Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Bennett, Bertino, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Brit Bennett, Wayétu Moore, Alexandra Petri, Marie-Helene Bertino, David Mitchell, and more—that are publishing this week.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vanishing Half: “Bennett (The Mothers) explores a Louisiana family’s navigation of race, from the Jim Crow era through the 1980s, in this impressive work. The Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, were born and raised in Mallard, La., the slave-born founder of which imagined a town with ‘each generation lighter than the one before.’ In the early 1940s, when the twins are little, they witness their father’s lynching, and as they come of age, they harbor ambitions to get out. Desiree, the more headstrong sister, leads Stella to New Orleans when they are 16, and after a few months, the quiet, studious Stella, who once dreamt of enrolling in an HBCU, disappears one night. In 1968, 14 years later, still with no word from Stella, Desiree is back in Mallard with her eight-year-old daughter, Jude, having left her abusive ex-husband. When Jude is older, she makes her own escape from Mallard to attend college in Los Angeles. At a party, Jude glimpses a woman who looks exactly like Desiree—except she couldn’t be, because this woman is white. Eventually, the Vignes twins reunite, reckoning with the decisions that have shaped their lives. Effortlessly switching between the voices of Desiree, Stella, and their daughters, Bennett renders her characters and their struggles with great compassion, and explores the complicated state of mind that Stella finds herself in while passing as white. This prodigious follow-up surpasses Bennett’s formidable debut.”

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Parakeet: “Bertino (2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas) impresses with this dreamlike, sardonic novel about a woman questioning her impending marriage while processing the trauma of a terrorist attack. Holed up in a Long Island inn during the week leading up to her wedding, a 36-year-old woman, known only as the bride, is visited by her dead grandmother, a first-generation American, in the form of a parakeet. The bird commands her to find her estranged sibling, Tom, a successful and reclusive playwright. The bride attends Tom’s play, titled Parakeet, which depicts a fictionalized version of an anti-immigrant attack on a coffee shop she worked in when she was 18 (the bride describes herself as appearing ‘ethnically ambiguous’; she is of Basque and Romany descent). Later, the bride is startled to see her mother in the mirror, and continues to be unsettled by her pending transition into the role of ‘wife’ (‘I get the sense that the number of people who are married is not equal to the number of people that give the institution much thought’). These thoughts lead to an affecting description of the bride’s memory of being wounded in the coffee shop rampage. The bride’s conflicted emotions come to a head as the novel builds to a satisfying end. Fans of Rivka Galchen will delight in Bertino’s subtly fantastical tale.”

Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why by Alexandra Petri

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why: “Washington Post columnist Petri (A Field Guide to Awkward Silences) takes on the Trump presidency and related issues with this superb and stinging collection of new and previously published pieces. She skewers triumphal accounts of Trump’s inauguration (sarcastically writing that ‘Bono, and Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John, and the Rolling Stones, and Beyoncé, and all the top artists were there’), mocks conspiracy theories by recasting the ‘deep state’ as a regional college (‘Does Deep State have a football team? No, but it controls the outcomes of all football games’), and analyzes the Mueller Report with a pitch-perfect parody of a middle-school book report (‘One way in which this book did not succeed was its lack of female characters’). Also included is Petri’s Post column ‘Trump’s Budget Makes Perfect Sense and Will Fix America, and I Will Tell You Why,’ which the White House, mistaking it for sincere praise, publicized in its ‘1600 Daily’ e-newsletter in 2017. But the best essays are those in which she is dead serious, including 2018 pieces on families separated at the Mexican border and Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to reveal her past with now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Acidic and spot-on, Petri’s work captures the surreal quality of Trump’s tenure as perhaps no other book has.”

The Dragons, the Giant, the Women by Wayétu Moore

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: “In this beautiful memoir of dislocation, a young girl flees war-torn Liberia with her family to America. Moore (She Would Be King) begins with herself as a five-year-old living with her sisters, grandparents, and father in Monrovia. When the 1990 civil war erupts with terrifying massacres by rebels overthrowing president Samuel Doe (who Moore imagines as ‘the Hawa Undu dragon, the monster in my dreams, the sum of stories I was too young to hear’), the family heads for Sierra Leone, hoping to get to America. Moore describes this desperate trek in the lyrical voice of her younger self, a dreamy girl who filters the danger through a folktale lens. The middle section tracks her childhood after her family resettles in Texas, then her trauma-plagued young adulthood in Brooklyn (‘nightmares were old friends’), and racially fraught romances (‘I never feared my blackness, until the men,’ referring to the black men she first dated in college). The book’s final section holds a mirror to the first, describing in her mother’s voice her mother’s journey from New York back to Africa to rescue her lost family. Building to a thrumming crescendo, the pages almost fly past. Readers will be both enraptured and heartbroken by Moore’s intimate yet epic story of love for family and home.”

The Lightness by Emily Temple

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lightness: “Temple’s engrossing debut, by turns smart thriller and nuanced coming-of-age story, is set in a high-altitude spiritual retreat known as the Levitation Center, rumored to occupy the only American land where levitation is possible. Olivia Ellis is 15 when her long-unreliable Buddhist father, John, who separated from her mother several years before, disappears from her life after attending a Center retreat. The following summer, Olivia signs up for the retreat’s residential program for teenage girls, hoping to find some clues as to John’s whereabouts. When the enigmatic resident Serena, whose friends Janet and Laurel sneak out nightly to visit her private tent on the mountainside, invites Olivia to join their group and announces that they will learn to levitate, Olivia is eager to belong and to master her father’s religion. Serena plies the girls with alcohol and coaxes guidance from Luke, the Center’s seductive young gardener, who she says has levitated before. By the time Olivia begins doubting Serena’s motives for encouraging dangerous methods, such as fasting and choking, events are spiraling beyond her control. While the frequent asides on fairy tales, etymology, and various intellectual concepts can feel distracting and distancing, the lush, intelligent prose perfectly captures the narrator’s adolescent yearning. Temple’s exploration of the power young women have over each other will appeal to fans of Susan Choi and Emma Cline.”

Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ornamental: “A powerfully intoxicating drug is at the center of Cárdenas’s atmospheric, nightmarish English-language debut. Somewhere in Colombia, on an estate near a major city, a doctor observes the drug’s effects on four women ‘from the inferior classes.’ In the process, he grows fascinated with a woman known as number 4, who is unique in her response to the drug—while numbers 1, 2, and 3 sleep or become sexually aroused, 4 speaks in ‘fantastically deformed discourses,’ including an apparent memory of her mother, disfigured by plastic surgery, and a political speech involving ‘the Ministry of Destitution.’ Meanwhile, the doctor’s relationship with his wife, a cocaine-addicted artist, stagnates while she prepares for a new show of her work. In spare and economical prose, Cárdenas sketches a highly stratified world, where drugs link high society and neighborhoods that are ‘a single crush of old houses and ruins.’ Cárdenas is less interested in plot than juxtaposing the contradictory philosophies of the wealthy, elitist doctor; his artist wife, who believes in ‘the mysticism of grace’; and the intelligent and damaged Number 4, who insists on ‘the authentic grace of people like me, who outfit themselves in everyone else’s debris.’ Still, the overall effect offers both thrills and chills.”

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Exciting Times: “In Dolan’s wry, tender debut, a young Dubliner navigates her love life and sexuality. Ava, 22, has a murky friendship with London-born and Oxford-educated banker Julian, in his late 20s, whom she’d met at a bar during her first month in Hong Kong, where she teaches English. They treat each other with ironic regard, speaking mostly in quips about his privilege and their mutual maybe-attraction. Ava moves into his flat, and they soon start sleeping together. The novel picks up speed after Julian travels to London for work and Ava meets Edith Zhang, who is both different from Julian in many ways—stylish, female, a Hong Kong local—and similar—boarding school, Cambridge, a well-off family. On Ava’s 23rd birthday, Edith kisses her, and they fall headlong into an earnest, garrulous, and secret love, as Edith isn’t out to her family. When Julian writes to say he will be returning in a month, Ava, who hasn’t disclosed the true nature of her and Julian’s relationship to Edith, must decide what she really wants. Dolan starts slowly, but gradually the ironic distancing of Ava’s narration is pierced by questions from Ava’s students and her transformative relationship with Edith. Dolan’s smart, brisk debut works as charming comedy of manners, though it packs less of a punch when it comes to class consciousness.”

The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Fallen: “Four members of a Havana family tell the story of its collapse a generation after the Cuban Revolution in Álvarez’s elegant debut. The revolving cast of narrators includes Diego, a young man with violent tendencies serving compulsory military duty; Mariana, his bewildered epileptic mother; Maria, Mariana’s secretive daughter; and Armando, the father of the family. As the family receives harassing phone calls (‘Your husband is a communist informant… Your daughter is a pervert’), the fabric of their lives and their minds begins to fray. Armando, authoritarian and rigidly adherent to the communist party, is plagued by nightmares and alcoholism. (While drunk, he is a mournful prophet: ‘The future came and went, war never came, and no one noticed.’) The family remembers the starvation and terror during ‘the difficult years’ of the revolution in a series of fable-like anecdotes—these fragments are especially potent displays of Álvarez’s eye for detail. Occasionally, verbal slippage occurs between Álvarez’s poetic vantage and the voices of the characters, though Wynne’s translation gracefully honors the four voices of the family in startling and sharp language. Álvarez’s fittingly surreal gloss of insight on her characters’ generational divide gives the book real power.”

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Burning: “In Majumdar’s audacious debut, a politically conscious English tutor who works with an aspiring film actor is wrongfully accused of terrorism. After an ill-advised Facebook post criticizing the police’s response to a train bombing in Bengal, Jivan, a Muslim, is charged with the attack. Jivan has an alibi; she was on her way to tutor Lovely, whose testimony might be able to save Jivan from execution. A right-wing party luminary, hoping to gain political mileage from the case, bribes one of Jivan’s former teachers from grammar school in exchange for his false testimony about Jivan, and his lies in court lead to Jivan being jailed. A large portion of the chapters devoted to Jivan, told in the first person, come in the form of expository monologues to Purnendu, a reporter. Lovely’s dialect-heavy passages speak to her difficult life as a hijra (a third gender in India), and her desire to become a star despite being marginalized. Majumdar expertly weaves the book’s various points of view and plotlines in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable. This is a memorable, impactful work.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Coetzee, Masad, Jollett, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Ilana Masad, Mikel Jollett, and more—that are publishing this week.
Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Death of Jesus: “The thoughtful, clear-eyed final installment of Nobel laureate Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy picks up three years after The Schooldays of Jesus. David, now age 10, remains an enigmatic prodigy, skilled at soccer, dance, and arcane mathematics, and living under the watchful eye of his ruminative adopted father, Simon—who again narrates—and Ines, his protective adoptive mother. The family, living in a Spanish-speaking town called Estrella in an unnamed country, is disrupted when Dr. Julio Fabricante, the director of a local orphanage, challenges David and his friends to play soccer against the orphans’ team. Almost immediately, David is enchanted by the orphans, and runs away to live with them. After David comes down with a mysterious neurological disorder that makes him prone to sudden falls, he returns home to Simon and Ines. Simon notices changes in David; he is aloof with Simon and Ines and unsettled by questions about the afterlife. David has also attracted a band of followers who treat him with messianic devotion as he recites stories from Don Quixote. Like in previous volumes, Coetzee’s simple, clean prose is guided by philosophical questions, and Simon’s humanistic reflections provide a thrilling contrast to David’s bumpy journey of faith and acceptance of his mortality. This is an ambitious and satisfying conclusion.”
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All My Mother’s Lovers: “A tragic accident leads to soul-searching in Masad’s smart, heartfelt debut. Maggie Krause is enjoying an intimate moment with her girlfriend when her younger brother, Ariel, calls to say that their mother, Iris, has died in a car accident. Scrambling to get home to her brother and her dad, Maggie reflects on her complicated relationship with her mother, who was never comfortable with Maggie’s sexuality. After Maggie flies home to California, she finds college-age Ariel struggling to deal with their father, Peter, who is almost catatonic with grief. Because no one else will do it, Maggie makes arrangements for Iris’s funeral and shivah. Then Maggie finds Iris’s will, and with it, a small stack of letters Iris wanted to be mailed in the event of her death. But Maggie doesn’t recognize any of the men the letters are addressed to—and is upset and insulted that her mom would have written letters to strange men but not to her children. Maggie decides to deliver the letters by hand, and as she meets the recipients, she learns that Iris’s life was nothing like what Maggie thought it was. This remarkable portrait of a daughter’s opaque relationship with her mother reflects the strangeness and beauty of coming to see one’s parent fully as a human being.”
Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hollywood Park: “In this arresting debut memoir, Jollett, frontman of the indie band Airborne Toxic Event, writes of escaping a California cult named Synanon—where he lived in the 1970s until age five—with his mentally unstable mother and older brother. He recalls his impoverished, lonely youth; his family’s struggles with addiction; his challenging relationship with his parents; and the ways music and therapy saved him. Synanon started out as a commune and a drug and alcohol treatment facility (Jollett’s father was treated there for heroin addiction) but became a cult when the facility’s leader became more domineering and began forcing parents and their children to live in separate locations. While there, Jollett and his brother were left in the care of various cult members and rarely saw their parents. Jollett engagingly narrates his story, which includes living, after leaving Synanon, in Oregon with his mother, a needy narcissist who brainwashed him into believing that kids take care of their moms, not the other way around; loving his father while hoping to never be like him; and dealing with his addict brother. Jollett also talks about turning pain into music, getting help for abandonment issues, and finding love and starting a family. All this results in a shocking but contemplative memoir about the aftermath of an unhealthy upbringing.”
The First Actress by C.W. Gortner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The First Actress: “Gortner (The Romanov Empress) captures the drama and pathos of legendary actor Sarah Bernhardt’s life in this enchanting work. The illegitimate child of a Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt is raised in Brittany until her wet nurse can no longer house her. In 1852, Sarah’s mother, Julie, sends her unloved, eight-year-old daughter to boarding school in Versailles. After Sarah’s theatrical gifts shine in a school play, one of her mother’s longtime patrons helps arrange acting training for her as well as a contract with the august Comédie-Française. The school’s rigid adherence to tradition clashes with Sarah’s questioning approach, and she leaves the Comédie in the first of many stormy changes from one theatrical company to the next. Becoming pregnant by Comte Émile de Kératry, an aristocratic paying lover, she decides to keep the baby—her only child, Maurice—despite the social taboo and the comte’s rejection. After Bernhardt does heroic work as a volunteer nurse and infirmary manager during the Franco-Prussian War, she becomes one of the most acclaimed actors of her age through a mix of talent, hard work, and savvy self-promotion. Skillful first-person narration evokes Bernhardt’s fierce energy and tempestuous liaisons, the vulnerability borne of her wounding childhood, and her struggles against misogyny and anti-Semitism. Gortner does justice to this trailblazing celebrity and her fascinating era.”
Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red Dress in Black and White: “In Ackerman’s wry if convoluted latest (after Waiting for Eden), the story of an unhappy marriage is suffused with pointed commentary on Turkey in the months following the 2013 Gezi revolt. Catherine, an American, lives in Istanbul with her Turkish husband, Murat, a real estate developer, and their adopted seven-year-old son, William. Catherine and Murat each sacrificed early artistic ambition, she for the marriage and he for his career, and she finds comfort in an affair with Peter, a freewheeling American photojournalist on a Cultural Affairs grant for a loosely defined art project. After Catherine hatches a plan to flee to the United States with Peter and William, Murat intervenes with the help of an American diplomat. Much of the book’s action takes place on the day Catherine tries to leave in November 2013, interspersed with flashbacks to pivotal moments in the characters’ lives—Peter’s coverage of the protests to contest the development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, Murat’s complicated dependence on Istanbul’s ‘reliably corrupt’ government for business, and the shocking disclosure of William’s birth mother’s identity—that add weight to the story of a marriage and a city embroiled in conflict. Still, the big reveal arrives too late and doesn’t quite offer enough payoff to justify such dense plotting. This falls short of Ackerman’s best work.”

A Nightingale in the Lion’s Den

I first met Kaya Genç at his home in Istanbul. It was 2017, and I lived a short walk away, up and down a few steep, sloping streets in the city’s historic core of Beyoglu. The district is a collision course of ideologies, where family grocers and underground factories compete with vegan restaurants and vintage clothiers. It snakes through a swathe of art galleries and antiques dealers before leading to a cross section of two alleyways, Altıpatlar and Çubukçu, which translate to six-shooter and pipe-maker, respectively. Under the nostalgic spell of meters-long Ottoman smokers and the 19th-century weapon-of-choice, the young journalist grinned, approaching mid-career prestige as arguably the most important Turkish writer writing in English still living in Turkey.

Around the corner, The Museum of Innocence received guests into a world of fictive artifacts based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Before becoming a political exile, the Nobel laureate would stroll under the shadow of Armenian tenements to schmooze with curators exhibiting contemporary installations on bare concrete floors, well-lit for teasing out the latest theories in conceptualism. It’s a milieu that Genç captures with verve in his second nonfiction book, The Lion and the Nightingale, which begins and ends on New Year’s Eve, encompassing the bittersweet political and cultural dramas that ensued and changed history in the year 2017 in the Turkish Republic.

Genç poured coffee, and raised his phone to snap a photo of me. He was making a record of every visitor. I was an admiring fellow writer, the younger; a year into my life in Istanbul, far-flung from my Anglo-American world. We wrote for the same arts section of a Turkish daily newspaper’s English-language edition. His criticism displayed a signature deftness and plain professionalism that lent itself to descriptive prose and the creative interpretation of his subjects. His style was spare, and incisive. He introduced his first-person voice with surprising freshness. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won reelection in 2018, Genç finished his New York Times op-ed with a tone of apathy, weary of his nation’s affinities for military coups and single-party rule.

I asked him what his aspirations were, as a writer who had published a novel in Turkish, and reams of journalism in two languages, leading to his 2016 book of reportage about the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, titled Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey. He pointed to a tome by Masha Gessen, one of many stacked and shelved along with magazines of every variety, most including his contributions to the book reviews, from New York, Los Angeles, London, as well as The Nation, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to name a few. He wanted his nonfiction to read like fiction. If that is the litmus test, The Lion and the Nightingale earns its keep.

The book opens tragically, with an intimate account of the Reina Nightclub massacre. Genç has a talent for writing about Turkey to Western taste, providing the usual fare of terror and oppression. Yet, he accommodates multiple perspectives while remaining convincingly independent, at times proudly and transparently leftist. His is the writing of a Turkish journalist committed to freedom of speech and assembly in a country where those rights are endangered. It is a boon for readers to have that delivered to them directly in English, from the source. In his humanist approach to bias, Genç stands with the artists that he portrays so personally in The Lion and the Nightingale. Journalism, Genç defends, is an art. And he has proven its merit as literature.

Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, generally liberals, are symbolized as nightingales by Genç, who sees Turkey’s sociocultural fabric as riven by their confrontation with representatives of militarism, industry and politics. On the right, populist strongmen and conservative demagogues assume his metaphor of lions. That dualism is fixed and encircled by multifarious external forces both malign and freeing, such as Turkey’s vulnerability to international terrorism and the compulsion to fight for individual, free expression as a people divided by ethno-religious majoritarianism, mass incarceration, and multigenerational diaspora.

But, as is typical to nations traditionally allied to the global East, liberalism has had a wholly different narrative in Turkey’s political history than that of Western democracies. Briefly, the Republic of Turkey was born out of a nationalist, secular dictatorship, a totalitarian liberalization led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Lion and the Nightingale is an apt reflection on a mirror-like opposition to Western historical convention. The book’s focal point revolves around the rise of Erdoğan and his unprecedented consolidation of presidential power following the 2017 constitutional referendum. In response, nightingales changed their tune, migrated, or fell silent.

“In the eyes of liberal Turks, Erdoğan’s term in office began promisingly,” he wrote, giving ample background to the counterintuitive progression of Erdoğan’s ascent. “Here was a politician critical of Kemalism. He questioned the nationalistic foundations of the Turkish state. He appeared to criticize its patriarchal national identity. This was music to Nightingales’ ears. For a long while, many artists openly or discreetly supported the governing party. Through their art, they interrogated many aspects of the Turkish identity that it undermined. An awkward period ensued. The Turkish art world’s provocative iconoclasts were saying the same things as Turkey’s conservatives.”

But as he later comments, “Their overlapping agenda with the Lions was too good to be true.” The Lion and the Nightingale is also a work of meta-nonfiction. Genç takes the reader on the adventure of his research, explaining how and why he chose to interview certain people, barbers and housemaids as well as cultural and political elites. He empathizes with workers and their struggle to process their disempowerment. He approaches people especially skeptical and unused to voicing broad, societal concerns, and paints a number of intimate psychological portraits. “There is a strong element of fear of the state among Turks,” he wrote.

Adhering to principles of New Journalism, Genç reports in a way similar to Gay Talese, who confidently inked the thoughts of his sources. The reader rides shotgun with Abdulkadir Masharipov before and after his nightmarish shooting in the first hours of 2017. On his way to gunning down 39 people at Reina Nightclub, Genç profiles the terrorist’s exchange with the cab driver in staggering detail. “He felt awkward when the passenger asked if he could use his mobile,” he wrote. “The passenger was talking to someone he called hodja; the driver thought he was getting spiritual advice from an authority.” Reporting the thoughts and feelings of key witnesses makes for a stiff cocktail of literary journalism and crime drama.

Genç delivered a premeditated shock to the system by opening The Lion and the Nightingale with a sobering account of brutality in the heart of Istanbul. Four chapters chronicle each season set to despair, hope, dissent, and silence, in that order. Cingöz, a married man from a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul, has a nightmare and pens an arabesque poem on his morning commute: “I take refuge inside the smoke of my cigarette.” Genç charts the mental and emotional landscape of his people with visual acumen, to reflect the thoughts of the working class and professional artists that he followed and documented, down to their everyday activities, from the Anatolian countryside to the offices of Hong Kong.

With ample tact, reporting on the private lives of citizens is an ethical balancing act that, when effective, clarifies into the roots and ramifications of widespread social ills. It is particularly strategic when writing about the political atmosphere of a country like Turkey, where people are censored and criminalized for expressing themselves freely in public forums. “There was a gap between people’s views and their articulation in public,” wrote Genç. “In an Istanbul coffeehouse I thought how these two issues, the gap between private and public views, and our ability to cut ourselves off from reality, reflected my conflicted view of the state.”

Orhan Pamuk described the private-public gap in personal opinion most memorably for Genç in his 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, as “evidence of the power of the state.” Frequently, he compares Turkey’s stifling political climate with its complex relationship to American foreign policy, and the old European appetite for Orientalist prejudice. “This belief in our freedom to choose a future for Turkey is a very American way of thinking,” he wrote. As a student, Genç cultivated his unique stance within the domestic political spectrum as an internationalist intellectual. He grew up after Turkey’s first democratically elected politician, Adnan Menderes, fell to a military coup in 1960, entangled in U.S. withdrawal and intervention.

“I sensed people silently considered Turkey as a laboratory that could teach them about the future of the United States more than the history of my country,” he wrote. “I found this frustrating. Treating foreign cultures as testing grounds for their own was quintessential Orientalism.” Leftists Turks label advocates of progressive American values, liboş, or “sissy.” Since the media purge following 2016’s failed coup, foreign journalists increasingly claimed local coverage of Turkey in the international press. “I knew I could face the same prospect. Exile. Friends around me moved to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other European capitals.”

As a self-proclaimed nightingale, Genç has been surprised by his reception at home, where, for example, after the publication of his first nonfiction book, Under the Shadow, about popular resistance against the current government during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, the state-owned television station TRT World invited him to interview. He has a sense of humor remembering how mainstream Turkish newspapers reviewed his book positively. At the same time their columnists were rallying for the unjust detainment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who spent more than two years in Europe’s largest maximum-security jail, located just outside Istanbul, for allegedly funding millions of protestors in 2013. (Kavala was acquitted in February only to be rearrested on equally spurious charges linking him to the 2016 failed coup.) Writing in English is a major part of Genc’s self-preservation. The vendetta against Kavala, Genç reported in his new book, is ideological warfare, waged by the lions incriminating nightingales, i.e. the culture sector, as the opposition.

In his recent essay for The Point, published in May, “How to Lose a Language,” adapted from the book How to Lose a Country by exiled Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, he reflected: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.” His English has a clear, distanced perceptivity underscored by his cultural and linguistic objectivity. The Lion and the Nightingale, however, enters deeply into the work of fellow Turkish journalists who write in Turkish, with special empathy for their struggles, personalities, and careers on the other side of a distinctly opaque language barrier.

One endearing nightingale is named Murat Çelikkan, whose quarter-century service to journalism culminated in his incarceration in the wake of the July 2016 failed coup. Working for a mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became a guest editor at Ozgur Gundem, a daily read mostly by Kurdish people. Genç realized he had walked past the paper’s offices at least twice a day for the last five years when he saw a video of the raid that shut the paper down. Çelikkan could often be seen in the bohemian neighborhood, red in the face and roaring with laughter behind his mischievous smile. But by September of 2016, he was learning Kurdish in a cell with four other inmates. It wasn’t the first time he suffered jail time, nor the second.

“In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues,” Genç wrote about Çelikkan. He also depicts a young journalist named Ömer Şan. When San wrote his first poem in his hometown of Rize, along the Black Sea, a far cry from progressive circles in Istanbul, he shared stomping grounds with Ahmet Erdoğan, the father of the Turkish president. The region, Genç explained, is vital to understanding “New Turkey.”

Şan covered environmental protests, bolstering a tradition that inspired 3.5 million people to join the Gezi movement. “I found Şan’s story interesting not only because he spent his life attending May Days, like me, but also because he was a reporter. He had devoted his life to documenting injustices and stories that define life in Turkey,” Genç wrote in solidarity. “Despite censorship and state pressure, Şan remained a muckraker.” It is a stretch to imagine a nightingale raking the muck of concrete-heavy oppression. But when a country becomes a den of lions, a song, the night, and wings are saving graces. Or, as Genç wrote of his visit to the reclusive, prestigious artist Evlent Kutluğ Ataman, “He seemed victorious to be living in a massive house in the middle of nowhere.”

When I Mean I

The conventions of essays being what they are, when I write “I” here, you’ll probably assume that I’m referring to myself. If I want you to think otherwise, it’s up to me to give you some kind of sign.

Maybe you object. Maybe, for example, the whole idea of a self seems like a dangerous and unstable fiction to you. Or maybe you think that the very act of writing distorts the self by forcing it into and through generic and linguistic conventions incompatible with the experience of selfhood as you know it. Fair enough. But I don’t think that would prevent you, in objecting, from writing “Farmer argues….” I’m on the hook for these words and these ideas, and it would be absurd for me to reply that “No, it was the speaker of this essay who said that.” And within the larger conventions of our lives among each other, the ones that entail accountability and obligation, the ones that allow us to meet, to agree or disagree, to act in concert or opposition to each other, to write, to speak, that matters quite a bit. It matters quite a bit to me.

But if, instead, I write
I am referring
to myself
there’s a much greater chance you’ll assume that both “I” and “myself” refer to someone else, someone fictional. Even if you don’t assume that, if you’re sufficiently familiar with the conventions of talking about poems, you’ll probably speak as if you do, referring to me as “the speaker.” In fact, given how we’ve been taught to talk and think about poems, those lines have an irony I can’t write out of them, no matter what I add or how I revise them—unless, that is, I put them back in prose.

This seems like a problem. Or: This seems like a problem to me.

I think we’ve done what we often do: we’ve taken a true statement—“in some poems, the person speaking is not the author”[1]—and turned it into a shortcut, without even realizing that we’re doing so. And by now we’ve taken the shortcut so many times we don’t even notice that it sometimes leads us astray.

Here’s a true story: A man wrote and published a book-length sequence of poems in which the speaker describes the death of someone dear to him. He—the author—gave a reading from the book, and afterwards, during a Q&A, someone in the audience offered condolences for his loss, and so the author had to explain, awkwardly, that he had experienced no such loss. Afterwards, someone wrote an essay about this, explaining, based on this moment and others, how important it was that we not confuse author and speaker. Look, the essayist said, where that can lead.

Fair enough. But I imagine another reading, this one by someone who had, in fact, lost their beloved and published a sequence of poems about it. And I think about how strange it would be to preclude such awareness, to offer no fellow feeling there. I imagine referring to the author, standing in front of us, maybe still lit up with grief, as “the speaker.” And I can’t help thinking how strange it is to pretend, while we ask questions about the poems, that we are unaware of the actual grief, the actual person who died.

Here’s another true story: A small child was kidnapped. The white parents of his white mother took him from his black father when he was old enough to retain some ghostly memories of his father, but nothing precise. His white grandfather, a white supremacist, raised him to believe he was white and often abused him, presumably outraged at least in part by the blackness he (the grandfather) could not acknowledge and no one, including the child, could altogether avoid noticing. That child grew up to be an extraordinary poet, writing lines like these about his experience:
Growing up black white trash you grow up wondering you
are raised
Wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to
Deserve your skin     / You grow up wondering you / You
grow up standing Lord outside       yourself and sometimes it’s not bad           / You ride
your in your body bike
but no    matter how hard you pedal how
Steep Lord the hill you dive down head first almost falling like you’re falling down
You stand
Outside yourself stand still
Like how it seemed when you were younger      Lord like the world moved beneath
The wheels of the car and car didn’t move
Growing up raised by white
supremacists     / You grow up skinned / You make
a puppet of your skin
These lines, by and (I believe) about the poet Shane McCrae, seem masterful to me, but one potential meaning of their mastery depends on the admission that this is a real person talking about what happened to him. These lines, like many in McCrae’s poems, not only embody pain and confusion, they enact the human ability to use language, convention, shared experience, and imagination to channel the currents that can elsewhere cut us off from others. They involve the worst of life in meaning, and in that way they hold open a hope for continuance, if not for healing. They are at once an image of breathtaking human cruelty and a proof of human beauty. If this were only imagination, it would still be masterful, but it wouldn’t mean that—not exactly, not quite.

It matters, similarly, to know that Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is about Robert Lowell—the same real person I have also encountered in many other Lowell poems—even as I know that the scene described here is partly fictionalized (partly borrowed, in fact from a story about Walt Whitman) and that the lines also borrow from and allude to John of the Cross, John Milton, the blues song “Careless Love,” and, more broadly, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” whose form they follow:
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—
In one valence, these lines are an inverse of McCrae’s. Instead of gathering speed, they drift away, apparently unmoored. In the span of just eight lines, Lowell trails off four times. You can hear an awareness of his own excesses and register the work that his mind must do to avoid his mind’s accelerations and distortions (alongside, perhaps, the gaps written into his mind by the medication that allowed him to recover from the breakdown the poem describes). It’s worth noting that Lowell did not, in fact, write this in the present tense of the poem. But as with his slightly falsified version of events, that does not undo the importance of the person speaking here being the person writing here, being the person who lived through, more or less, these things.

Here, too, the poem feels masterful. And here, too, the mastery becomes an emblem of our ability to live meaningfully in spite of circumstances that threaten meaning—so much so that those threats become a fundamental element of their meaning, like the high bar that proves the pole vaulter’s achievement. If the person writing here has not survived the breakdown of his mind, it matters less that his mind can orchestrate these lines so artfully.

I wonder sometimes, thinking about that book of poems describing the death of someone loved, why, if the author didn’t want anyone to think that the speaker was him—that the beloved was his—he didn’t do anything to keep that from happening. He could, for instance, have given it a subtitle like “A Novel in Verse” or “A Poetic Fiction,”[2] or he could have made the speaker female or in some other way signaled the separation between the two.[3] He could even have done what John Berryman did when he got tired of people equating him with the speaker of The Dream Songs, and included a note at the front saying, in essence, this isn’t me.[4] One plausible answer is that the separation of speaker and poet is so doctrinal that he saw no need. Another is that he valued the heightened immediacy of the lost beloved, the way a lingering suspicion of her reality shortened the distance his poems must travel to make her real (which is one of the challenges most fictions have to overcome).

If so, that’s fine. Writers have been playing with these lines (and drawing an added charge from their live currents) for a long time. Philip Roth, as just one example, has written fiction about a character named “Philip Roth.” Purity is not the point, which is probably good, since I doubt purity is possible. Even in our greatest intimacies, we are always mediated, multiple, compromised. Even when reading a memoir, most of us recognize a distance between the artistic representation and the original events. And yet many of us choose to read memoirs, biographies, and histories, not to mention newspapers and nonfiction articles in magazines, in spite of the artistic potentials all of those genres and media can impede. We do so, I believe, because we believe in reality (a reality that, of course, includes fiction, that is full of novels and movies and poems and plays with a nearly infinite variety of relationships to reality; and that is only partly knowable, always mediated by the limitations and beauty of our minds and bodies). And because we believe in the importance of not only real events but real people. And we would like to meet them. And we would like to be heard, and understood, by them as well.

There’s a risk in assuming that the speaker is the poet. When I first reviewed Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I hadn’t read anything about it, and I assumed that the stories she told about “you” all referred to her. I was wrong—factually, demonstrably, wrong. Rankine gathered those stories from others and stitched them together through stylistic consistency and a standardized mode of address. It bothers me to have gotten it wrong, and to have done so so publicly, at that. Looking back at the book, I think I should have been able to figure it out just by paying closer attention, and I feel a lingering queasiness that my visible foolishness also means that I misrepresented the experiences of real people—including Rankine—in print. But that matters for the same reason that I think it matters when we fail to see the reality, however mediated or complicated, of an actual person speaking to us through a poem.

As in the other places where we sometimes encounter real people—parks, offices, bedrooms, streets—we will sometimes misunderstand them in poems. Humility matters. We should be wary of too much presumption. We should listen carefully, judge slowly, take care. We should not, however, make the unknowability of others into the sole or primary thing we know about them. And we should not let the risk of making a mistake narrow our sense of possibility or starve us in our hunger for people who are real. We should listen carefully enough to hear a poem when it tries to tell us that the person speaking to us exists.

[1] And maybe this one, too: “In some poems, poets present fictionalized versions of themselves and their experience.”

[2] Working in the other direction, poets seem to be adopting a fashion for including the phrase “self-portrait” in the title of a poem, but more often than not, those poems tend to play with the idea of selfhood, displacing self-conception into other objects or beings.

[3] McCrae, who frequently writes poems about both historical figures and fictional characters has no shortage of means for signaling those differences, even as he filters their imagined (and sometimes actual) speech through his distinctive rhythms and patterning.

[4] Berryman’s note—which begins “It is idle to reply to critics, but some of the people who addressed themselves to the 77 Dream Songs went so desperately astray (one apologized about it in print, but who ever sees apologies?) that I permit myself one word”—always amuses me, because even if the speaker isn’t him, it’s clearly not not him, either. He’s mythologizing himself there, and so his protestations never quite ring true. He’s putting on a John Berryman mask and then complaining that people call him John. The differences between the face and the mask matter, but they don’t do away with the similarities, as he undoubtedly knew.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Khakpour, Sittenfeld, Zambreno, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Porochista Khakpour, Curtis Sittenfeld, Kate Zambreno, Stephanie Danler, and more—that are publishing this week.

Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Brown Album: “In this wonderful essay collection, novelist Khakpour (The Last Illusion) passionately and wittily explores the writing life and the Iranian-American experience. Not surprisingly, political concerns abound; Khakpour recalls, early in the Trump presidency, hearing of deportations in her majority-Muslim apartment building and encountering rumors that naturalized citizens such as herself—her family left Iran soon after the revolution—would be targeted. She threads memoir throughout, touching on her family life and on her years as ‘he only Iranian not only in my grade but in the whole elementary school, middle school, and high school.’ In recounting the writing of her first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, Khakpour offers a revealing set of reflections on the travails and joys of being a writer, as she finishes the manuscript and submits it to the publisher, hits assorted prepublication snags, and embarks on the reading and book festival circuit. She also shares the pitfalls of being known as an Iranian-American writer, or, due to her novel’s themes, a ‘9/11 author.’ Lovers of the essay and those interested in immigrant literature will be particularly delighted, but any reader can enjoy Khakpour’s passionate and enlightening work.”

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Rodham: “In this entertaining political fantasy, Sittenfeld (Eligible) imagines Hillary Clinton’s personal and professional life if she and Bill had gone their separate ways instead of marrying. The novel begins with an intimate perspective on historical events: At Wellesley’s 1969 graduation, Hillary feels the exhilaration of speaking her mind in public. Two years later, she meets Bill at Yale Law School. He is handsome, larger than life, proud of his Arkansas roots. She is ambitious, smart, hardworking, and opinionated. They fall in love and discuss marriage, but break up because of Bill’s philandering. Bill runs for president in 1992 but drops out of the race. Hillary, meanwhile, is a year into her first term as senator from Illinois. When she runs for president, in 2016, Bill is one of three primary challengers. Scenes with cameos from Donald Trump prove livelier than familiar elements like Hillary’s chocolate chip cookies, which she brings to a Yale potluck. Still, Sittenfeld movingly captures Hillary’s awareness of her transformation into a complicated public figure (‘The feeling was in the collapse, the simultaneity, of how I seemed to others and who I really was’) Readers won’t have to be feminists (though it would help) to relish Sittenfeld’s often funny, mostly sympathetic, and always sharp what-if.”

Drifts by Kate Zambreno

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Drifts: “Zambreno’s immersive, exciting experiment in autofiction (after Book of Mutter) features a writer setting out to write a book called Drifts. The narrator, beholden to a contract, describes herself ‘filled with an incandescence toward the possibility of a book.’ She meditates on the life of Rilke, reads Wittgenstein, and, in photo-studded accounts of walks around New York, patterns her work after those of Robert Walser and W.G. Sebald. But mostly, the narrator describes her time spent not writing: she cares for her dog, Genet; makes notes while on walks; emails her friends; and procrastinates by surfing the internet. Thus, Zambreno offers an enticing chronicle of how a book might actually be written—dramatizing how a writer’s work affects her life, and vice versa—filled with small moments of magic (‘Today, after writing about my lost raccoon cat, I spy her’). After the narrator discovers she is pregnant, she turns toward developing a portrait of a writer contending with her own body. Zambreno succeeds at capturing her narrator’s experience of time and the unavoidable transformations it brings. The result is a captivating deconstruction of the writer’s process that will reward readers in search for meaning.”

Stray by Stephanie Danler

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Stray: “Novelist Danler (Sweetbitter) returns to her hometown of Los Angeles and comes to a reckoning in this forceful, eviscerating memoir. Her three-part narrative—Mother, Father, Monster—creates a domino effect of abandonment and humiliation as those she loves topple her. ‘People often act against common sense when they’ve fallen in love with a fantasy,’ she writes, describing both the tumbledown Laurel Canyon cottage she rents with the advance on her first novel and her disillusionment with her parents and the married lover she calls the Monster. Danler, writing in precise, elegant prose, outlines her family’s disintegration: her father left his wife, Danler, and her sister as young girls; her mother worked and raised the children as she slid into alcoholism and began to physically abuse her daughters. Sent to live with her disinterested father in Colorado, Danler quickly realized ‘he couldn’t love anyone’ yet ‘was charmed by his cruelty.’ Self-destructive relationships followed, including the unavailable Monster, ‘a colonizer… who declares ownership without concrete investment in the country.’ As the publication date of her debut novel drew near, a friend’s comment—’You fought so hard for this life and now you won’t let yourself have it’—propelled her to sever connections with all three and instead establish ‘tiny building blocks of trust’ in loving, enduring relationships. The result is a penetrating and unforgettable tale of family dysfunction.”

Here We Are by Benjamin Taylor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Here We Are: “Taylor (The Hue and Cry at Our House) begins his loving ‘partial portrait’ of his best friend and ‘chosen parent,’ author Philip Roth, in 2018, when the ailing literary lion, nearing death, comforts Taylor: ‘I have been to see the great enemy, and walked around him, and talked to him, and he is not to be feared. I promise.’ He meditates on Roth’s virtues and vulnerabilities: he had ‘insatiable emotional appetites… he seethed with loathing or desire,’ Taylor writes. He was passionate about his beloved hometown of Newark, N.J., which he ‘endlessly rediscovered through [his] alchemical imagination.’ One of Roth’s more curious vulnerabilities, Taylor notes, was that, though hailed as a great sexual libertine of 20th-century literature, Roth was plagued by fears of disapproval ‘as acutely as any itch in the loins.’ His irritants included bitterness about not winning a Nobel Prize, and disliking George Plimpton’s ‘supreme self-assurance.’ Taylor weaves many of the pair’s lighter moments throughout, including their ritual Sunday night Chinese dinners and their spirited movie nights (Taylor preferred Hollywood classics; Roth was a Kirosawa and Fellini fan). ‘I’m not who I’d have been without him,’ he concludes. This tender-hearted and eloquent paean to long-term friendships will hold special appeal among Roth fans.”

Also on shelves: Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ford, Millet, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Richard Ford, Lydia Millet, Tracy O’Neill, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sorry for Your Trouble: “Pulitzer-winner Ford’s middling collection (after Let Me Be Frank with You) showcases men experiencing glimmers of epiphanies amid the process of mourning. In ‘The Run of Yourself,’ a lawyer from New Orleans lives a quiet existence in Maine after his wife’s untimely death, and a chance meeting in a bar with a younger woman leads to a platonic sleepover and an eye-opening morning walk on the beach. In ‘Second Language,’ Jonathan, a widower who made his millions in Texas oil, begins a new life in New York City with a shaky marriage. After his new wife’s mother dies, Jonathan comforts her while realizing they will never really understand each other. In the standout story, ‘Displaced,’ 16-year-old Henry reels from his father’s death and lives in a rooming house with his mother in Jackson, Miss. Henry befriends Niall, an Irish-American teenager; after they get drunk, Henry lets Niall kiss him, and though he’s open to being comforted, he’s unwilling to explore a sexual relationship. Ford’s unrelenting exploration of life’s bleakness and sadness makes these stories enervating, particularly compared to his previous work, though his clear, nuanced prose continues to impress. Ford is a supremely gifted writer, but he’s not at his best here.”

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Children’s Bible: “Millet follows up Sweet Lamb of Heaven with a lean, ironic allegory of climate change and biblical comeuppance. A group of friends, successful ‘artsy and educated types,’ plan an ‘offensively long reunion’ at a summer house ‘built by robber barons in the 19th century,’ somewhere on the East Coast. They bring along their children, ranging in age from prepubescent to 17, who devise inventive ways to ignore them. With the young teenage narrator, Evie, Millet perfectly captures the blend of indifference and scorn with which the teenagers view their boozy parents, emblematic of humanity’s dithering in the face of environmental catastrophe: ‘They didn’t do well with long-term warnings. Even medium-term.’ After a massive storm interrupts the summer idyll and brings looting and riots to New York and Boston, the parents lose themselves to booze and cocaine and the children flee with a menagerie of rescued animals, seeking refuge at a farmhouse. This lurid section, in which they are besieged by armed raiders searching for food, is shaky, and allusions to biblical tales such as Noah’s Ark and the Ten Commandments feel facile, but the novel regains its footing once parents and children reunite, with the children calling the shots. Millet’s look at intergenerational strife falls short of her best work.”

Quotients by Tracy O’Neill

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Quotients: “O’Neill’s esoteric follow-up to The Hopeful centers on the deceit-filled relationship between Alexandra Chen, an American woman, and Jeremy Jordan, an Englishman, who meet and begin dating in London in May 2005. Alex works in international public relations (‘She had practiced how to sell a country on her selling their country’), while Jeremy, a hedge fund analyst, tries to keep his past as a British intelligence officer stationed in Belfast during the Troubles a secret from Alex. Alex has troubles of her own—her brother, Shel, ran away at 13, and she’s been looking for him ever since. After Alex accepts an advertising job in New York City that December, Jeremy follows her and they get married. O’Neill’s narrative is tinged with commentary on the rise of digital and social media, which drives a wedge between screen-obsessed Alex and analog Jeremy. Then, in 2008, a journalist friend of Alex’s does his own digging on Shel and raises alarms from Jeremy’s old intelligence contacts after the story unearths NSA secrets. As the details of the couple’s pasts come to light, their marriage is put in jeopardy. O’Neill’s oblique, sometimes opaque prose wears on the reader, though it also offers flashes of insight on the characters’ frequent incomprehension of one another. This would-be techno thriller takes on a bit too much.”

Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Book of the Little Axe: “Francis-Sharma (’Til the Well Runs Dry) delivers a satisfying and perceptive transnational family saga. In 1830 Montana, Victor Rose struggles to complete an Apsaalooke vision quest, while his best friend, Like-Wind, passes through their tribe’s initiation rite. Victor and his mother, Rosa Rendon, flee after Victor witnesses the drowning death of a young woman who’d spurned him for Like-Wind, to avoid potential suspicion. While traveling, Victor discovers the journal of Creadon Rampley, a hardworking young wanderer from the States seeking gold in Trinidad, in Rosa’s belongings. Here, the narrative flashes back to Rosa’s childhood in Trinidad as the daughter of a prosperous free black farmer and blacksmith. When the British seize control of the colony and attempt to edge out all non-European landowners, Rosa’s father takes desperate measures to keep the land, eventually settling on marrying Rosa’s sister Eve to Creadon. Back on the trail, Victor and Rosa run into trouble on their way to Kullyspell territory. Like-Wind, having reluctantly led two Frenchmen to Victor and Rosa, is killed by one of the Frenchmen during a fight with them as Victor defends Rosa from their sexual assault. Creadon’s writings and Rosa’s memories disclose a cascade of family secrets that explains how Rose and Creadon ended up in North America. In this masterly epic, the pleasure lies in piecing everything together.”

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Anthill: “At the start of Pachico’s uneven sophomore effort (after The Lucky Ones), 28-year-old half-Colombian and half-British Maria ‘Lina’ Carolina returns to her birthplace of Medellín, Colombia, for the first time in 20 years. Anxious and aimless, she has left behind a foundering academic career in England to volunteer at The Anthill, a school founded by Mattías (‘Matty’), whom Lina’s mother had raised with Lina in Colombia. After a disarming initial reunion with Matty, who is scarred and embittered by his experiences in the city when it was more dangerous (‘You won’t be able to recognise who was once a guerilla or who was once a paramilitary,’ he tells her), Lina makes friends with the school’s other volunteers and grows close to the children. However, as Matty tells the other volunteers a different version of his childhood story from the one Lina remembers, Lina is disturbed by the children’s sightings of a strange, dirty boy who vanishes whenever Lina turns to look at him. While plot inconsistencies, underdeveloped characters, and awkward second-person narration lessen the narrative’s emotional impact, Pachico navigates issues of class, war, and violence with intelligence and grace. This lopsided tale falls somewhere between literary fiction and commercial mystery without quite finding its footing.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You
Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada
Recession Reading: Independence Day by Richard Ford
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford: A Review
A Year in Reading 2014: Lydia Millet
A Year in Reading 2012: Lydia Millet
A Year in Reading 2007: Lydia Millet

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring McBride, Beha, Straub, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Eimear McBride, Samanta Schweblin, Chris Beha, Emma Straub, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Strange Hotel: “McBride (A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing) delivers a globe-spanning travelogue set entirely in hotel rooms in this beguiling work. Lists of cities section off the narrative; in those flagged by an x, the protagonist, an unnamed itinerant woman, has experienced a tryst. Rather than chronologically plot these encounters, McBride presents them as a runaway train of the woman’s solipsistic thought as to their significance, leaving her at odds to draw conclusions. After rebuffing one man’s advances, she returns to her room and falls asleep watching loud TV porn. Sex with one man pushes her into suicidal contemplation; sex with another cheers her enough to consider joining him for breakfast the following morning (she doesn’t). In the final scene, McBride switches from third- to first-person narration, at which point the narrator reflects on how her past choices have ‘absented’ her from herself. The linguistic prowess found in McBride’s other books remains present, with the bravado slightly dialed down for emotional effect. McBride’s nebulous formalist structure could be described as a long prose poem masquerading as a novel. As a narrative, though, it is a half-formed thing.”

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Eyes: “Schweblin (Fever Dream) unfurls an eerie, uncanny story of Furby-like robots that roll around and make animal sounds, connecting people throughout the world in unsettling ways. The dolls, called kentuki, are equipped with cameras and separate controllers, and their ownership is split between ‘keepers’ and ‘dwellers.’ The keeper purchases a doll, while the dweller buys its controller and watches through the kentuki’s camera via the internet. Schweblin catapults through a dizzying array of vignettes. Marvin, a boy in Antigua, secretly buys a kentuki ‘dweller’ controller using his mother’s savings. In South Bend, Ind., Robin and two of her friends conduct cam shows with their kentuki before the dweller begins spelling out increasingly alarming and sexual demands on the girls’ Ouija board. Emilia, a lonely woman in Lima, quickly takes on the dweller role with Eva, a woman in Germany, who buys dog toys and other pet distractions for Emilia to play with via the kentuki. Daring, bold, and devious, the idea fascinates despite the underdeveloped narrative, and the disparate vignettes fail to build toward a satisfying conclusion. Schweblin’s take on the erosion of privacy and new forms of digital connection yields an ingenious concept, but the sum is less than its parts.”

The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Narcissism of Small Differences: “Zadoorian (The Leisure Seeker) serves up a wry, unflinching tale of an underachieving couple in midlife crisis mode as the recession grips the industrial Midwest. Joe and Ana live in Ferndale, Mich., a mile outside Detroit, where they’ve been shacked up (but not married) for 15 years. Joe’s a freelance journalist just getting by, while Ana, once an aspiring documentary filmmaker, works in advertising and has become the breadwinner. Despite their cramped living quarters, they live in separate spheres. While Ana befriends and fantasizes over a coworker, Joe stays out late drinking and, while home, develops a heavy porn habit. After Ana catches Joe at the screen, she expresses doubts about their relationship and ongoing living situation. Things don’t get any easier at work. Ana questions how far she’s willing to stray from her progressive values to serve a Christian client, and Joe is reduced to a ‘telemarketing Willie Loman,’ selling ads for a newspaper. Zadoorian’s comedy of contemporary manners resonates by virtue of its introspective characters and depictions of the small moments in life that, taken together, have great significance. Piquantly titled chapters (‘Out Come the Freaks’) provide additional comic snap. Zadoorian’s subtle, timely story hits the mark.”

The Book of V.​ by ​Anna Solomon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Book of V: “Solomon (Leaving Lucy Pear) models this clever, heartfelt triptych on The Hours, weaving a retelling of the biblical story of Esther with the linked stories of a senator’s wife and a Brooklyn mom. In the ancient Persian town of Susa, new king Ahasuerus banishes his wife, Vashti, after she refuses to strip for Ahasuerus’s friends. At a house party in 1970s Washington, D.C., Vee Kent’s husband, Sen. Alexander Kent, makes the same lewd request Ahasuerus made to Vashti. Vee refuses, and is sent packing by Alexander’s chief of staff. Vee takes refuge with her best friend, Rosemary, who’s converting to Judaism in solidarity with her husband. In 2016 Brooklyn, Lily is getting her kids ready for Purim when she learns that her mother, Ruth, has been diagnosed with cancer. Later, Lily connects with one of Ruth’s old friends, who shares surprising details about her mother’s identity and past experience. Solomon connects these stories in a way that’s fresh and tantalizing, with fascinating intergenerational discussions about desire, duty, family, and feminism, as well as a surprising, completely believable twist. This frank, revisionist romp through a Bible tale is a winner.”

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shiner: “In Burns’s layered, evocative debut novel (after the memoir Cinderland), trauma and hope pass from mother to daughter in a West Virginia family. Wren Bird is the 15-year-old daughter of a one-eyed snake-handling preacher, Briar Bird, and his wife, Ruby Day. Superstitious, charismatic, and devoted to a wife who openly despises him, Briar forces his family to live isolated in the mountains, resulting in few chances for Ruby and Wren to interact with the people of Trap, the nearest town. Their only regular visitor is Ruby’s childhood best friend, Ivy, whose deep connection with Ruby led her to settle with her family nearby. ‘It started with a burn,’ begins the novel—Ivy visits Ruby and Wren one fateful day, and her dress and hair catch on fire. Briar heals her, with nary a scar, but when she starts calling Briar ‘White Eye,’ Ruby and Wren question what happened to Ivy. As Wren contends with the ramifications of her father’s ‘miracle,’ she also begins to uncover the history behind his faith. Though the recursive structure stutters toward big reveals, making it difficult for readers to fully connect with any of the characters, Burns beautifully renders the isolated Appalachian landscape and the urgent desperation of her characters. Burns’s stunning prose is reason enough to keep an eye out for this promising writer’s next effort.”

Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Index of Self-Destructive Acts: “In this gripping family saga, Beha (The Whole Five Feet) sets a cast of New Yorkers on a path to ruin during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Sam Waxworth is a data journalist who has become famous for the program he designed that accurately predicted much of the 2008 election results, including Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency. As a result, he is offered a plum job at Interviewer magazine in New York and leaves his wife in Wisconsin, where she is finishing her last year of special education study. After his first articles for the publication go viral, he’s assigned to write a profile of Frank Doyle, a disgraced, left-wing–turned–right-wing political opinion writer. As Sam conducts his reporting, he becomes enmeshed with the Doyle family. Kit, Frank’s wife, is reeling from the collapse of her private investment bank. Eddie, their son and an Army veteran, suffers from PTSD after having served in Iraq. And Sam starts up a romantic relationship with 23-year-old Margo, Eddie’s sister and an aspiring academic, just as his wife decides to pay Sam a visit from Wisconsin. Filled with stunning acts of hubris and betrayal, Beha’s deliciously downbeat novel picks apart the zeitgeist, revealing a culture of schemers and charlatans. This cutting send-up of New York progressive elitism should do much to expand Beha’s audience.”

All Adults Here​ by ​Emma Straub

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All Adults Here: “In Straub’s witty, topical fourth novel (after Modern Lovers), members of a Hudson Valley family come to terms with adolescence, aging, sexuality, and gender. After 68-year-old widow Astrid Strick witnesses an acquaintance get struck and killed by a bus in the center of Clapham, N.Y., she feels compelled to come clean with her children about her new relationship with Birdie, the local hairdresser, before it’s too late (‘there were always more school buses,’ she reasons). Astrid’s kids have their own issues to contend with. Thirty-seven-year-old Porter, pregnant via a ‘stud farm’ (aka a sperm bank), is having an affair with her old high school boyfriend, while Elliott, the oldest, is preoccupied with a hush-hush business proposal. Nicky, the youngest, and his wife have shipped their only child, 13-year-old Cecilia, up to live with Astrid after a messy incident at her Brooklyn school involving online pedophilia. Despite Cecilia’s fear of not fitting in, she finds friendship with a boy who longs to be recognized as a girl but isn’t ready to come out as trans. As per usual, Straub’s writing is heartfelt and earnest, without tipping over the edge. There are a lot of issues at play here (abortion, bullying, IVF, gender identity, sexual predators) that Straub easily juggles, and her strong and flawed characters carry the day. This affecting family saga packs plenty of punch.”

Also on shelves: Officer Clemmons by François S. Clemmons.

On Isolation and Literature

“The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

In a field between Sharpsburg, Md., and Antietam Creek in the fall of 1862, more than 21,000 men would die in a single day. In a photograph taken by Matthew Brady of the battle’s aftermath, which in the south is named after Sharpsburg and in the north is referred to by Antietam, there is a strewing of bodies in front of the Dunker Church maintained by a sect of Pennsylvania Dutch Baptists. In their repose, the men no longer have any concerns; in the photograph it’s difficult to tell who wears blue and who wears grey, for death has never been prejudiced. Americans had never experienced such destruction before, such death, such a rupture from what they had defined previously as normal. If Americans had been cursed with their own erroneous sense of exceptionality in the decades before the Civil War, believing that suffering was something that only foreigners were susceptible to, then that carnage temporally availed them of their self-superiority. Drew Gilpin Faust writes in This Republic of Death: Suffering and the American Civil War that the “impact and meaning of the war’s death toll went beyond the sheer numbers. Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.”

The United States was unprepared for the extremity of this thing—22,717 young men dead in a day—with almost a million perishing by its end. Faust writes that “Americans of the immediate prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first-century counterparts,” though if the state of exception demonstrated by the war proves anything, it’s that nobody should be so sanguine concerning his privileges. One survivor of Antietam, a member of the Massachusetts 15th named Roland Bowen, castigated a friend who wanted ghoulish details of the battle. He writes in a letter that such images “will do you no good and that you will be more mortified after the facts are told than you are now.” Such suffering couldn’t be circumscribed by something as insignificant as mere words, nor was it the task of Bowen to supply such texture in fulfilling his friend’s prurient fascination. The task of putting words to this horror belonged to somebody with no allegiance to anything as crass as the literal, and paradoxically it wouldn’t come from somebody who was actually witness to the horrors. A year before Antietam’s blood-letting, and a 31-year-old woman sequestered in a 970-square-foot room in a yellow wooden house in Amherst, Mass., would presciently write on the back of an envelope that “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,/And mourners to and fro/Kept treading – treading – till it seemed/That Sense was breaking through.”

Emily Dickinson is American literature’s most significant recluse. She is our hermit, our anchorite, our holy isolate. Despite Dickinson’s self-imposed solitude, first limiting herself to Amherst, then her family’s house, and finally, finally living only in her own bedroom where she would speak to visitors from the half-opened door, her poetry is the greatest literary engagement with the trauma of the war. She was a spiritual seismograph, transcribing and interpreting the vibrations that she detected through the land itself, and though she never saw the battlefields at Antietam or Gettysburg, never even leaving Massachusetts, her 1,789 short lyrics are the fullest encapsulation of that event, even while it’s never specifically mentioned—though lines like “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” evidence her mood.

Only a handful of her poems were published in Dickinson’s own lifetime, normally anonymously, with a notable example being a few lyrics included in the 1864 anthology Drum Beats whose proceeds went to Union veterans. The war’s apparent absence from her poetry is incongruously proof of its presence, for as Susan Howe writes in My Emily Dickinson, the “Civil War broke something loose in her own divided nature.” Other figures like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville produced brilliant poetry about the war as well, but the absence of explicit language about battle-field deaths in Dickinson’s verse is a demonstration of Bowen’s warning that mere reportage “will do you no good.” She isolates not only herself, but the meaning of her poems, from the brutal reality of that American apocalypse—such isolation mimics the brutality of the event all the more completely. “I have an appetite for silence,” she wrote, for “silence is infinity.”

Within the cocoon of that silence, Dickinson made herself a conduit for the blood-sacrifice then taking place; despite being in solitude, she was not solitary; despite being isolated, she was not an isolate. There are two ways of producing literature; from her multitudinous contemporary Whitman there was the gospel of extroversion, the smithy of the crowd whereby the throngs are the source of his energy and the “sidewalks are littered with postcards from God.” His engagement with the war was visceral, forged in Washington D.C.’s hospitals where he tended to the injured. Dickinson’s poetry of seclusion was more abstract, but no less pertinent, and from her introversion a different variety of poetry could be produced. Dickinson is too often reduced to mere recluse, she is transformed into a crank sequestered in an attic, but she was actually a brilliant performance artist for whom the process was as integral as the product. Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor writes in The Art of Solitude that there is more to that state “than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art…When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Dickinson’s isolation wasn’t just how she crafted her verse, in some sense it was her verse.

“Interiority” is one of those literary critical jargon terms that is overly maligned, for it expresses something useful about this quality of consciousness we share, a term for the many mansions in our head. There is a breadth and width to the human experience—and the experience of the human experience (if I’m to be meta)—that only “interiority” can really convey. Douglas Hofstadter writes in I Am a Strange Loop that “what we call ‘consciousness’ was a kind of mirage…a very peculiar kind of mirage…Since it was a mirage that perceived itself…It was almost as if this slippery phenomenon called ‘consciousness’ lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing.” Such an ex nihilo self-creation can only take place alone, of course. And in her solitude, Dickinson, like all hermits, made the very substance of her thoughts a living work.

Some people, perhaps most people, live their life on the outside, all thoughts conveyed in a running monologue to the world. But the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. Such is the idealism of Dickinson when she claims that “To make a prairie…The revery alone will do.” Isolation is the hard kernel of literature. Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing, traceable back to our inherited numinous sense and the thread of expression that intimates works hidden, all that we shall never read but that nonetheless radiate outward into the world with beauty.

A history of isolation is a history of literature, albeit a secret one. Historically we’ve valorized men of action, but it’s people of seclusion who just as easily move the Earth. Think of Christ’s Lenten vigil in the Negev, the way in which Satan tempted him and the Son of God so easily resisted, the Lord kept company only by silence and perdition. Isolation is a counternarrative of human existence; for every vainglorious general like Alexander the Great conquering until the ends of the Earth, there is the philosopher Diogenes living naked in an Athenian pot and imploring the former to get out of his sunlight. Emperor Qin Shi Huang can be answered by the sage Lao-Tzu riding off by himself unto the west, and every bishop and pope can be matched by the Desert Fathers and anchorites. For every Andrew Carnegie, there should be a Henry David Thoreau in his Walden cabin. Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied).

In fiction, there are the recluses damaged by their toxic loneliness: think of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in her filthy, tattered wedding dress sadistically toying with Pip and Estella, or of the psychically diseased anonymous narrator in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground who can intone that “To be acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest-to-goodness disease.” For all of the sociopathic recluses, biding their time under floorboards and going mad in attics, there are also positive depictions of isolation. Daniel Defoe’s titular character in Robinson Crusoe, ship-wrecked upon a desert isle and thus forced to recreate civilization anew, has often been understood as a representative citizen of hard-working, sober, industrious modernity, whereby “We never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.” Something similar in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, when writing of the isolation of the Alaskan wild he could declare that there is an “ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such a paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” Isolation, however, is far more than a subject authors describe now and then.

Few religious traditions are lacking in the hermitage or the monastery, at least in some form. Among the ecstatic Hasidism there are stories of rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov who lived at least part of his life as a hermit, and according to tradition, the second-century founder of Kabbalah Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai resided in a cave for 12 years as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, exploring mystical secrets. When he could finally leave, bar Yochai’s focus was so intense that he was able to smite people with his eyes. Christianity potentially adopted monasticism from the esoteric first-century Jewish group the Essenes, and from the Desert Fathers onward, men who lived their lives sitting atop tall columns or who would meditate among the sands of Sinai, would develop a full-fledged system of religious seclusion. The wages of silence have defined the life of figures as varied as the nun and sacred composer Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century to the Trappist monk and activist Thomas Merton in the 20th For Merton, to be silent was to be radical; in Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation, he explains that his vows are “saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus.” Hermits are replete in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, as much as in Judaism and Christianity. To be a hermit, to make sister or brother with your own isolation, is to commit a profound act of courage. To have no company other than yourself can be dangerous. As the 12th-century Sufi Muslim hermit Al-Ghazali said, “I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged every abyss.” What’s brought back from the emptiness at the beating heart of every ego is something ineffable, and only privy to those willing to look for it.

BBC reporter Peter France asks in Hermits: The Insights of Solitude if it is “possible that solitude confers insights not available to society? Could it be that the human condition, even the ways we’re related to each other, is better understood by those who have opted out of relationships?” Certainly there has long been a religious tradition of answering that question in the affirmative; a literary one as well if we think of authors like Dickinson and Thoreau as psychological astronauts who returned from inner space with observations not accessible to those of us enmeshed in the cacophonous din of everyday social interaction. In a more modern sense, imagine the singular focus, the elemental personality, the bare simplicity of Christopher Thomas Knight’s life. From 1986 until 2013, the North Pond Hermit of Maine’s Belgrade Lake’s pushed the stolid and taciturn New England personality to extremes, living alone on campgrounds and surviving from pilfered supplies and burglarized cabins, while only once speaking the single word “Hi” to a hiker sometime in the ‘90s.

When finally apprehended by local police, the harmless eccentric supposedly told the officers that he thought Thoreau had been a “dilletante.” A voracious reader, Knight had consumed Walden and thousands of other books, often on the subject of solitude, and if he found Thoreau lacking, he saw great value in other works. Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and of course the collected poetry of Dickinson were all held in high esteem by the hermit. Journalist Michael Finkel recounts his conversations with Knight in The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, whereby the dedicated Mainer claims that “solitude bestows an increase in something valuable…my perception. But…when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for.” Stripped of all of the socially constructed, arbitrary, imposed, and chosen definitions of the self, Knight had become a singular consciousness, an aggregate of experience divorced from the humdrum job of applying meaning, significance, or gloss to the fact that things happen one after the other. “To put it romantically,” he said, “I was completely free.” Knight had become, in a manner, God.

Nomads as these are cracked, their extremity such that they dance on the precipice of either saintliness or madness. When journeying to the center of one’s own mind, care must be taken not to lose it. Knight was able to return relatively unscathed from both the chill New England forests and from the solitary experience of only having himself for company for almost three decades, but he is in some sense lucky as regards extreme hermits. For example, there’s Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild, who followed Jack London dreams into the Alaskan brush, where the aspiring naturalist’s decomposing corpse would be discovered next to his extensive diaries in a broken-down bus that he’d been living in. Krakauer writes about how for McCandless, to hike alone was to “constantly feel the abyss at your back,” where the “siren song of the void puts you on edge,” yet as with Knight, a type of elemental solitariness emerges as well.

For McCandless, existence could become “a clear-eyed dream,” wherein a “trancelike state settles over your efforts.” A danger with dreams however, for it’s never clear to the dreamer himself just how clear-eyed they actually are, so that the zealotry of a McCandless that confuses the echoes in his own mind for other voices can easily transmogrify into a different type of hermit. Witness the former mathematics-professor-turned-recluse-turned-domestic-terrorist Theodor Kaczynski. In Walden, Thoreau claimed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s clearly not identical to Kaczynski’s claim in his anarcho-ecological manifesto Industrial Society and its Future that “almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not,” but there are some resonances. A special type of wag would claim that the Unabomber was simply an angrier Thoreau with a chemistry set, but they both arguably are examples of not unrelated strains of American antisocial individualism, albeit with incredibly different outcomes. “Whosoever is delighted in solitude,” wrote Francis Bacon in the 17th century, “is either a wild beast of a god.”

Thoreau would be instrumental to any cultural accounting of isolation; from a literary perspective he’s the most obvious of hermits in our national tradition. His biographers Robert D. Richardson and Barry Moser note in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind that the hermit “argued with himself in his journal…about his need for solitude versus the merits of society,” an incredibly American argument, and as the authors note, his conclusion was also particularly American: “He came down repeatedly for solitude.” Thoreau’s understanding of solitude derived from that sense of the frontier, that desire for unlimited elbow room that distinguishes this country from the Old World. When my wife and I used to live in Massachusetts, it took less than half an hour to drive to the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin on the shores of that glacial pond, and it’s understandable why he chose to spend a few years there pretending to live off the land. It’s an exceedingly pleasant space, and his example spoke to some sort of romancing of solitude that exists deep within my Pennsylvania soul.

I’m a city boy who grew up in a house that was so close to our neighbor that we could hear when that gentleman sneezed, and I’ve lived in apartments since I was 18, yet I harbor some delusion that if given half a chance I’d live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nobody. A foolish dream, but my rightful inheritance as an American. The author of Walden is the primogeniture of that particular counter-cultural vision—it’s not wrong to see him as a kind of proto-hippie, living off the land and spouting mistranslated versions of the Upanishads, the grandfather of both John Muir and Edward Abbey. But the boot-strapping, the rugged individualism, the obsession with industriousness—Thoreau is a proto-survivalist as well. When he writes in an 1847 diary that “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,” it sounds more a creed for somebody with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag decal on their truck as much as somebody with a “Coexist” bumper sticker on their Volvo. As our favorite hermit, Thoreau is in some manner the patriarch of us all, both left and right, liberal and conservative, anarchist and libertarian. He proves that Americans are nothing so much like each other, especially when we’re alone.

Thoreau isn’t our only reclusive writer. Gravity’s Rainbow author Thomas Pynchon eschews almost all media spectacle and refuses to update his author bio from a senior yearbook picture (though he did do a voice on The Simpsons); Harper Lee retired after To Kill a Mockingbird from Manhattan to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where she supported the local high school drama club; and Cormac McCarthy living rugged and without punctuation in a New Mexico trailer only broke his silence to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as one does, when the book club read The Road (he has since been more chatty). For most supposedly hermit authors, the reality might be more prosaic; as an irate Pynchon told CNN, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”

No accounting of literary isolation can credibly ignore J.D. Salinger whose The Catcher in the Rye, despite read less frequently by adolescents today than it once was, remains the Great American Teenage Novel. Within The Catcher in the Rye there are intimations of that profound desire to be left alone, with its main character Holden Caulfield ruminating that “I’m sort of glad that they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” Salinger’s biography has an unmistakable romance, the scion of the Upper East Side who was feted by The New Yorker and The Paris Review, a brilliant enfant terrible who produced perfect short stories and the immaculate novel with which he’s most associated, only to retire to rural New Hampshire, reject all media and appearances, and yet continue to prodigiously write until his death in 2010.

His last story appeared in The New Yorker in 1966, yet according to journalist and novelist Joyce Maynard in At Home in the World, her memoir about her affair with Salinger in 1972 when he was 53 and she was only 18, he “works on his fiction daily,” claiming that since he’d last been published he’d written two more novels. By the time of his death, Salinger had written 13 more. His dedication to the craft itself was pure—in a rare interview with The New York Times in 1974 Salinger said that “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing…I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” The purest form of composition. Upon his death, journalists discovered that the residents of Salinger’s New Hampshire hamlet fully knew who he was, but helped to mislead gawkers from tracking down the author. Katie Zezima writes in The New York Times that “Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, [and] nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store.” Keeping with a venerable New England sentiment that perhaps both Knight and Thoreau would recognize, a woman quoted in Zezima’s article says that his neighbors did “respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.” It’s unknown if any of them read those 15 novels.

Solitude and quiet are often figured, albeit in perhaps fewer extreme examples than Salinger’s method, as integral to the process of composition. Susan Sontag opined that “One can never be alone enough to write;” Ernest Hemingway said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life;” and the Romantic poet John Keats enthused that “my Solitude is sublime.” Peruse the rightly celebrated author interviews in The Paris Review, and you will discover that a space carved out for the self’s sovereignty is one of the few things that unite writers with their varying schedules, methods of research, and editorial eccentricities. The private John Updike, fully inhabiting the 9-5 ethos of his suburban Pennsylvania middle-class youth, wrote his novels in a rented office above a restaurant in Ipswich, Mass.; Wallace Stevens composed his poetry in the quiet of his own head, pounding out the scansions in his steps as he walked to his job in a Hartford, Conn., insurance office. Isolation can take many forms, not all of them literal, but in the pragmatic necessity of a writer needing a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously described it, there need be, well, a room of one’s own.

Woolf’s formulation was of course gendered; her point throughout A Room of One’s Own was the way in which the details of domestic responsibility (among other factors) contributed to the silencing of women. In short, if you don’t have the dedicated space and the leisure time in which to write in peace, you’re not going to be writing in peace. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard says as much in The Poetics of Space, noting that the house is “psychologically complex,” whereby “the nooks and corners of solitude are the bedroom.” Living collectively dampens the interior a bit, which is why the privacy of an individual space becomes instrumental in producing individual works. “The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone,” Bachelard writes, “furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could success in achieving completely.”

A direct causal relationship could be drawn between the architectural development of independent bedrooms in the early modern period and the evolution of the novel, the literary genre that most aggressively displays subjectivity. Like all things we take for granted, the bedroom, or the office, or the study, and all places of individual and solitary repose have their own history. Bill Bryson explains in At Home: A Short History of Private Life that the “inhabitants of the medieval hall had no bedrooms in which to retire,” and that “Sleeping arrangements appear to have remained relaxed for a long time.” The word “bedroom” itself didn’t exist until well later; Bryson writes that as “a word to describe a dedicated sleeping chamber… [it] didn’t become common until” the 17th century, the exact period in which the novel began to emerge.

People wrote long narratives before the novel and the bedroom, and for that matter there have always been venerable forms of collaborative writing as well. Yet the possibility of privacy and solitude—not just for a St. Jerome sequestered in his study or a Trappist whose taken his vow of silence—arguably contributed to certain literary forms that not only require isolation in their production, but in some sense mimic a type of isolation as well. To argue that writing requires quiet is in some ways too prosaic an observation. Writing is silence—writing is isolation. By shielding themselves in the cocoon of composition, writers are in some sense able to create rooms of their own, wherever they happen to be writing. Writing can function as its own type of sensory deprivation, an activity that can erase the outside world in the construction of a new internal one. Think of Stevens lost in his rhythmic reverie pounding out poems on his way to the office, or of James Baldwin writing Go Tell It on the Mountain in a busy Parisian café. Being ensconced within the process of writing, letting yourself become a conduit for words (and wherever they come) is a type of armor against the outside world; it’s a form of isolation that can be brought with you wherever you go.

Which is also true of reading, the only cultural medium that is purely mental and can be done in any situation, circumstance, or setting, and that if we’re considering its non-digital forms can be rapaciously consumed free of any outside interference, a universe cordoned off in a book. Reading a book on the bus or a subway, in a Starbucks or on a park bench, is a manner of building your own room within the public. It’s the profoundest type of privacy there can be as you generate an entire new reality alongside the author of the words you’re reading. When language was primarily an oral form, it was delivered collectively, and there is great power in that. But the proliferation of wide-spread literacy several centuries ago, the promulgation of affordable print, and the development of book forms like the 15th-century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius’s innovation of the cheap and portable octavo form made it possible for people to dream with their books not just while sequestered in a monastery, but anywhere that they pleased, from the encampments by the side of Renaissance Europe’s roads to a New York City taxicab.

Alberto Manguel describes the innovation of silent reading (which becomes common in late antiquity, in the fourth century around the time of St. Augustine), whereby readers could “exist in interior space…[where] the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.” When I argue that the history of literature is the history of isolation, I mean something more than writers often require solitude, or that the hermit is a popular figure to be explored in fiction. Rather, the deep vein that runs through the experience and definition of both reading and writing is precisely the sort of solitude of that Manguel describes. Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.

If there is something special about seclusion, about quiet, about aloneness that defines our literature, if something about isolation defined the shift from oral cultures to written ones, then perhaps it’s in the imitation of that original Author who was the first to compose in quarantine. Judaism’s God was distinguished from His pagan colleagues by being a singular creator-being, from forming His world not out of raw materials in collaboration with a pantheon, but of His own singular volition from nothing at all. Nobody could have been more isolated than God in the beginning, and no literary work emerging from that aloneness more powerful than all of existence. Such a model, of creation ex nihilo, is the operational essence of literary composition, a medium that requires no performers and no audience and exists only in the transit from one mine to another (and not necessarily even that).

As Dickinson approached her death, she asked her sister Lavinia to immolate her correspondence, but disregarded instructions concerning the poetry, assuming it didn’t even merit mention. It appears that Dickinson never intended her work for publication, that the author and audience were one, the purest form of poetry conceivable. Lavinia recognized their brilliance, which is the only reason that we’re able to read them today. What’s remarkable isn’t that they were almost destroyed, but that Dickinson’s poems survived at all. How many comparable works were penned by names unknown, by women and men innumerable? How much is written and read in glorious isolation never to extend to an audience beyond its creator? What shall be written in the coming days and weeks and months of isolation, existing only for the delight and glory of its creators, and none the less for its impermanence? In the end all works are immolated. Even that of the Creator’s shall be deleted. That Book’s glory is no less because of it.

Image Credit: Wallpaperflare.

The Mystery of the Other and Preoccupation with the Self: On Meng Jin’s ‘Little Gods’

In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?

There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:

Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.            

Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
Bonus Link from Our Archive:– Writers to Watch: Spring 2020

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Thorpe, Gaige, Sligar, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rufi Thorpe, Amity Gaige, Sarah Sligar, Ishmael Beah, Julio Cortázar, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Knockout Queen: “Thorpe’s fierce third novel (after Dear Fang, with Love) observes the development of and challenges to an intense friendship between two outcasts at a Southern California high school in the early 2010s. Michael, gay and closeted, has lived in a shabby house with his aunt and cousin since he was 11, when his mother was sent to prison for nonfatally stabbing his father. In the mansion next door lives Bunny Lambert, an immature volleyball star who desperately wants a boyfriend and, at 6‘3“ at the end of her junior year, fears she is a ‘complete monster.’ While Bunny copes with an alcoholic father and bullying by her classmates, Michael hooks up with guys he meets online. Neighbors and classmates since middle school, Bunny and Michael don’t meet until 10th grade, and their friendship develops as Bunny explores her ‘girliness’ around Michael, while he can ‘practice being gay.’ When students start gossiping about Michael, Bunny pummels one of the girls hard enough to cause a critical injury. While the novel’s plot is thin and rests perhaps too heavily on the dire consequences of this moment of violence, the two central characters are deeply realized and complex. The result cannily dissects the power and limits of adolescent friendship.”

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sea Wife: “A marriage implodes and a husband dies due to the strain of a year sailing around the Caribbean, in Gaige’s splendid, wrenching novel (after Schroder). Michael Partlow, an unfulfilled businessman lured by visions of heroic self-sufficiency and idealized memories of his late father, proposes that he and his wife, Juliet—a stalled-out poetry PhD candidate and stay-at home mother—buy a boat, leave Connecticut, and spend a year sailing with their two young children. Despite Juliet’s misgivings and worries, she agrees and the family enters a new wandering lifestyle with moments of joy amid frightening storms, privations, and mounting financial costs. Eventually, the cramped life onboard drives Juliet and Michael into arguments fueled by Juliet’s depression and Michael’s support of President Trump, and Michael ends up dead from dengue fever. Five months after the end of the voyage, Juliet is mired in a deep depression and gains insight into her marriage by reading Michael’s journal, and the story takes a frantic turn when police arrive with questions about a missing person Michael owed money to. Gaige balances the piecemeal explanations of Michael’s involvement with a profound depiction of the weight of depression and the pains of a complicated relationship. Every element of this impressive novel clicks into a dazzling, heartbreaking whole.”

Our Riches by Kaouther Adimi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Our Riches: “Adimi’s illuminating English-language debut unearths a legendary Algerian lending library and bookstore in parallel narratives. In 1935, French-Algerian Edmond Charlot slowly builds a small publishing empire, releasing books by Albert Camus and other luminaries and opening the Les Vraies Richesses bookshop in Algiers. In 2017, 20-year-old French university student Ryad lands the job of clearing out the shuttered bookshop to make room for a new beignet spot, fulfilling a requirement for his engineering degree. As Ryad interacts with Abdallah, an elderly former bookseller from the shop’s early days, he learns the history of the building he’s been tasked with gutting. These chapters alternate with Charlot’s diary entries, accounting for the bookstore’s 26-year rise and fall, detailing paper shortages during WWII, company turmoil, and Charlot’s sense of being an outsider in the publishing world. Meanwhile, Ryad befriends a young woman named Sarah, and from her and Abdallah learns how important the bookstore’s legacy is to the city and becomes inspired to embrace Charlot’s motto for the shop: ‘The young, by the young, for the young.’ Adimi’s confident prose displays Ryad and Charlot’s emotional depth while nimbly shuttling the reader through nearly a century of history. This is a moving tribute to the enduring power of literature.”

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Swimming in the Dark: “Jedrowski’s dazzling debut charts an evocative sexual awakening and coming of age amid political unease in early 1980s Poland. At a summer work camp in 1980, 22-year-old Ludwik Głowacki meets the broad-shouldered Janusz, with whom he discusses the repression and loneliness of gay men in their society. In second-person narration addressed to his new friend and lover, Ludwik reflects on furtive childhood desires (‘Years of yearning compressed like a muscle, pulsating mercilessly’) and describes their secret savoring of a banned James Baldwin book. Despite their ease of connection, Ludwik and Janusz are on opposite sides of a political divide: Janusz is happy to work within the system and gets a government job deciding which books should be published, which Ludwik—who has to carefully craft a literary doctoral thesis that won’t go against the party line—sees as censorship. Additionally, Janusz’s sexual relationship with a wealthy young woman named Hania, which he carries on in hopes of benefiting from her father’s political connections, creates conflict between the two men. Readers will relish the indelible prose, which approaches the mastery of Alan Hollinghurst. Jedrowski’s portrayal of Poland’s tumultuous political transformation over several decades makes this a provocative, eye-opening exploration of the costs of defying as well as complying with social and political conventions.”

Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Take Me Apart: “Sligar’s perceptive debut follows two women who appear collected on the surface but silently endure struggles. After 30-year-old Kate Aitken loses her copyediting job at a New York newspaper amid a disbelieved sexual harassment complaint against her superior, she moves to Northern California to take on a temporary archivist position, where she’s tasked with organizing the personal papers of photographer Miranda Brand, whose death two decades earlier was ruled a suicide. Supervised by Miranda’s adult son, Theo, Kate spends hours sifting through letters, receipts, and prints, and begins to suspect Miranda was murdered. As she builds her case, sneaking around to interview locals who knew the artist, Kate develops feelings for Theo and his two young children, and begins to shut out anything not involving the Brands. Alternating between chapters focusing on Kate and epistolary documents by the tormented Miranda, Sligar reveals Miranda’s unraveling throughout her brilliant career as she labors with parenthood and life with a manipulative husband. Though the novel falters somewhat in its home stretch, Sligar shows off a keen ear for dialogue, and Kate and Miranda hold interest. With a cool style and fast pace, Sligar achieves a propulsive exploration of these ambitious women’s inner turbulence in response to an abusive man in each of their lives.”

Little Family by Ishmael Beah

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Family: “The allure of wealth tests a makeshift family in this vibrant outing from Beah (A Long Way Gone). Eighteen-year-old Khoudiemata acts as a motherly figure for a group of five young people living on the margins of the city of Foloiya in an unnamed African country that will remind readers of Sierra Leone. They spend their days roving through town and stealing essentials to survive. Twenty-year-old Elimane, a member of the family, connects with a rich man they call William Handkerchief, who enlists the ‘little family’ in shady dealings in exchange for payments of hundreds of dollars. Khoudiemata uses her share to hide the reality of her current situation and befriend a group of young wealthy elites in Foloiya, including Frederick Cardew-Boston, scion of a powerfully connected family. Khoudiemata agrees to a weekend away with Frederick and his friends, but Elimane’s concern about her involvement with Frederick leads to devastating consequences. Beah informs his characters’ blend of street savvy and naïveté with bursts of details about the experiences that shaped them in a bustling and crooked society. Fans of African postcolonial fiction are in for a treat.”

All Fires the Fire by Julio Cortázar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All Fires the Fire: “In this playful and scintillating set of fabulist tales by Argentine master Cortázar (1914–1984), characters are shuffled through shifting realities. In ‘The Southern Thruway,’ a makeshift community forms among drivers on a highway as a traffic jam outside Paris keeps them stuck on the road for weeks. The characters form relationships and assume leadership positions, but everyone loses track of each other as soon as the traffic begins to move. In ‘The Other Heaven,’ the narrator moves seamlessly between time periods, leaving his humdrum life in 1940s Argentina to roam the Paris arcades of the 19th century, enjoying ‘grog at the café on the Rue des Jeûneurs,’ ‘the theaters on the boulevard,’ and the company of Josiane, a prostitute living in a ‘dime-novel garret.’ The collection’s standout title story juxtaposes a Roman gladiatorial contest with a failing relationship in mid-century France, suggesting echoes and connections between apparently disparate lives. Cortázar’s predilection for patterns is voiced by the narrator of ‘Meeting,’ who compares a Cuban revolutionary comrade to Mozart, both men seeking ‘an order’ that will lead to ‘a victory that might be like the restoration of a melody.’ Cortázar fans will devour these affecting stories.”