Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Wink, Washburn, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Callan Wink, Kawai Strong Washburn, Alexandra Chang, Fernanda Melchior, César Aira, 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.

August by Callan Wink

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about August: “Wink’s accomplished debut novel (after the collection Dog Run Moon) explores the nuances of present-day agricultural life. August grows up on the family dairy farm in Michigan with his divorced parents, shuttling between the ‘old house’ where his mother, Bonnie, lives, and the ‘new house’ built by his father, Dar, with Bonnie’s inheritance. After Dar shacks up with a woman just out of high school, Bonnie moves with August to Bozeman, Mont., where August attends high school and has his heart broken after sleeping with an older woman. He spends summers working for his father in Michigan, and after graduating, August defers college (‘something people do to put off actually doing something’) for a position on a Montana cattle ranch. Wink takes an assured, meandering approach to narrating August’s life, as August creeps toward adulthood through a series of minor adventures, such as mending fences, drinking at the local watering hole, and learning how to dance. Wink brilliantly captures the stultifying effects of small-town life and the tension between free-spirited August and those stuck in the Montana ‘suckhole,’ concluding with a stunning, indelible image from August’s rearview mirror. Like a current Jim Harrison, Wink makes irresistible drama out of an individual’s search for identity in landscapes that are by turns romantic and limiting.”

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sharks in the Time of Saviors: “Washburn’s standout debut provides a vivid portrait of Hawaiian identity, mythology, and diaspora. This family chronicle opens in 1995 Honok’a as the seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls from a ship, only to be rescued and returned to his parents by sharks. This seminal event in the lives of the Filipino-Hawaiian Flores family marks Nainoa for life as the “miracle boy,” even as his parents struggle to turn a profit on their sugarcane plantation. As things become more desperate, Nainoa and his violent older brother, Dean, and adventuresome younger sister, Kaui, leave the island to seek their fortunes on the mainland. Dean embarks on a promising career as a basketball player in Spokane only to wind up in trouble with the law, while Kaui discovers her sexuality in San Diego, and Nainoa becomes an EMT in Portland, Ore. Poised halfway between their cultural upbringing and hopes for the future, the family is riven by a horrific tragedy that will test them to the breaking point. Though perhaps overlong, Washburn’s debut is a unique and spirited depiction of the 50th state and its children.”

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Days of Distraction: “Chang’s incisive debut follows a 25-year-old Chinese-American woman as she balances an interracial relationship, her career as a technology reporter, and a drive toward self-discovery. After narrator Jing Jing’s white boyfriend, J, announces his plans to move across the country for graduate school, she follows him from San Francisco to Ithaca, N.Y. On the cross-country road trip with J, she discovers a heightened sense of her racial identity; while visiting high school friend Becca in Portland, Ore., Jing Jing quickly acknowledges her relative privilege as an East Asian compared to darker people of color after Becca, who is white, insists that ‘Asians have it really bad—the worst.’ Similar interactions in Ithaca make her feel out of place compared to her life in California, prompting her to remember and reexamine her close childhood friendship with white girls in the Milk Club (‘the name did not have overtly racial origins, but practical ones, since each girl got a carton of milk at lunch’) and consider how her ability to fit in among white people can erase her sense of self. As scattershot freelance assignments dry up, she occupies herself with research into discrimination of Chinese women throughout U.S. history, seeking a sense of purpose while J keeps a busy schedule. As J becomes condescending toward her efforts to improve their apartment, Jing Jing begins to feel estranged from him. When her father makes an uncharacteristic call from China and reveals that he’s been drinking heavily, she decides to visit, relieved to have a reason to leave Ithaca. Chang’s humorous, timely observations on race, technology, and relationships lend immediacy to the narrator’s chronicle of self-awareness. This introduces a formidably talented writer.”

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hex: “A young academic develops an unhealthy fixation on her adviser in this arresting novel of obsession from Dinerstein Knight (The Sunlit Night). Nell Barber is expelled from her PhD program in botany at Columbia University, along with the rest of her lab members, after their colleague Rachel Simons dies from exposure to poisonous plants. Nell breaks up with her medievalist boyfriend Tom, gets a job at a bar, and concentrates on completing Rachel’s dangerous work in her apartment to capture the attention of former adviser Joan Kallas, with whom she is obsessed. While Joan tries to steer Nell away from the dangerous project, Joan starts up an affair with Tom, and Nell’s best friend, the gorgeous, high-achieving Mishti, sleeps with Joan’s husband. The narrative takes the form of entries in what is supposed to be Nell’s scientific notebook (which are addressed to Joan), in which Nell discusses the main players’ love affairs and tries to reach conclusions about her would-be mentor. After the details of the affairs emerge at a small holiday party at Joan’s home, Nell loses her chance at an invitation to join Joan’s new research project. Nell’s intensity and the hypnotic, second-person prose convincingly render the protagonist’s bewitched, self-destructive state. Readers who liked I Love Dick and want something more lurid will appreciate this.”

Threshold by Rob Doyle

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Threshold: “Doyle (This Is the Ritual) follows in this poignant tale an itinerant narrator as he searches for personal enlightenment. The narrator, 30-something Rob, recounts his adventures through a series of letters to an unknown recipient, composed mainly of ruminations on spirituality and the nature of truth alongside reminiscences of stories about his adventures across the globe. Among these are his expedition foraging for psychedelic mushrooms in Ireland, his visit to the graves of famous writers in Paris, his time at Buddhist meditation retreats in Southeast Asia, and his druggy clubbing lifestyle while living in Berlin. Throughout, he carries on lively, often humorous discussions with himself about identity that hover on the edge of chaotic existential crisis: ‘I swam in the sea and had the ecstatic drunken insight that everything is transient, everything is eternal, both statements are true.’ Doyle’s musings are always intriguing and often enlightening, offering a glimpse of the anxious yet pleasing rationale of a mind struggling to live in a rational world. Fans of Will Self will enjoy this.”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchior, translated by Sophie Hughes

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hurricane Season: “Melchor’s English-language debut is a furious vortex of voices that swirl around a murder in a provincial Mexican town. The story opens with a group of boys discovering the body of the Witch in a canal. The Witch is a local legend: she provides the women of the town with cures and spells, while for the men she hosts wild, orgiastic parties at her house. Each chapter is a single, cascading paragraph and follows a different townsperson. First is Yesenia, a young woman who despises her addict cousin, Luismi, and one day sees him carrying the Witch from her home with another boy, Brando. Next is Munra, Luismi’s stepfather, who was also present at the Witch’s house; then Norma, a girl who flees her abusive stepfather and ends up briefly settling with Luismi; and lastly Brando, who finally reveals the details of the Witch’s death. The murder mystery (complete with a mythical locked room in the Witch’s house) is simply a springboard for Melchor to burrow into her characters’ heads: their resentments, secrets, and hidden and not-so-hidden desires. Forceful, frenzied, violent, and uncompromising, Melchor’s depiction of a town ogling its own destruction is a powder keg that ignites on the first page and sustains its intense, explosive heat until its final sentence.”

Artforum by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver 

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Artforum: “Aira’s clever, whimsical collection of autofiction (after The Musical Brain) draws on the author’s obsessive 30-year-long pursuit of collecting the international art magazine Artforum. Initially able to obtain issues in Argentina only by chance, Aira comes to believe the glossy objects are enchanted by ‘divine automatism’ after one volume shape-shifts into a form resembling a soccer ball, having absorbed the rain from an open window and keeping his other magazines dry, ‘like a magical and heroic solider.’ After exhausting a search for new issues in local bookstores, he orders a subscription, only to face an interminable wait for new issues. As they trickle in from the U.S., he begins counting down the days to each issue’s expected arrival date. He travels to a used bookstore in Buenos Aires to buy a stack of back issues that belonged to a dead gallery owner, and as his patience grows thin, he decides to make his own version of the magazine. As Aira illuminates the dead ends in his drive to collect the magazine, he offers rich insight into the appreciation of art and the desire to possess. This entertaining jaunt through the writer’s creative development satisfies with brevity and grace.”

How to Survive the End of the World with Jenny Offill

My family and I walked to a few different stores in our neighborhood today, in search of bananas and fresh air. I love bananas and we’d run out, but there aren’t bananas anywhere right now. Finally I found some on the counter next to the register in a liquor store: 75 cents each. I bought four. Across the country the person I love most in the world, after my own children, is getting home from rehab. I realize an AA meeting is a gathering of more than 20 people, and I worry they’ve all been canceled.

I loved Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I wasn’t sure what to make of Weather. It didn’t seem to be about anything.  It’s told in a similar format as Dept. of Speculation—little paragraphs about the narrator’s job (a librarian), her husband, her son, her neighbors. I had heard the book was about climate change, or maybe it was about addiction. It didn’t seem to be about any of these things, really, but I kept reading. Usually, I read a little before I go to sleep. I don’t have much time. I have two children, a five-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. I work. I try, and fail, to write. Like everyone else, I’ve been following the coronavirus stories this month. I just lived day-to-day, because coronavirus or not, that’s all I’m capable of right now.

So I read Weather, and didn’t think too much about it. The narrator meets some cats, avoids other moms at her son’s school. She takes a car service, she takes the bus. She has funny one-liners. She feeds the dog. She starts to work with an old mentor from grad school, a woman named Sylvia who is an expert on climate change. Her brother, a recovering drug addict, meets a woman and they have a baby. Interspersed in the text are handy tips for the end of the world. How to make a candle out of a tin of tuna. How to fish in a river with nothing but your shirt and the spit in your mouth.

I order diapers, formula, soap, baby wipes, baby food, and vitamins. We go to grocery stores and buy toilet paper, flour, yeast, canned tomatoes, rice, beans, wine, chips, chocolate. I order refills of my Xanax, Prozac, and birth control. The narrator of Weather asks, where should we go, where will my son be safe from the ravages of climate change? And her mentor answers: nowhere. Nowhere will be safe. Want to be safe? Become rich.

My kids and my husband went to sleep and I stayed up late to finish the book. Los Angeles Unified School District canceled school. A friend is scared she has it, the virus, but she can’t get tested. She’s worried about her parents. My mom is 65 and won’t stop working. She buys groceries for my 95-year-old grandma. My loved one is coming home from rehab. Somewhere in the middle of the book, we learn the narrator dropped out of graduate school to keep her brother alive, to help him recover from drug addiction. Later we learn she’d keep him on the phone late, and then instruct him she had to tell him something tomorrow morning, so he wouldn’t kill himself during the night.

It’s at this point in the book, I realize this is what the book is about: everyday living during the end of the world. The futility, the impossibility, the absurdity of trying to keep people alive, trying to keep them safe.

My loved one comes home from rehab and drives around the city, trying different meetings. They are all canceled. He calls me in between each attempt. I get off the phone and I cry, because there’s nothing I can do. My daughter wants to know why I am crying. She cries with me. Then the baby starts crying, because he cries whenever she does. I pick him up and hold him close. We blow raspberries at each other. Everyone is smiling again.

The narrator loves her husband, her son, her dog. She just continues to go about living her life the best she can, showing up at work, helping her brother, newly sober, with his infant daughter.

My family and I go for a walk and I stop in at a corner grocery store, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 60 years. They keep open tabs for all the people in the neighborhood who need it. When someone needs food and can’t afford it, this place gives it to them. They don’t have the bananas I am looking for, but I give them a $20 bill, which is all the cash I have, and tell them to use it to help someone pay for food. I don’t know what else to do. I try not to let my daughter see me cry as we walk home.

For more information about online AA meetings, click here and here. For more information about Al-Anon, click here. Please reach out to anyone you know in AA or Al-Anon for information about Zoom meetings.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Jemisin, Ehrenreich, Giddings, Kemp, Mandel, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of N.K. Jemisin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Megan Giddings, Marina Kemp, our own Emily St. John Mandel, 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 City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The City We Became: “The staggering contemporary fantasy that launches three-time Hugo Award-winner Jemisin’s new trilogy (following the Broken Earth series) leads readers into the beating heart of New York City for a stunning tale of a world out of balance. After hundreds of years of gestation, New York City is awakening to sentience, but ‘postpartum complications’ threaten to destroy it. An alien, amorphous force, personified by the Woman in White, launches an attack on New York. Five people—one for each of the city’s five boroughs—are called to become avatars dedicated to protecting the city. If they can combine their powers, they’ll be able to awaken the avatar of the city as a whole and defeat the Woman in White, but first they’ll have to find each other. While the Woman in White works to undermine them, the five avatars, whose personalities delightfully mirror the character of their respective boroughs (the Bronx is ‘creative with an attitude,’ Manhattan is ‘smart, charming, well-dressed, and cold enough to strangle you in an alley if we still had alleys’), learn the extent of their new powers. Jemisin’s earthy, vibrant New York is mirrored in her dynamic, multicultural cast. Blending the concept of the multiverse with New York City arcana, this novel works as both a wry adventure and an incisive look at a changing city. Readers will be thrilled.”

Had I Known by Barbara Ehrenreich

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Had I Known: “Activist and journalist Ehrenreich (Natural Causes) addresses numerous hot-button issues in this argumentative and passionate collection. She challenges the status quo throughout, while also including a healthy dose of self-questioning. The 40 selections—assembled into six categories (Haves and Have-Nots; Health; Men; Women; God, Science, and Joy; and Bourgeois Blunders) and published between 1984 and 2018—address race, class, and gender with admirable breadth. Writing on sexual harassment in 2017, Ehrenreich reminds the reader of how little focus has been accorded to abuses committed against working-class women. An essay from over a decade ago on immigration is notably topical, as is one written soon after the 2008 financial crash on the ‘criminalization of being poor.’ She is wittily satirical at times, as when skewering adherents to ‘the cult of conspicuous busyness,’ who feel ’embarrassed to be caught doing only one thing at a time,’ and bitterly Swiftian at others, proposing a combination of ‘welfare and flogging’ as an acceptably punitive compromise for opponents of government aid to the poor. Her most acerbic passages will be off-putting to some, but most will find this a gripping look at why ‘dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.'”

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lakewood: “In Giddings’s chilling debut, Lena Johnson takes a leave from college after her grandmother dies and must find a way to financially support herself and her mother, who suffers from a mysterious but debilitating illness. Serendipitously, she receives an invitation to apply to the Lakewood Project, a series of research studies about memory. If chosen, Lena will receive a hefty paycheck and, crucially, insurance that would cover all of her mother’s health-care costs. After an invasive screening process that includes uncomfortable questions about race and being injected with strange substances, Lena is invited to participate. This involves moving to Lakewood, a nearby town in Michigan, and leading a double life. After signing an NDA, she’s instructed to tell her family and friends, through monitored communication, that she works for a shipping company. In reality, she and the other participants—all of them black, Indian, or Latin—must undergo grueling evaluations and take part in experiments (such as eye drops that change eye color, and being put on a diet of cream pellets only) that can have fatal consequences, all under the watch of ‘observers,’ all of whom are white. Though the book’s second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, Giddings is a writer with a vivid imagination and a fresh eye for horror, both of the body and of society. This eerie debut provides a deep character study spiked with a dose of horror.”

Marguerite by Marina Kemp

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Marguerite: “In Kemp’s stellar debut, a young nurse gets caught up in romance, jealousy, and gossip on a farm in the South of France. Having trained to become a nurse in order to help treat her sister’s meningitis, Marguerite Demers takes a job caring for the prideful, cruel Jérôme Lanvier at his dilapidated Saint-Sulpice farmhouse. There, she befriends Suki, an Iranian who wears a hijab, causing the townspeople to call her a ‘witch doctor.’ Both women provoke jealousy in Brigitte, who, along with her husband, Henri, works for Jérôme. Suki has long been picked on by gossipy and insecure Brigitte, who slanders her perceived rivals with abandon. Meanwhile, Henri, a handsome, sensitive farmer, is having an affair with Edgar, a writer, and is resigned to stay at the farm with Brigitte, where he tries to find contentment working in the dirt, enjoying ‘the day’s long accumulation of filth.’ As Henri stands up for Marguerite, the pair’s connection heightens. Eventually rumors, combined with Suki, Brigitte, and Edgar’s jealousy, threaten Marguerite and Henri. Precise, distinctive prose (train doors close ‘with a hiss like a punctured tyre’) and well-drawn characters make this satisfying tale all the more memorable. Expect Kemp to make a big splash.”

Marrow and Bone by Walter Kempowski

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Marrow and Bone: “Kempowski (All For Nothing) offers an astute and ever-surprising comedy of the cultural divide between East and West in 1988. At 43, war orphan Jonathan Fabrizius halfheartedly pursues a life of the mind in Hamburg, where he works as a sometime journalist. After Frau Winkelvoss, a representative of the Santubara car manufacturer, offers Jonathan an opportunity to document a trip across Poland for an upcoming rally, Jonathan readily accepts out of interest in his birthplace in former East Prussia. Jonathan takes ironic pride in a painful past (“As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends”) and adopts a wry attitude toward the way he’ll be perceived as a German abroad (‘When you’d started a world war, murdered Jews and taken people’s bicycles away (in Holland) the cards were stacked against you’). On the road in Poland with Winkelvoss and a famous race car driver at the wheel of the flashy V8, Jonathan plays the part of arrogant Western intellectual as their adventure turns picaresque, complete with a car jacking. As Jonathan tunes in to the wreckage of war, Kempowski’s unsparing, dagger-sharp prose leads Jonathan to face the loss of his parents and homeland. This hilarious, deeply affecting exploration of postwar dichotomies successfully channels the satire of Confederacy of Dunces and the somber reflectiveness of Austerlitz.”

We Inherit What the Fires Left by William Evans

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Inherit What the Fires Left: “Evans (Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair) poignantly addresses in this vulnerable collection his experience raising his daughter in the suburbs while reckoning with the memory of his own father and childhood. In three titled sections—’Grass Growing Wild Beneath Us,’ ‘Trespass,’ and ‘Aging Out of Someone Else’s Dream’—Evans recounts the mundane moments of pride and learning that come with fatherhood, as well as the larger systemic threats and legacies of violence that underlie his experience as a black American. In ‘Waves,’ his daughter asks a question about the ocean, which brings to mind the slaves forced to cross the Atlantic. The poem closes with acknowledging another threat: ‘On the ride home, after I have/ quieted the bark, an officer/ pulls us to the side of the road/ and asks me whose car I am driving/ my family home in.’ In ‘Pledge to Raising a Black Girl,’ he asks, ‘How do you know what you have a taste for// if you’ve been told never to show your teeth?… The elders want us to raise// girls with a song in their heart, but we only respect/ the classics if they respected us, which is why// if you ask me how I’m doing, I say still breathing.’ These poems offer sensitive portraits of race and fatherhood and richly explore the past while providing hope for the future.”

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Glass Hotel: “Mandel’s wonderful novel (after Station Eleven) follows a brother and sister as they navigate heartache, loneliness, wealth, corruption, drugs, ghosts, and guilt. Settings include British Columbia’s coastal wilderness, New York City’s fashionable neighborhoods and corporate headquarters, a container ship in international waters, and a South Carolina prison. In 1994, 18-year-old drug-using dropout Paul Smith visits his 13-year-old half-sister, Vincent, in Vancouver. Vincent has just lost her mother and acquired her first video camera. Five years later, in the wilderness north of Vancouver, Vincent tends bar at a luxury hotel where Paul works as the night houseman. Paul leaves after writing on a window in acid marker a message even he doesn’t understand. Vincent relocates to the East Coast and what Mandel calls the kingdom of money to play trophy wife for investor Jonathan Alkaitis. When Jonathan’s Ponzi scheme collapses, he goes to prison, where his victims’ ghosts visit him. Finished with Jonathan and the affluent lifestyle and ignored by her best friend, Vincent takes a job as assistant cook on a container ship. Paul, meanwhile, has set Vincent’s old videos to music. The videos have helped Paul, despite a lifelong drug problem, tap into his creative gifts. Using flashbacks, flash-forwards, alternating points-of-view, and alternate realities, Mandel shows the siblings moving in and out of each other’s lives, different worlds, and versions of themselves, sometimes closer, sometimes further apart, like a double helix, never quite linking. This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.”

Letter from the Pestilence

One particularly brutal winter, more than half a decade ago now, I used to find myself fantasizing about stripping down to my underwear and t-shirt and calmly walking out into the massive field of snow that blanketed the flat lot across from my apartment complex so that I could quietly freeze to death. These day dreams came on casually, and it was only after a few times of realizing that I had been online looking up “What does it feel like to die from the cold?” that I might be in trouble. For several weeks following an arctic blast, my small Pennsylvania town was covered in snow and ice, which the tax averse city fathers did little to clear. Though I obviously wasn’t ensconced inside my apartment for the entirety of that time period, able to mostly slide down the hill to my job, and more frequently to the bar where I could get black-out drunk and somehow amazingly get back home, the isolation somehow felt both metaphorical and literal. During that time I mostly kept company with box wine, liquor, beer, and a Netflix subscription, and despite my Google searches I thankfully never saw fit to try my experiment during those blackouts. Weather wasn’t the cause of my depression obviously; my father was dying of a terminal illness at the time, I had yet to figure out that I should stop drinking, and there is some betrayal in my brain chemistry. But the chill permanence of the starkly beautiful and isolated landscape was certainly an affirmation of the pathetic fallacy, every bit as trite as if I’d made it up for a book. I eventually came out of the depression—as one does.

If you’ve ever been depressed, then you know that sometimes it feels like you’ve been wearing dark sunglasses on a bright day; the strange film that seems to cover everything and muck up the synapses in your brain. There might be drama to some people’s depression, and while there was certainly anxiety and the dull hiss of fear punctuated by moments of panic in mine, for much of it there was a surprisingly low volume. It occupied you all the time, but there was something almost relaxed about it, like the way the moment before you freeze to death is supposed to feel like a gentle letting go of one sense after the other. One of the signs of depression is that you lose interest in things that you love. In a clinical sense, that was true for me; I abandoned a lot of the intellectualization of literature that was my passion (and my paying job as a graduate student), but in a far deeper way it wasn’t accurate at all. Maybe I didn’t want to write interpretations of poetry, teach the novels that I kept on teaching, or talk about drama in graduate seminars, but words were stripped to their most elemental and jagged for me, boiled down and rendered into a broth that I kept on drinking. This isn’t going to be where I set up a false dichotomy between thinking and feeling, between interpretation and experience, nor is it a rejection of the critical discussion of literature. I truly derive pleasure from those things, and it was a blessing when my desire to engage them returned.But when everything was stripped away from my desire, when I could scarcely feel love, least of all for myself, the words were still there. At the core of the humanities, it turns out, remains the human. Sometimes reading felt like running in place in a swimming pool; sometimes I was so distracted by my malady that the connection between sense and syntax was all but severed. I was lucky enough that I could still do it though—and with a dim awareness that it was because I had no choice if I was going to come out on the other side. During this period, either ironically or appropriately, I read Andrew Solomon’s stunning personal etiology The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Much like Leslie Jamison in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Solomon gives an account of our shared affliction in terms of history and medicine, and offers his own dark nights of the soul. Solomon writes “To give up the essential conflict between what we feel like doing and what we do, to end the dark moods that reflect that conflict and its difficulties—this is to give up what it is to be human, of what is good in human beings.” The Noonday Demon’s great power is that it doesn’t reduce depression to character building, nor does it simply explain it away, but it does give some scaffolding of meaning to the experience of meaninglessness. Solomon’s prose is exemplary, his empathy is complete, and though I don’t personally know him, reading The Noonday Demon was just enough a connection—as weak as my transponders were—that a bit of static electricity was able to power me through when I got better.I only bring this up because currently we’re all in the pest house. What a strange thing, this social isolation, the self-quarantining? Suddenly societal survival depends on all of us anointing ourselves as depressives, staying sequestered in our homes as whatever hell burns through the immune systems of our fellow humans. When I was depressed, I drew hope from the fact that other people weren’t depressed; it felt like if my world was unravelling there was at least a world. The surrealism of our current moment is that none of us have that same luxury anymore. Ironically there’s something democratic in our common situation, the way in which we’re all feeling the same fear, the same uncertainty, the same panic, worry, anger, and anxiety. A solidarity, finally. If there’s anything different between our current situation and personal depression—the sense of doom, the preoccupation with a malignant force, and the inability to fully immerse yourself in that which gives joy make this feel like a type of cultural depression—it’s that there’s also a weird joviality out there. The often funny social media gallows humor (I’m partial to a picture of the advertising mascot Mr. Clean with the caption “He left us when we needed him most.”) and the odd confessions with strangers, like the Trader Joe’s checkout guy who told me he’d miss karaoke most of all.

The depressed, ironically, might have an immunological consciousness more prepared for the quarantine that is now necessary. No longer kept in my apartment by diminished serotonin levels and several feet of snow, now it is the coronavirus that keeps me home. “Depression at its worst is the most horrifying loneliness,” Solomon writes, “and from it I learned the value of intimacy.” Our school has been those feelings of nothing that have trained us in the art of that most human of things, our need for connection, precisely at the moment when its necessary to sever those ties. “You cannot draw a depressed person out of their misery,” Solomon correctly notes, but “You can, sometimes, manage to join someone in the place where he resides.” We live in an ugly era—mean, intemperate, cruel, cynical, narcissistic. Everyone says that of their age, but doesn’t it feel a bit more true of our own? Now, as if the Earth has a breaking fever, it seems as if the very planet itself is shaking us off. We’re all in that dark place now; some of us will get sick, as well. Many of us will. We will all require a kindness in that.

Like Solomon was once something I was able to hold onto—however so slightly—that returned me to life, there must be an engagement with each other, with that which we’ve created, with that which exists to make connection, with that which joins us in the places where we reside. Creation can’t be a luxury, nor is it just entertainment, or a way of passing time. Recently, I saw a video of an empty street in Florence, where women and men are quarantined where Boccaccio was once sequestered from the plague, where Petrarch’s beloved Laura de Noves succumbed to it. From an open window, a strong baritone voice from an unseen man starts singing in an Italian I can’t understand, then a woman joins in somewhere down the alley, then another man, then another. Even the feral dogs in the street are barking joyfully by the end. All of them were isolated, but none were alone. Creation must be a kindness.

Image Credit: Needpix.com.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Que Mai, Kalb, Ramey, Lisicky, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, Bess Kalb, Sarah Ramey, Paul Lisicky, 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 Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Mountains Sing: “Nguyễn’s lyrical, sweeping debut novel (after the poetry collection The Secret of Hoa Sen) chronicles the Tran family through a century of war and renewal. As middle-aged writer Hương revisits her native Hanoi in 2012, she reflects on the lessons shared by her late grandmother Diệu Lan (‘The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won’t be able to see their peaks’) and chronicles their journey of survival during the Vietnam War. Hương was 12 when bombs encroached on Hanoi, where she lived with Diệu Lan after her mother, Ngọc, a physician, left to search for her father, a soldier in the NVA. After an evacuation to the mountains, Diệu Lan ‘opened the door of her childhood’ to Huoung with stories of being raised by a wealthy family to pursue an education and resist old customs such as blackening her teeth. Diệu Lan also describes the harrowing truth of the Việt Minh Land Reform, during which her family’s land was seized in the spirit of resource distribution, encouraging her to question what she’s been taught in schools. Grandma and Hương return to Hanoi and find their house decimated, and Ngọc, who survived torture and rape while imprisoned by South Vietnamese soldiers, comes home without Hương’s father. In a subtle coda, Nguyễn brilliantly explores the boundary between what a writer shares with the world and what remains between family. This brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam will move readers.”

Nobody Will Tell You This but Me by Bess Kalb

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: “Jimmy Kimmel Live! writer Kalb honors her late grandmother, Bobby Bell, in an amusing debut memoir written in the grandmother’s sassy voice. The book, framed as a love letter to Kalb and featuring excerpts from grandma’s funny voice mails and phone calls, contains intriguing family stories about Kalb’s great-grandmother, who, at 12, emigrated to New York from Belarus, alone, to escape Jewish persecution; about Bobby’s marriage to Kalb’s grandfather, a scrappy businessman who got rich building houses; and about Bobby’s contentious relationship with Kalb’s fiercely independent mother. Kalb does a great job of capturing the voice of an opinionated, chronically concerned grandmother who’s convinced that she knows best. Bobby shares her thoughts on everything from Kalb’s choice of pets (‘we are not cat people’) to her decision to live in San Francisco (‘San Francisco is for people who wear polar fleece to restaurants and try to convince each other to go camping’). The book spans Bobby’s life and beyond (there are cheeky sections written from beyond the grave) and offers both wisdom and unsolicited advice (‘you’d be gorgeous if you went a little blonder’). This is a fun, touching tribute to family, and the perfect book for anyone who treasures their domineering, spirited grandmother.”

Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pride of Eden: “Brown (Gods of Howl Mountain) sets his haunting, empathetic latest in a wildlife sanctuary on the Georgia coast. Ex-jockey and Vietnam War vet Anse Caulfield and his lover, Tyler, a veterinarian, run Little Eden, a haven for exotic animals rescued from exploitative roadside zoos, circuses, and private owners. It’s a dangerous enterprise, since Anse must rescue his animals under the cover of night and constant threat of discovery by the unsavory people he rescues his animals from. He’s aided by his friend Lope, a firefighter, falconer, and drone operator, who, in the devastating opening pages, saves Anse from Henrietta, a lioness who escaped her enclosure and is subsequently killed. Newcomer Malaya is an Iraq vet fresh off a job thwarting poachers in South Africa that went south. When a reclusive wolf breeder threatens their little slice of heaven, they must embark on their most dangerous mission yet. With a lush sense of atmosphere, Brown paints an evocative portrait of Anse, a man who has devoted his life to broken and abused animals, out of love and as atonement for past sins, as well as of Malaya, who struggles with PTSD and finds new purpose in their work. Couched in a thrilling narrative, Brown’s heartbreaking yet hopeful message of humanity’s moral responsibility for the natural world and its magnificent creatures will linger with readers.”

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beheld: “Nesbit (The Wives of Los Alamos) cleverly recasts pilgrim history in this deeply enjoyable novel of murder in Plymouth Colony, Mass. To those living in Plymouth in 1630, the colony is not the land of freedom they’d envisioned. The Puritans hold an iron grip on religious observations, alienating the Anglicans among them, while the colonists haven’t received the benefits promised to them, such as land. John and Eleanor Billington, former indentured servants, distinguish themselves as rebels in the colony, never hesitating to point out inequities and hypocrisy, particularly those of prominent settlers William and Alice Bradford and the storied Myles Standish. After the arrival of John Newcomen, a new settler who’s been promised land belonging to the Billingtons, more than one person ends up dead. Capturing the alternating voices of the haves (the Bradfords, Newcomen) and the have-nots (the Billingtons), Nesbit’s lush prose adds texture to stories of the colony’s women, and her deep immersion in primary sources adds complexity to the historical record. Fans of Miriam Toews’sWomen Talking will eagerly devour this gripping historical.”

The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness by Sarah Ramey

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness: “In this illuminating debut memoir, musician Ramey offers an account of a mysterious illness that plagued her for more than a decade, beginning when she was in college in the early 2000s. Ramey recounts years struggling with excruciating pain, at times being unable to rise from bed. She pursued multiple medical treatments, but her pain persisted; when she turned to alternative approaches such as acupuncture and positive thinking, she found some relief, but also what she felt to be a New Age tendency to blame the victim. Though this medical saga is disturbing in the many miscalculations her doctors made, Ramey’s hilarious and upbeat sense of humor lightens even the direst of circumstances (a surgeon who performed the wrong surgery on her is dubbed Dr. Oops, and others merit such glib monikers as Dr. Vulva, Dr. Paxil, and Dr. Bowels). As Ramey relentlessly researched her own ailment, she learned that millions of women with such conditions as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme disease, and other illnesses had also been ignored, mistreated, or belittled by conventional medicine. Ramey was eventually diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, and here she argues for more compassion among doctors and better treatment, and highlights reasons why some research has trouble securing funding (vaginal diseases, for example, are ‘too unpalatable for any awareness campaign, too unsexy to start a blog’). Ramey’s uncanny grit and fortitude will deeply inspire the multitudes facing similar issues.”

Later by Paul Lisicky

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Later: “A writer recalls his search for love and community in Provincetown, Mass., during the AIDS epidemic in this melodramatic memoir. Fiction writer and memoirist Lisicky (The Narrow Door) spent several years in the early 1990s in Provincetown, a Cape Cod resort, artist’s colony, and gay mecca, doing a writing fellowship and trying to sort out his late-20s life. He found the town an exhilarating haven, where he could finally live his homosexuality loud and proud—’Hey, do you want to get high and have sex?’ inquired one random guy on the street shortly after he arrived—but also a death-haunted place where recently healthy acquaintances faded from AIDS before his eyes. Lisicky finds affecting moments of pathos in the declining health and deaths of friends (‘The churches in Town turn their backs on the sick in Town, but that is not why I turned my back on God’). Unfortunately, much of the book’s endlessly complex and neurotic rumination is lavished on trivial matters: casual hookups in the dunes; longer-term relationships, riddled with small insecurities and betrayals, that feel paper-thin; and simple mishaps (‘It feels like the toppling is connected to some secret instinct in myself that is driven to ruin,’ he frets when a fake oversized ice-cream cone he is wearing in a parade falls off his head). The result is a callow and uninvolving coming-of-age narrative.”

On Pandemic and Literature

Less than a century after the Black Death descended into Europe and killed 75 million people—as much as 60 percent of the population (90% in some places) dead in the five years after 1347—an anonymous Alsatian engraver with the fantastic appellation of “Master of the Playing Cards” saw fit to depict St. Sebastian: the patron saint of plague victims. Making his name, literally, from the series of playing cards he produced at the moment when the pastime first became popular in Germany, the engraver decorated his suits with bears and wolves, lions and birds, flowers and woodwoses. The Master of Playing Cards’s largest engraving, however, was the aforementioned depiction of the unfortunate third-century martyr who suffered by order of the Emperor Diocletian. A violent image, but even several generations after the worst of the Black Death, and Sebastian still resonated with the populace, who remembered that “To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful Creator,” as John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time.

The cult of Sebastian had grown in the years between the Black Death and the engraving, and during that interim the ancient martyr had become associated with plague victims. His suffering reminded people of their own lot—the sense that more hardship was inevitable, that the appearance of purpled buboes looked like arrows pulled from Sebastian’s eviscerated flesh after his attempted execution, and most of all the indiscrimination of which portion of bruised skin would be arrow-pierced seeming as random as who should die from plague. Produced roughly around 1440, when any direct memory of the greatest bubonic plague had long-since passed (even while smaller reoccurrences occurred for centuries), the Master of the Playing Cards presents a serene Sebastian, tied to a short tree while four archers pummel him with said arrows. Unlike more popular depictions of the saint, such as Andrea Mantegna’s painting made only four decades later, or El Greco and Peter Paul Reubens’s explicitly lithe and beautiful Sebastians made in respectively the 16th and 17th centuries, the engraver gives us a calm, almost bemused, martyr. He has an accepting smile on his face. Two arrows protrude from his puckered flesh. More are clearly coming. Sebastian didn’t just become associated with the plague as a means of saintly intercession, but also because in his narrative there was the possibility of metaphor to make sense of the senseless. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that the “Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and subsequent outbreaks…had, of course, cast a long, dark shadow, and their aftermath was the culture of the Dance of Death, the worm-corrupted cadaver, the skull and crossbones and the charnel house.” All of said accoutrement, which endures even today from the cackling skulls of Halloween to the pirates’ flag, serve to if not make pandemic comprehensible, then to at least tame it a bit. Faced with calamity, this is what the stories told and the images made were intended to do. Religion supplied the largest storehouse of ready-made narrative with which to tell stories, even while the death toll increasingly made traditional belief untenable. John Hatcher writes in The Black Death: A Personal History that many lost “faith in their religion and…[abandoned] themselves to fate,” where fatality is as unpredictable as where an arrow will land.

A different narrative, though not unrelated, was depicted 40 years later. Made by the Swedish painter Albertus Pictor, and applied to the white walls of the rustic Täby Church north of Stockholm, the mural presents what appears to be a wealthy merchant playing a (losing) game of chess against Death. Skeletal and grinning, Death appears with the same boney twisted smile that is underneath the mask of every human face, the embodiment and reminder of everyone’s ultimate destination. Famously the inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, Pictor’s picture is a haunting memento mori, a very human evocation of the desperate flailing against the inevitable. Both pictures tell stories about the plague, about the lengths we’ll go to survive. They convey how in pandemic predictability disappears; they are narratives about the failure of narratives themselves. What both of them court are Brother Fate and his twin Sister Despair. The wages of fortune are the subject of which cards you’re dealt and the tension of strategy and luck when you avoid having your bishop or rook taken. Life may be a game, but none of us are master players and sometimes we’re dealt a very bad hand.

There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics. What marks the literature of plague, pestilence, and pandemic is a commitment to try and forge if not some sense of explanation, than at least a sense of meaning out of the raw experience of panic, horror, and despair. Narrative is an attempt to stave off meaninglessness, and in the void of the pandemic, literature serves the purpose of trying, however desperately, to stop the bleeding. It makes sense that the most famous literary work to come out of the plague is Giovani Boccaccio’s 1353 The Decameron, with its frame conceit of 100 bawdy, hilarious, and erotic stories told by seven women and three men over 10 days while they’re quarantined in a Tuscan villa outside Florence. As pandemic rages through northern Italy, Boccaccio’s characters distract themselves with funny, dirty stories, but the anxious intent from those young women and men self-exiled within cloistered walls is that “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend” their own life, so that storytelling becomes its own palliative to drown out the howling of those dying on the other side of the ivy-covered stone walls.

Pandemic literature exists not just to analyze the reasons for the pestilence—that may not even be its primary purpose. Rather the telling of stories is a reminder that sense still exists somewhere, that if there is not meaning outside of the quarantine zone there’s at least meaning within our invented stories. Literature is a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own. As the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Plague says as disease ravages the town of Oran in French Algeria, there is an “element of abstraction and unreality in misfortune. But when an abstraction starts to kill you, you have to get to work on it.” When confronted with the erraticism of etiology, the arbitrariness of infection, the randomness of illness, we must contend with the reality that we are not masters of this world. We have seemingly become such lords of nature that we’ve altered the very climate and geologists have named our epoch after humanity itself, and yet a cold virus can have more power than an army. Disease is not metaphor, symbol, or allegory, it is simply something that kills you without consideration. Story is a way of trying to impart a bit of that consideration that nature ignores.

The necessity of literature in the aftermath of pandemic is movingly illustrated in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Mostly taking place several years after the “Georgian Flu” has killed the vast majority of humans on the planet and civilization has collapsed, Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they travel by caravan across a scarred Great Lakes region on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” Mandel writes, “but that was a lie.” Station Eleven is, in some sense, a love letter to a lost world, which is to say the world (currently) of the reader. Our existence “had never been impersonal at all,” she writes, and the novel gives moving litanies of all that was lost in the narrative’s apocalypse, from chlorinated swimming pools to the mindlessness of the Internet. There is a tender love of every aspect of our stupid world, so that how the crisis happened can only be explained because of the fact that we were so interconnected: “There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.” As survivors struggle to rebuild, it’s the job of narrative to supply meaning to that which disease has taken away, or as the motto painted on the wagon of the traveling caravan has it: “Survival is insufficient.” The need to tell stories, to use narrative to prove some continuity with a past obliterated by pandemic, is the motivating impulse of English professor James Smith, the main character in Jack London’s largely forgotten 1912 post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, London imagines a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death.” Infectious, fast-moving, and fatal, the plague wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, so that some six decades after the pestilence first appears, Smith can scarcely believe that his memories of a once sophisticated civilization aren’t illusions. Still, the former teacher is compelled to tell his grandchildren about the world before the Red Death, even if he sometimes imagines that they are lies. “The fleeting systems lapse like foam,” writes London, “That’s it—foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam.”

The Scarlet Plague ends in a distant 2073, the same year that Mary Shelley’s 1826 forerunner of the pandemic novel The Last Man was set. Far less famous than Shelley’s Frankenstein, her largely forgotten novel is arguably just as groundbreaking. As with Station Eleven, narrative and textuality are the central concerns of the novel; when the last man himself notes that “I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer and Shakespeare—But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me,” there is the sense that even in the finality of his position there is a way in which words can still define our reality, anemic though it may now be. Displaying the trademark uneasiness about the idea of fictionality that often marked 19th-century novels, Shelley’s conceit is that what you’re reading are transcriptions of parchment containing ancient oracular predictions that the author herself discovered while exploring caves outside of Naples that had once housed the temple of the Cumae Sibylline.

Her main character is a masculinized roman a clef for Shelley herself, an aristocrat named Lionel Verney who lives through the emergence of global pandemic in 2073 up through the beginning of the 22nd century when he earns the titular status of The Last Man. All of Shelley’s characters are stand-ins for her friends, the luminaries of the rapidly waning Romantic age, from Lord Byron who is transformed into Lord Randolph, a passionate if incompetent leader of England who bungles that nation’s response to the pandemic, to her own husband, Percy, who becomes Adrian, the son of the previous king who has chosen rather to embrace republicanism. By the time Verney begins his solitary pilgrimage across a desolated world, with only the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare, and an Alpine sheepdog whom he adopts, he still speaks in a first person addressed to an audience of nobody. “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirts of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold…the LAST MAN.” Thus, in a world devoid of people, Verney becomes the book and the inert world becomes the reader.

The Last Man’s first-person narration, ostensibly directed to a world absent of people who could actually read it, belies a deeper reason for the existence of language than mere communication—to construct a world upon the ruins, to bear a type of witness, even if it’s solitary. Language need not be for others; that it’s for ourselves is often good enough. Literature thus becomes affirmation; more than that it becomes rebellion, a means of saying within pandemic that we once existed, and that microbe and spirochete can’t abolish our voices, even if bodies should wither. That’s one of the most important formulations of Tony Kushner’s magisterial play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Arguably the most canonical text to emerge from the horror of the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s three-hour play appears in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” and it weaves two narrative threads, the story of wealthy WASP scion Prior Walter’s HIV diagnosis and his subsequent abandonment by his scared lover, Louis Ironson, and the arrival to New York City of the closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, who works as a law clerk and kindles an affair with Louis.

Angels in America combines subjects as varied as Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, Kabbalistic and Mormon cosmology (along with a baroque system of invented angels), the reprehensible record of the closeted red-baiting attorney and Joseph McCarthy-acolyte Roy Cohn, and the endurance of the gay community struggling against the AIDS epidemic and their activism opposing the quasi-genocidal non-policy of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan. If all that sounds heady, Kushner’s play came from the estimably pragmatic issue of how a community survives a plague. Born from the pathbreaking work of activist groups like ACT UP, Angels in America has, because of its mythological concerns, an understanding that pandemics and politics are inextricably connected. In answering who deserves treatment and how such treatment will be allocated we’ve already departed from the realm of disinterested nature. “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past,” says Louis, “there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.” Throughout Angels in America there is an expression of the human tragedy of pandemic, the way that beautiful young people in the prime of life can be murdered by their own bodies. Even Cohn, that despicable quasi-fascist, who evidences so little of the human himself, is entitled to some tenderness when upon his death kaddish is recited for him—by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed Soviet spy whom the lawyer was instrumental in the execution of.At the end of the play, Prior stands at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with all the attendant religious implications of that place’s name, and intones that “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come.” In telling stories, there is not just a means of constructing meaning, or even endurance, but indeed of survival.  Fiction is not the only means of expressing this, of course, or even necessarily the most appropriate. Journalist Randy Shilts accomplished something similar to Kushner in his classic account And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which soberly, clinically, and objectively chronicled the initial outbreaks of the disease among the San Francisco gay community.In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Defoe in his classic A Journal of the Plague Year (even while that book is fictionalized), Shilts gives an epidemiological account of the numbers, letting the horror speak through science more effectively than had it been rendered in poetry. Such staidness is its own requirement and can speak powerfully to the reality of the event, whereby “the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic…[was that] By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it,” the shame of a nation whereby Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes would actually publicly laugh at the idea of a “gay plague.” Shilts waited until he finished And the Band Played On to be tested for HIV himself, worried that a positive diagnosis would alter his journalistic objectivity. He would die of AIDS related complications in 1994, having borne witness to the initial years of the epidemic, abjuring the cruel inaction of government policy with the disinfectant of pure facts.

Most people who read about pandemics, however, turn to pulpier books: paperback airport novels like Michael Crichton’s clinical fictionalized report about an interstellar virus The Andromeda Strain, Robin Cook’s nightmare fuel about a California Ebola pandemic in Outbreak, and Stephen King’s magisterial post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, which I read in the summer of 1994 and remains the longest sustained narrative I think that I’ve ever engaged with. Because these books are printed on cheap paper and have the sorts of garish covers intended more for mass consumption than prestige, they’re dismissed as prurient or exploitative. Ever the boring distinctions between genre and literary fiction, for though the pace of suspense may distinguish entertainment as integral as aesthetics, they too have just as much to say about the fear and experience of illness as do any number of explicitly more “serious” works.

The Stand is an exemplary example of just what genre fiction is capable of, especially when it comes to elemental fears surrounding plague that seem to have been somehow encoded within our cultural DNA for more than seven centuries. Written as an American corollary to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stand depicts a United States completely unraveled one summer after the containment loss of a government “Super-Flu” bioweapon nicknamed “Captain Trips.” In that aftermath, King presents a genuinely apocalyptic struggle between good and evil that’s worthy of Revelation, but intrinsic to this tale of pestilence is the initial worry that accompanies a scratchy throat, watery eyes, a sniffling nose, and a cough that seemingly won’t go away. If anything, King’s vision is resolutely in keeping with the medieval tradition of fortuna so expertly represented by the Master of the Playing Cards or Pictor, a wisdom that when it comes to disease “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again,” as King writes.

Far from being exploitative, of only offering readers the exquisite pleasure of vicariously imagining all of society going to complete shit, there is a radical empathy at the core of much genre fiction. Readers of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novels The Walking Dead (or the attendant television series) or viewers of George Romero’s brilliant zombie classics may assume that they’ll always be the ones to survive Armageddon, but those works can force us into a consideration of the profound contingency of our own lives. Cynics might say that the enjoyment derived from zombie narratives is that they provide a means of imagining that most potent of American fantasies—the ability to shoot your neighbor with no repercussions. More than that, however, and I think that they state a bit of the feebleness of our civilization.

This is what critic Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor about how pandemic supplies “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide,” so that products and viruses alike can freely move in a globalized world. The latter can then disrupt the former, where plague proves the precariousness of the supply lines that keep food on grocery store shelves and electricity in the socket, the shockingly narrow band separating hot breakfast and cold beer from the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of life anarchic. Such is the grim knowledge of Max Brook’s World War Z where “They teach you how to resist the enemy, how to protect your mind and spirit. They don’t teach you how to resist your own people.” If medieval art and literature embraced the idea of fate, whereby it’s impossible to know who shall be first and who shall be last once the plague rats have entered port, than contemporary genre fiction has a similar democratic vision, a knowledge that wealth, power, and prestige can mean little after you’ve been coughed on. When the Black Death came to Europe, no class was spared; it took the sculptor Andrea Pisano and the banker Giovanni Villani, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the poet Jeauan Gethin, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham, and the father, mother, and friends of Boccaccio. Plague upended society more than any revolution could, and there was a strange egalitarianism to the paupers’ body-pit covered in lye. Sontag, again, writes that “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Such equality motivated the greatest of medieval artistic themes to emerge from the Black Death, that of the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.” In such imagery, painters and engravers would depict paupers and princes, popes and peasants, all linking hands with grinning brown skeletons with hair clinging to mottled pates and cadaverous flesh hanging from bones, dancing in a circle across a bucolic countryside. In the anonymous Totentanz of 1460, the narrator writes “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” During the Black Death, the fearful and the deniers alike explained the disease as due to a confluence of astrological phenomenon or noxious miasma; they claimed it was punishment for sin or they blamed religious and ethnic minorities within their midst. To some, the plague was better understood as “hoax” than reality. The smiling skulls of the Danse Macabre laugh at that sort of cowardly narcissism, for they know that pestilence is a feature of our reality and reality has a way of collecting its debts.

Illness sees no social stratification—it comes for bishop and authoritarian theocrat, king and germaphobic president alike. The final theme of the literature of pandemic, born from the awareness that this world is not ours alone, is that we can’t avert our eyes from the truth, no matter how cankered and ugly it may be in the interim. Something can be both true and senseless. The presence of disease is evidence of that. When I was little, my grandma told me stories about when she was a girl during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that took 75 million people. She described how, in front of the courthouse of her small Pennsylvania town, wagons arrived carting coffins for those who perished. Such memories are recounted to create meaning, to bear witness, to make sense, to warn, to exclaim that we were here, that we’re still here. Narrative can preserve and remake the world as it falls apart. Such is the point of telling any story. Illness reminds us that the world isn’t ours; literature let’s us know that it is—sometimes. Now—take stock. Be safe. Most of all, take care of each other. And wash your hands.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Crooked Lines of God: On Christian Wiman

Deus escreve direito por linhas tortas, goes the Portuguese saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” The sentiment inspired Brother Antoninus, a Dominican lay brother from California, to publish a book of poems titled Crooked Lines of God in 1959. “God writes straight,” Antoninus began his foreword. “My crooked lines, tortured between grace and the depraved human heart (my heart), gouge out the screed of my defection.” He writes that the “crooked is made straight only in anguish.”

Brother Antoninus was William Everson, born and raised on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. First agnostic, and then pantheist, Everson converted to Catholicism, largely inspired by the “fabulous Latin beauty, this Latin sensitivity” of his wife, the poet and artist Mary Fabilli. They separated, and Everson joined the Domincan Order as a lay brother in 1951, beginning one of the most fascinating religious interludes in contemporary poetry. Everson would renounce his vocation—but never his Catholicism—during a dramatic poetry reading in 1969. The latent sensuality of his religious verse had become sexual, and his life followed suit.

Everson’s grand departure makes me think of a poem, “The Priest at the Pool Party,” from Christian Wiman’s masterful new collection, Survival Is a Style. “Bound with vows / like Ulysses strapped to the mast,” a priest “drifts past / the white sirens” of women’s thighs, past “scooped fruits and toothpicked meats” at the party, “and is almost able / to taste the love a lack completes.” Much like the priest of this poem, Everson longed for romantic love again, but the tension between vocation and desire became too much for him.

Wiman’s new book makes him the poet that Everson might have become. This is not to devalue Everson’s life and poetry, but to merely suggest that Everson’s religious verse would have likely evolved in the direction of Wiman’s vision. Although the poets differ in generation, subject matter, and influences, Wiman’s poetry demonstrates a similar mixture of sincerity and gentle satire when it comes to matters of faith.

In his prologue to the book, Wiman writes “I need a space for unbelief to breathe”—and that space is within his poems. His treatment of religious belief and doubt in his work is not merely refreshing, it is endearing and illuminating. We can feel the struggle, the longing, for God. “Good Lord the Light” is perhaps his finest explanation of how belief is sustained by doubt. “Good morning misery, / goodbye belief, / good Lord the light / cutting across the lake / so long gone / to ice—” the poem begins, with “good Lord” functioning as both prayer and sigh. Despite our winter world, “There is an under, always, / through which things still move, breathe, / and have their being.” He ends the poem: “good God the winter / one must wander / one’s own soul / to be.”

Wiman has written of illness, ambition, doubt, and pain. A former editor of Poetry magazine who now teaches at the Yale Divinity School, Wiman has documented the crooked lines of his own life—his wavering routes of faith. He has always been a seeker. Survival Is a Style makes this search into song, and it could not have arrived at a better moment: “It may be Lord our voice is suited now / only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage. // It may be only the crudest, cruelest transformations touch us, / gauzewalkers in the hallways of a burn ward.”

The search offers no easy answers; in fact, it might offer no answers at all. In one poem, “The Sound,” Wiman writes of a “bird sanctuary with no birds. / Eerie the beauty of the empty marsh.” Here the silence of God becomes the loudest speech, a stirring toward despair. In a long elegy for his father, Wiman wonders: “What happens when we die, / every child of every father eventually asks. / What happens when we don’t / is the better question.” Later in that poem he writes “The love of God is not a thing one comprehends / but that by which—and only by which—one is comprehended.”

Those lines bring me back to Everson’s foreword. A poet concerned with his own mythos and reception—he had an infamous row with James Dickey over criticism in The Sewanee Review—Everson’s ambitious plans for his poetry were powerless compared to God. “The Divine writing goes forward,” Everson admits, “with an excoriate straightness, but never in the manner one supposes; nor does it ever relate precisely what one hopes to hear.” I suspect Wiman would appreciate that sentiment, as he closes his new book with a confession: “The more I think the more I feel / reality without reverence is not real. // The more I feel the more I think / that God himself has brought me to this brink / wherein to have more faith means having less. / And love’s the sacred name for loneliness.”

Two superficially different poets, united by a longing for God. Everson’s vision helps reveal Wiman’s tenacious embrace of belief in the face of doubt—or perhaps through doubt. “I wrote; I have written; I will write,” Everson ends his foreword. “But no matter how crooked I set it down, God writes it straight.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fail Like a Poet: Ambition and Failure in Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Solnit, Nguyen, Russell, South, Mantel, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rebecca Solnit, Kevin Nguyen, Kate Elizabeth Russell, Mary South, Hilary Mantel, 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.

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Recollections of My Nonexistence: “Author and activist Solnit (Whose Story Is This?) writes in this enlightening, nonlinear memoir of her life as a poor young woman in 1980s San Francisco and her development as a writer and feminist thinker. As a teen, Solnit fled a volatile home life to forge her path. She rented an apartment in a black neighborhood (‘I was the first white person to live in the building in seventeen years’) and acquired a writing desk from a friend who was nearly murdered by an ex (‘Someone tried to silence her. Then she gave me a platform for my voice’). While in graduate school, she worked at a museum—which informed the writing of her first book, Secret Exhibition—and struggled to be heard in a world that favored male writers. In fluid, vivid prose, she recalls the terror she experienced while walking the streets alone, not knowing if she’d be attacked or raped, and considers how negative representations of women in art affect creative output (‘How do you make art when the art that’s all around you keeps telling you to shut up and wash the dishes?’). Along the way, she highlights her publishing achievements, including the viral essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ which inspired the term mansplaining. This is a thinking person’s book about writing, female identity, and freedom by a powerful and motivating voice for change.”

New Waves by Kevin Nguyen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about New Waves: “Nguyen’s stellar debut is a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism. Margo, a 20-something black engineer, and Lucas, a 23-year-old Asian customer service rep, bond over the ingrained racism at their tech startup employer, a messaging app called Nimbus, in New York in 2009. When Margo’s strong opinions lead to her dismissal, she drunkenly convinces Lucas to help her steal the usernames and passwords of Nimbus’s users. Margo soon regrets this, but nevertheless apparently leverages the data to land her and Lucas jobs at Phantom, a rival startup with an app that immediately deletes read text messages. Margo dies in a car accident, and Lucas is distraught and afraid, wondering if the accident was really an accident or something more sinister. He steals Margo’s laptop and decides to contact Jill, a struggling writer whose work Margo spent hours providing feedback on. He and Jill stumble into a relationship while Phantom’s popularity among teenagers pushes Lucas into a new role implementing a monitoring process contrary to the lofty ambition of the founders. Lucas’s scramble to meet the growing intensity of his professional and personal lives, as well as his jealous conviction he knew Margo best, leads to a series of missteps with rippling consequences. Nguyen impressively holds together his overlapping plot threads while providing incisive criticism of privilege and a dose of sharp humor. The story is fast-paced and fascinating, but also deeply felt; the effect is a page-turner with some serious bite.”

So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about So We Can Glow: “Cross-Smith’s rich collection (after Whiskey & Ribbons) follows women exploring desire, desperation, and despair. The brief opener, ‘We, Moons,’ an explosion of slam cadence (‘We’re okay, our hearts, dusted with pink’), serves as a battle hymn of self-determination and sisterhood that thematically unites the subsequent narratives. ‘Teenage Dream Time Machine’ unfolds as a texting conversation between two mothers worried about their young, wild daughters and remembering their own impetuous youth. In ‘Pink Bubblegum and Flowers,’ a young woman crushes on one of the men rebuilding the deck on her parents’ house and navigates a tense scene of toxic masculinity. In ‘California, Keep Us,’ a Kentucky couple, mourning the loss of their baby, retreats once a month for a weekend in California to assume different identities with one another and resolve not to ‘talk about death.’ The delightfully idiosyncratic prose (‘She felt guilty about lusting over Clint. It was lazy, like cold French fries’) distinguishes each of the narrator’s points of view within common themes of love, friendship, sex, and loyalty. These stories showcase the wide range of Cross-Smith’s talent.”

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Dark Vanessa: “Russell offers readers an introspective narrative that fully captures the complexity and necessity of the #MeToo movement in her powerful debut. In the year 2000, Vanessa Wye is a lonely sophomore at Maine’s Browick boarding school. The academically gifted 15-year-old professes not to mind her solitude, especially when her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, begins to pay attention to her, remarking on her red hair and fashion sense, and lending her some of his favorite books—including Nabokov’s Lolita. Almost before Vanessa realizes what’s happening, the two have embarked on a sexual relationship, and Vanessa is convinced she’s been singled out as someone truly special—until, under threat of exposure, their relationship begins to go off the rails. Seventeen years later, Vanessa is still occasionally in contact with Jacob, but their relationship has grown tense, as another former student has gone public about his inappropriate advances. Russell’s novel, alternating between past and present, presents a damning indictment of sexual predation, as she starkly elucidates the ways in which abuse robbed Vanessa not only of her childhood but also of her own once-promising future. It also prompts readers to interrogate their own assumptions about victimhood, consent, and agency. This is a frighteningly sharp debut.”

The Gringa by Andrew Altschul

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Gringa: “Altschul’s rousing and complex third novel (after Deus Ex Machina) follows an impassioned American who spends years in prison in Peru for her involvement with a group of revolutionaries. Inspired by the true story of late-20-century activist Lori Berenson, Altschul recasts Berenson as Leonora ‘Leo’ Gelb, a Stanford student sick of capitalist America who travels to Lima in the 1990s to fight injustice. After witnessing the bulldozing of a shantytown by government forces and the arrests of protesters whom she later realizes have been forcibly disappeared, Leo falls in with the Cuarta Filosofía, Marxist insurgents for whom she leases a house that serves as the group’s headquarters. In 2008, 10 years after Leo’s imprisonment, her story is told by an ex-pat novelist named Andres, who’s been tasked with writing a profile of the ‘Gringa Terrorist’ for a news website. As Andres chronicles Leo’s emotional trajectory into violent collaboration, imagining her angst and self-doubt, he begins to second-guess his efforts and confesses he’s made some things up. Blending historical details with literary allusions, Altschul successfully creates a postmodern, Cervantes-like labyrinth (‘Everything is narrative,’ one of Leo’s professors declares. ‘Thus, history is impossible’). Amid the clever games, Altschul’s stirring portrait of the strident yet earnest Leo poses a salient question about the value of personal sacrifice.”

First, Catch by Thom Eagle

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about First, Catch: “In this gorgeously written debut, London chef Eagle reflects on the foods, customs, and histories that come into play in selecting and serving a multi-dish lunch. Twenty-four essays guide readers in meal preparation while offering curious tidbits, cultural insights, and moral arguments on food (he disdains modern poultry farming). Eagle challenges the notion of recipes as ‘scientific sets of instructions,’ instead proposing ‘they are more like short stories… told in a curious imperative.’ While the chapter titles sound instructive—’On curing with salt,’ ‘On almost frying’—he educates while contemplating such topics as Italy’s tolerance for bitter flavors, as well as meringues made out of sugar and blood (a little-known thickening agent) whipped ‘into a pinkly clouded mass.’ He explains how brining ‘alters the structure of muscle cells’ so they retain moisture, but he also waxes rhapsodically while preparing soup stock: ‘It is easy to believe that bones, lying as they do in the depths of ourselves, are the repository of the soul, or at least of special, vitally animal instincts: we know things, as they say, in our bones.’ The recipes themselves are rewarding, including one featuring a wild-caught rabbit (which Eagle suggests one first blanch to get rid of the ‘grass excrement, of musk’) that becomes the centerpiece of a ragù. This wonderfully indulgent, pleasurable compilation of culinary meditations will thrill food lovers.”

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about You Will Never Be Forgotten: “South debuts with a playful, astute collection about modern alienation. In ‘Keith Prime,’ a nurse devastated by her husband’s death works at a ‘Keith Fulfillment Center,’ where she goes against regulations by becoming attached to one of the Keiths, clones born and put into perpetual sleep before being harvested for body parts, ‘scooped out like ice cream from a bucket.’ In ‘The Age of Love,’ elderly men at an assisted living center begin calling phone sex lines, affecting the lives of the staff, including complicating the relationship between the narrator, who works at the center, and his girlfriend. ‘Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy’ takes the form of a q&a in which a neurosurgeon’s unsettled personal life bleeds into her answers. In the title story, a woman who works at ‘the world’s most popular search engine’ killing offensive and violent content begins to follow—first online, then in the real world—a man who raped her. In ‘Not Setsuko,’ a woman raises her second daughter as an exact replica of her first child, who died at nine years old, down to killing the family’s cat on the day the first daughter lost her cat (‘She loved the cat the second time as much as the first’). South’s stories are both funny and profound, often on the same page, but perhaps her best skill is plumbing the intricacies of loneliness, expertly dissecting what that term means in a technology-driven world. This is an electric jolt from a very talented writer.”

In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Lateness of the World: “In her first collection in 17 years, Forché (Blue Hour) powerfully weaves poems of witness, a travelogue steeped in elegiac contemplation of life in Finland, Italy, Russia, and, most affectingly, Vietnam. These 41 poems vibrantly catalogue human artifacts and those of the natural world. In ‘Hue: From a Notebook,’ she writes: ‘There was then the whir of stork wings, and bicycle chains ringing./ It is still now the way the air is still just before the mine explodes.// Once we fired at each other. Now we pass silence back and forth.’ Throughout, the speakers are meditative but unflinching in the face of war’s aftermath and ecological crisis: ‘From here a dog finds his way through snow with a human bone… Even the clocks have run out of time.’ ‘Museum of Stones’ displays a delightedly crackling verbal texture reminiscent of poems by Seamus Heaney (‘stone of cromlech and cairn, schist and shale, hornblende,/ agate, marble, millstones, ruins of choirs and shipyards’). Such weights anchor Forche’s genuinely moving consideration of ‘ours and the souls of others, who glimmer beside us/ for an instant… radiant with significance,’ communicating an urgent and affecting vision.”

Also on shelves:The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Telling Stories Keeps Us Alive: Rebecca Solnit’s ‘The Faraway Nearby’
Writers to Watch: Spring 2020
A Year in Reading: Kevin Nguyen
Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel

Questioning Her Own Questioning: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’

“The impulse to escape our lives is universal,” Leslie Jamison writes in her new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a book—both directly and indirectly—full of methods to escape the doldrums of daily existence: virtual-world games, travel, near-mythic sea creatures, fairy tales, past lives, the unreality of Las Vegas.
Jamison writes, “Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.” These lines capture an attitude that runs through the collection, a particular perspective that adheres together the book’s wide array of subjects and styles: even though the manifestations of our interests and beliefs might look vastly different, the same underlying challenges and desires unite us.
Jamison is known best for The Empathy Exams, an essay collection from 2014 propelled to international attention by way of its opening piece, a memoir-driven, braided essay investigating the idea of empathy. In many ways, the book was an unlikely hit. Sharing little in common with humorous personal essay collections—which often reach wide audiences and hit bestseller lists—The Empathy Exams uses a wild mix of forms and styles. It was research-based and journalistic as often as it was personal and more reminiscent of the work of writers like Baldwin and Didion.
But the magic of The Empathy Exams is simple: Jamison is a stunning writer. She’s an emotionally raw and revealing memoirist; a journalist looking outward with a keen and nuanced eye; a literary critic finding clues to understanding the modern world from the literature of the recent past. In the book, she seems to be Jo Ann Beard, Janet Malcom, and Susan Sontag all wrapped into one. And in the years since its release, The Empathy Exams has become a touchstone; one of those books that other books are frequently compared to.
Last year she published The Recovering, a personal and literary history of alcoholism and recovery. But Make It Scream, Make It Burn is the true follow-up for which fans and interested admirers have been waiting. This level of anticipation rarely bodes well. There are so many ways that a follow-up can disappoint and, as great as it is, Make It Scream, Make It Burn will surely disappoint some.
While The Empathy Exams set its tone by beginning with its most personal essay, Make It Scream begins with one of its least personal: “52 Blue,” the story of a lonely whale, singing its own tune, and the humans who turn the whale into a metaphor. It’s perhaps one of the collection’s best essays, but initially it doesn’t seem like an ideal opener; it’s a slow burn, research-heavy, loaded with exposition. It’s only through the second essay—“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” a piece about past-life claims—that “52 Blue” is put into thematic context and the work it’s done as an opener suddenly becomes obvious.
“I’d grown deeply skeptical of skepticism itself,” Jamison writes in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again.” “It seemed easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.”
It’s the ultimate essayist move: a writer questioning her own questioning; pushing against the act of pushing against. Though she never addresses where the boundaries of open-minded consideration lie, the essay’s bid for mystery and wonder feels exciting, almost ecstatic. It’s here that the book picks up speed and the collection’s larger themes come into focus: the limitations of doubt, how narrative and metaphor operate in our daily lives, and the universal need to believe in self-improvement. She writes, “Reincarnation struck me as an articulation of faith in the self as something that could transform and stay continuous at once—in sobriety, in love, in the body of a stranger.”
Jamison is an expert at restraint. She often holds her opinions back to let her readers come to their own conclusions, and she regularly keeps essays from becoming too personal to ensure the subject at hand isn’t overshadowed. But it’s when she lets the reins out—when she momentarily puts her journalist and literary-critic selves to the side—that her talent becomes more obvious.
In “Layover,” Jamison begins with a simple situation—“This is the story of a layover,” she writes. “Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now.”—and lets it expand into the universal, like the perfectly impossible textbook definition of a personal essay and what it can do. What begins as a piece about an annoying, overnight layover develops into a piece about the blurry lines between selflessness and selfishness. “Does graciousness mean you want to help—or that you don’t, and do it anyway?” Jamison writes. “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particular backstory.”
Later in the book, “Rehearsals” opens with a line announcing a certain wildness to come: “Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth.” As unhinged as the best wedding dance party, the essay flips from the second person to first person, bouncing around the country, chronicling the narrator’s experiences as a wedding guest. Beyond its sentence-level play, it manages to also be in conversation with the collection’s ideas about constructing narrative and casting doubt aside. “You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and you’re all in agreement—not to believe in love, but to want to. This, you can do.”
As skeptical as Jamison has become of skepticism, she’s still a skeptic in a certain essayistic sense: she’s always digging deeper, refusing to trust surface appearances, never letting a wedding be just a wedding. “Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings,” she writes. “They give a horizon to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.”
Despite these gems of forward motion, Make It Scream, Make It Burn doesn’t have the same energy of The Empathy Exams. In large part, it’s simply because the book is so neatly organized. While The Empathy Exams bounced between essay forms, giving it an excitement and unpredictability, this collection is broken up into three sections, with similar essays grouped together. The book is perhaps more coherent because of it, but it also creates spots where the pace slows to a crawl—especially in the middle section, where a series of three art and literary criticism essays bogs the book down, despite each essay working individually.
Still, Make It Scream is easily one of the best essay collections of the year, if not of the past decade. Jamison is a superstar of personal essay for a reason—not only is she a great prose stylist and meticulous researcher, she’s also infinitely curious. It’s this curiosity that makes everything she writes so infectious and makes this collection what it is: a wise and open assortment of essays that, throughout, feels like a gift.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fellow Creatures: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’Notes from the Purgatory File: An Interview with Leslie JamisonA Year in Reading: Leslie JamisonBottoming Out: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Recovering’The Millions Interview: Leslie Jamison

Confronting Hypocrisy on the Page: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather’

The bookseller’s baby was three months old, and when the weather turned colder she realized she owned exactly one pair of pants that fit. We lamented the high cost of ethical clothing and how hard it was to justify when one’s body was in transition. We agreed it was all too easy to give in to the temptation of fast fashion, even though we knew its impacts on the environment and human rights. We bemoaned the hunt for secondhand items—how even though there were so many on sale, there were so few of quality. Neither one of us wanted or needed jeans with bedazzled, leopard-print back pockets.

People I know often bring up the topic clothing because they know I sew and write about slow fashion—sustainable, ethical, and slower approaches to consumption that include handmade garments, buying secondhand, and mending. Recently, I started saying little in return—not because I was at a loss for words, but because everything I could say about the subject of clothing and its impacts on the environment and human rights seemed at once too complicated and eternally insufficient.

It’s all been said.

Which is how I imagine Jonathan Safran Foer felt at the outset of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. In his latest nonfiction book, the author outlines how the climate crisis can be partially addressed by reexamining, yet again, our consumption of animal products. It’s a natural progression from 2009’s Eating Animals, which combined memoir and investigative reporting to examine factory farming. Yet We Are the Weather is not interested in rehashing the same arguments as much as it is interrogating why we aren’t acting on what we know.

What we know: the four main ways to help save life on the planet are to eat less meat, drive less, fly less, and have one less child. Foer argues most of us rely on cars to get to work, many of us aren’t flying frequently (and giving up one or two flights a year wouldn’t be too difficult or too impactful), and most people aren’t deciding whether or not to have a child (though as a 32- year-old woman, it does seem like everyone is in the midst of that decision).

Out of these four, the one decision we make on a daily basis is what to eat. Another daily decision that isn’t discussed in We Are the Weather but seems worthy of consideration is what to wear.

The food system is a vastly larger animal (pun intended) than the fashion industry when it comes to ecological impact, but the latter’s influence is not insignificant: the UN reports the fashion industry “consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined,” contributes to approximately 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and produces 20 percent of global waste water. Additionally, 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of the materials could be reused. One pair of denim jeans uses 10,000 liters of water, which would take one person a decade to drink.

And yet knowing what we know doesn’t always lead to action.

Foer spent three years researching Eating Animals, followed by two years of readings, lectures, and interviews about the book. Despite this, the author couldn’t bring himself to abstain from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs.

“So it would be far easier for me not to mention that in difficult periods over the past couple of years—while going through some painful personal passages, while traveling the country to promote a novel when I was least suited for self-promotion—I ate meat a number of times,” Foer writes in We Are the Weather. “Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against.”

He adds, “And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort.”

Last year, after my mother called to say her flight had been cancelled and she wouldn’t make it for Thanksgiving, I drove to the mall. I gravitated toward rows of shoes. A pair of nude heels called out to me: faux suede, ankle strap sandals with a three-inch block heel and cross toe, marked down to $22, which happens to be my lucky number. I tried them on over socks, took a picture, and texted it to my mother, who was still on the bus home from the airport. Should I buy these? 

I knew I shouldn’t. I knew $22 for a pair of shoes meant somewhere someone had cut corners: not paying workers a living wage, unsafe factory conditions, environmentally unsound practices, or all of the above. I knew the materials were not biodegradable, so the shoes would sit in a landfill for longer than I’d ever wear them. I knew it was impractical to buy high-heeled sandals in Wisconsin in November.

And yet I bought them, wore them exactly twice, and still see them in my closet each day. They brought me comfort when I needed consolation, but the alleviation was short-lived, replaced by the discomforting fact of my complicity and hypocrisy.

In the chapter of We Are the Weather titled “Dispute With the Soul,” Foer laments how one of his friends—“a fellow writer and, what’s more, a passionate environmentalist”—refuses to read Eating Animals. “It upsets me because he is a sensitive thinker who cares and writes about the preservation of nature,” Foer writes. “If he is unwilling even to learn about the connection between eating and the environment, what hope is there for hundreds of millions of people to alter their lifelong habits?”

The chapter is a back-and-forth between the author and an unnamed, unidentified entity, presumably the soul, which asks, “Why won’t he read it?” 

Foer’s reply: “He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.”

The author clarifies that he doesn’t intend to make himself out to be better than his friend, but uses “his shortcomings to illustrate my own: if I argue against eating animal products while continuing to eat them myself, then I am a massive hypocrite.” Foer then names this as a problem not because of the impacts of those actions, but because “no one wants to be a hypocrite.”

The author investigates his own hypocrisy by mining history for stories of individuals and collectives, questioning their actions like he interrogates his own. Foer examines whether personal actions matter when the problem is systemic and structural. Everyone I spoke to about the book immediately brought up the same point: our individual habits don’t matter, and focusing on personal responsibility becomes a way of excusing corporations and entire nations whose contributions to the climate crisis are inexcusable.

The title and subtitle seriously oversimplify Foer’s book, and what could be misconstrued as a pedantic and mildly pejorative tome extolling the virtues of veganism is actually an investigation of our daily choices, what they say about us as individuals, and what they could say about humanity. It is not about food so much as it is about life and how to live it, which is fitting as the two are inextricably linked.

Nonfiction is often a presentation of the author’s research tied up with a neat conclusion about what to do with this information. We Are the Weather essentially says: I did the research, I know the conclusion, but I am unable to live into what I know is right and good—not just for me but also for future generations. 

“Confronting my own hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to live—even to try to live—with open eyes,” Foer writes.

Although the environmental impacts of clothing manufacturing are not unpacked in We Are the Weather, Foer collaborated with sustainability-minded designer Stella McCartney on a capsule collection named after the book. It’s not the first time a major label has emblazoned a book’s title on a t-shirt—in 2016, Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, designed white tees featuring the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists for her inaugural collection. Dior’s feminist shirts will set you back $860, while Foer’s are $530 apiece; their high price tags perpetuate the unfortunate notion that slow fashion or feminism are for those who can afford it, as though they are luxuries.

Reflecting on the collaboration three years later, Adichie told Elle, “A t-shirt is not going to change the world, right? But I think change happens when we spread ideas.”

The building and layering of ideas and stories in the book becomes an implicit reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight. Decisions are daily, and the impacts are revealed over time, many of which are unseen by those who have the privilege of choice, keeping us from implementing any personal, meaningful change. At points, Foer returns to the linguistic roots of words like “crisis,” which “derives from the Greek krisis, meaning ‘decision.’”

“Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose what was previously hidden,” he writes. “As the planetary crisis unfolds as a series of emergencies, our decisions will reveal who we are.”

We’re grappling with who we are as a society and culture—not only to let the climate crisis reach this point, but to continue to hurtle down a terrifying trajectory. We may not know who we are just yet, but we know who we don’t want to be: hypocrites—people who act contradictory to their stated beliefs or feelings.

The word hypocrisy is borrowed from the Greek hypokrisis: playing a part on the stage, pretending to be something one is not. Is it a coincidence that the latter half of hypokrisis is the same root as krisis, a decision?

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer
Sentimental and Manipulative: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’
Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’
Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’