author offers a singular invocation of immortality.”
Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Øyehaug (translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Present Tense Machine: “The playful and poignant latest from Øyehaug (Wait, Blink) unfurls the alternate realities that separate a mother and daughter. In 1998, Anna misreads the word ‘trädgård’—Swedish for ‘garden’—as the nonsense word ‘tärdgård,’ and the slip-up sends her into a parallel universe. Her two-year-old daughter Laura has never existed, and she eventually gives birth to two new children, Peder and Elina. In the other universe, Laura grows up with no memory of Anna, and now an adult, she lives with her musician partner, Karl Peter, and is pregnant with her first child. Both women study literature, and they both sign up to take part in the same group piano concert of Satie’s ‘Vexations.’ Yet while they’re sure something is missing from their lives, they fail to recall their bond. Øyehaug employs a metafictional narrator who frequently addresses the reader, noting that she’s writing while riding a bus and feeling dislocated, or reflecting on a Youtube video about astrophysics. Some of the mundane details of Anna’s, Laura’s, and the narrator’s lives slow the story, but the ruminations on existence and purpose consistently captivate. Ultimately, Øyehaug steers this to a wholly satisfying conclusion.”
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about To Paradise: “Yanagihara’s ambitious if unwieldy latest (after National Book Award finalist A Little Life) spins a set of three stories in New York City’s Washington Square over 200 years. David Bingham lives in the utopian ‘Free States’ of 1893. He rejects a proposed arranged marriage with another wealthy, older man, opting to pursue a love match with a music teacher who lives a hardscrabble life. At a dinner party in 1993, the host’s oldest friend is dying from AIDS as the other guests consider the meaning of one’s legacy. One of them, also named David Bingham (this one a native Hawaiian paralegal), is cautiously optimistic about his relationship with his wealthy older boyfriend, Charles Griffith. A century later, a woman named Charlie Griffith deals with dystopian conditions such as a series of pandemics and a totalitarian society in which the press and homosexual relationships have been outlawed, and struggles to build a meaningful relationship with her husband. The stories are united by the characters’ desire for love as their freedom is diminished. The prose in the first section effectively conjures the style of Henry James, but there’s too much exposition and not enough character development in the final section, where the author spends too much time building out the future world. There’s a great deal of passion, but on the whole it’s a mixed bag.”

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