Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Solnit, Strout, Gaitskill, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Strout, Mary Gaitskill, 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.
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Orwell’s Roses: “Solnit carefully charts the life of George Orwell (1903–1950) by focusing on his love of roses and all things natural in this brilliant survey (after Recollections of My Nonexistence). Her study of the ‘sublimely gifted essayist’ and novelist is not a biography, she notes, rather ‘a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses.’ After reading an essay in which Orwell expounds upon the power of trees, Solnit begins to see his writing differently, spotting more ‘enjoyment’ in his work. She follows Orwell’s ‘episodic’ life from his birth in northern India to coal mines in England, to Spain, and through his marriages, but begins with and returns often to his midlife in Wallington, England, where he rented a cottage in 1936 and planted his roses. She also traces her own interests that mirror his, such as climate, class, and politics—Orwell wrote ‘about toads and spring but also about principles and values and arguing with an orthodoxy.’ A disquisition on the suffragists’ song ‘Bread and Roses’ and a look at the rose trade in Bogotá happen along the way, but Solnit never loses sight of Orwell and his relationship to nature: ‘Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening,’ he wrote. Fans of Marta MacDowell’s biographies of gardening writers will appreciate this lyrical exploration.”

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Oh William!: “Loneliness and betrayal, themes to which the Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout has returned throughout her career, are ever present in this illuminating character-driven saga, the third in her Amgash series, after Anything Is Possible. Narrated by Lucy Barton, now a successful writer, the story picks up after the death of Lucy’s second husband as she navigates her relationship with her unfaithful first husband, William, the father of her two grown daughters. Lucy and William are still close friends, and though William has also remarried, he still needs Lucy, and she him. When William discovers he has a half sister, he summons Lucy, rather than his current wife, to visit where she lives in Maine. Lucy’s quest—indeed Strout’s quest—is to understand people, even if she can’t stand them. ‘We are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean,’ she reflects. The strength of Lucy’s voice carries the reader, and Strout’s characters teem with angst and emotion, all of which Strout handles with a mastery of restraint and often in spare, true sentences. ‘But when I think Oh William! don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves! Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.’ It’s not for nothing that Strout has been compared to Hemingway. In some ways, she betters him.”

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Monster in the Middle: “Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) inventively juxtaposes the start of a new relationship with family histories in this sumptuous saga. Fly Lovett meets Stela Jones in early 2020 during the lockdown in New York City, while he’s enrolled in grad school for music theory and she’s doing teacher training for high school biology. Yanique builds up to their meeting by recounting their parents’ failed relationships, as well as their own. Fly’s father, Gary, a Black man who deploys an idiosyncratic range of religious practices to cope with his mental illness, holds a flame for a white girlfriend well into his marriage with Ellenora and past the birth of their son, Earl, in 1991. Earl, rechristened Fly by a scamming preacher, later has his heart broken in college by a woman who uses sex as a missionizing tool. Meanwhile, Stela’s mother, an orphan from Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, raises Stela with her second husband. Stela breaks off an engagement to her first love, a South African–born white American, after a traumatic experience on her semester abroad in Ghana. Each arc reads as an evocative short story and an episode in the two protagonists’ complex set of unraveled connections. This introspective exploration of first and lasting loves will hit the spot with fans of character-driven family dramas.”

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Days of Afrekete: “In Rona Jaffe Award winner Solomon’s illuminating latest (after Disgruntled), two middle-aged women who were friends at Bryn Mawr reflect on sexuality, race, and selfhood. While Liselle Belmont prepares to host a dinner party for her husband, Winn, at their house in Philadelphia after his failed state legislative bid, she remembers her mother’s taunts about her upper echelon lifestyle, habitually delivered with an ‘acid whoop of laughter.’ On a whim, Liselle leaves a phone message with her old friend and lover Selena Octave. Solomon flashes back to the women’s years at Bryn Mawr, where they met in the school’s first Black literature course taught by a Black professor (and which was overcrowded by white students), and digs into the nuances of campus lesbianism and racial politics. Since then, Selena has been in and out of a psychiatric hospital for anxiety, and the two have fallen out of touch. Liselle reflects on her ‘ever twoness as the Black mistress of a tiny plantation,’ complete with a housemaid, and Solomon focuses on Selena’s sensitivity to racial trauma, such as her interest in writing about the MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia in 1985. When Selena finally receives Liselle’s message, and as Liselle frets about Winn’s legal troubles, the outcome is unexpected and powerful. Solomon brings wit and incisive commentary to this pristine take on two characters’ fascinating and painful lives.”

I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Will Die in a Foreign Land: “In Pickhart’s ardent, sprawling debut, a set of memorable characters attempt to lay bare the truths of recent conflicts in the Ukraine. Among the thousands of demonstrators gathered in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014 to protest Russian interference, the reader meets four whose lives have been shattered by the consequences of their country’s tragic history, which until 1991 never once included independence. Katya has fled Boston and a failing marriage to treat Euromaidan protesters in a makeshift triage site at St. Michael’s Monastery. While tending to a mortally wounded old Soviet pianist named Aleksandr Ivanovich, she discovers cassette tapes the onetime KGB agent recorded, addressed to his long-lost daughter. Katya also treats Misha Tkachenko, a selfless and courageous engineer from a town near Chernobyl whose wife died of radiation sickness. Misha has returned to the violent streets day after day, looking out for his friend and sometime lover Slava, another protester, blue-haired and fiery. Together their stories, which the author weaves in and out of the novel nonchronologically, create a portrait of the complicated and calamitous region. As Katya and Misha grow closer, Slava meets a doomed journalist with whom she falls in love, and through revelations in Aleksandr’s tapes, the reader learns how indelibly connected each of these major characters—and very many minor ones—are. This bighearted novel generously portrays the unforgettable set of characters through their determination to face oppression. It’s a stunner.”

The Devil’s Treasure by Mary Gaitskill

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Devil’s Treasure: “Gaitskill’s curious new project (after the novella This Is Pleasure) looks back on four of her previous novels and a memoir, splices them with critical self-reflections, and threads the needle with a short work in progress. The slight frame story concerns a seven-year-old girl named Ginger who journeys to hell through a hole in her backyard. As she makes her way back home, she encounters nightmarish reflections, demonic strangers, and Satan himself. But the bulk of the book is excerpts from past books including Veronica (2005), about a budding fashion model, and The Mare (2015), concerning two girls who come of age in upstate New York, where one visits from Brooklyn over the years as part of the Fresh Air Fund, and ride horses together. Hence the reader has several versions of troubled suburban girlhood, haunted or abusive fathers, and barbed early friendships, bordered by long sections in which Gaitskill reflects on her use of the themes, recalls the conditions and intent behind the books’ composition, and responds to her critics. As an experiment, this doesn’t quite come together. At its best, it functions as a showcase for Gaitskill’s powerful back catalog, but more often the indulgent structure fails to hold and obscures her intent. While her insights will prove valuable to her most ardent fans, everyone else can take a pass.”

The Good Art Friend

- | 2

The current Internet-fueled maelstrom ignited by the article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”—about two writers and the putative ownership of a “kidney story:” for one writer it was a lived experience; for the other it was something to render in fiction— in all its dizzying permutations, the details of which were further recast in a court case, made me wonder if the corollary, the Good Art Friend, must then also exist.

First, I have to admit I am not sure what an “art friend” is at all. Full disclosure: I am Facebook friends with both protagonists, as well as with the writer of the original piece. I’m also a little unclear how and where the adjective good/bad attaches (to friend? to art?).

Since the definition is up for grabs, I’ve defining BAF as someone who is on the whole deleterious to your art, but probably good to their own, and may or may not be a friend—if we define friend as someone who cares for you, shows up for you, and genuinely shares in your joys. The GAF is the good friend who helps you on your journey, often in ways you don’t expect and don’t appreciate until enough time has passed for hindsight.

For Sale/Kidney Story, Never Authorized was an insightful newsletter post by my erstwhile creative writing colleague Lincoln Michel. The post made me think about how no matter how solitary we are as artists, even Emily Dickinson grabbed the details of life including those of the people closest to her for her work. For me, my oldest art friend, besides my Royal typewriter,  is my hometown best friend, Patti. She is my art friend exemplar, even though, as a VP-CFO of an insurance company, people might say, she’s not an artist, which makes me say, how do we define art and is the “artist” solely responsible for—and the benefiter of—its creation?

Patti and I met, admittedly, in the most incredibly catty way, excusable because we were only 10 or 11: piano recitals. I suffered through years of piano lessons, every minute of which I loathed— the opening bars of “Für Elise” will be forever a trigger—plus the added misery of recitals and competitions, all of which took place in the basement of our public library, where I once took a karate class in hopes it would protect me from racist bullies.  In our small town we actually had three or more piano teachers, which meant sitting through interminable rounds of little kids picking out “Chopsticks.” In our cohort, I felt Patti was the most talented, but most of the attention went to a boy pianist (whom I won’t even refer to here, for our nickname for him will make him instantly recognizable) whom we felt received unnecessary and excessive praise from our teachers solely for being the rare dude.

We actually didn’t dislike Boy Pianist on a personal level, we just truly felt the adulation he received from our teachers gave short shrift to Patti’s talents. Patti was also being raised by a single dad, a miner, after her mother was killed in a car accident, and unlike me with my Asian Tiger parents and the other kids, she continued to play of her own accord and because of her talent. This was also my first lesson in how you can bond with a fellow artist by being annoyed at a third artist.

Patti was also the person who constantly pushed me to venture into new experiences, like the time before we had driver’s licenses when we tried biking to the next town, which required a short and terrifying stint on the highway. The sense of risk and being able to sit with uncertainty is essential for any art, and I don’t know if I would have developed it on my own. I also secretly thought I was a very humorous person, but without a sparring partner, how to develop those skills? Patti was and still is one of the quickest and funniest people I know. Imagine my delight as a child finally finding someone who shared my passion for MAD magazine. Not to mention that being the only student of color in our high school made me a magnet for bullies, and often I was too tired, too scared, too full of self-loathing to defend myself, but Patti never seemed to tire of defending me.

When I wrote my first novel, a YA story set in high school, a Patti-esque character figured prominently. It was easy to develop a fully realized character basically plagiarizing my colorful friend, including her telling off racist bullies. The novel did end up with race as a prominent theme, but much of my motivation came from feeling the experiences of youth slipping away and wanting to trap them in fiction.  In various drafts, the protagonist became more and more fictional: I was an avatar of a better and braver high school self, the racial and intergenerational themes became more prominent, while the Patti character largely remained Patti, with fictional details created or rearranged for plot.
When I pull up, her house is dark; her father doesn’t come home from the mines until late in the evening, so she doesn’t leave the lights on.

I’ve never met Jessie’s mom. One Thanksgiving, long before Jessie and I became friends, an Arkin High student killed her when he came barreling down the wrong side of the street in his pickup–apparently he’d been drinking while watching the football game

I stare out at the night. I won’t drive drunk tonight–or any night. No way.

Jessie opens the door to the car. “Hi, Ellen,” she said. As she hoists herself into the Blazer, the flowery smell of Sweet Honesty fills the car, followed by the slight trace of cooking smell—fried something.
In homage, I had even left the character’s name as “Patti.” How it changed to “Jessie,” I will explain.

While I was still working on the novel, I pooled all my vacation time from my day job and went to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where I got to work with the late wondrous Nancy Willard. One critique she had was that the two characters, Ellen and Patti, were “too alike.” Maybe revise Ellen “up” and Patti “down,” she suggested. I still remember the hand motions she made. Up and down. So I indeed made Ellen even nerdier (and much kinder) than I was high school, and roughened the Patti character around the edges. However you want to look at it, these changes helped get the book into a publishable state.

When Houghton Mifflin bought the book, I giddily sent Patti the manuscript, excited to see what she’d think about the daredevil BFF character, modeled so closely on her that, not unlike what happened in For Sale/Kidney Story, I proudly used her real name.

I assumed she would be over the moon for me and be happy to see a fictional version of our friendship immortalized in print. And I inadvertently proved the truism one of our teachers used to use, that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.

She called to let me know she’d read the manuscript. Then she started yelling at me about how angry she was at what I had done, and then hung up.  I, confused and panicked, called back only to get various iterations of the loud hang-up. This was in the time of landlines and hang-ups were pretty emphatic. Finally, her husband answered the phone, and kindly said Patti didn’t want to talk to me and it would be better to just stop calling.

Of course I considered not publishing, but I comforted myself that although she had expressed her hurt over my “betrayal,” she never asked me not to publish. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if she did.

I did frantically call my editor to have the name changed to “Jessie.” I remember being in extremis to the point my editor said, “Wow, this makes me wonder how much else in the book is true.”

With fiction, it’s all true, and it’s all a lie. The relevant issue was whether I was being a Bad Art friend at that moment. It reminds me a little bit of Bob Dylan, who was also from our town. In his early post-Hibbing years, exploring the folk scene, many people would dig out their prized one-of-a-kind folk records only to find the next day they’d been swiped by Dylan because he so single mindedly needed them. That was an unequivocally rotten thing to do, and legally actionable, but now that Dylan is Dylan, no one called foul, everyone seemed glad for their small contribution to American arts and culture. Was that similar to what I was doing? Tearing single-mindedly into my project and hoping for forgiveness later? Would that require me becoming as famous and influential as Dylan as a justification?

I didn’t know, and maybe I still don’t know. All I knew is that I had set myself on a path that I wanted to follow, and did.

But I still missed her. I told her so, in various missives I would put in the mail every few months (I was too terrified to call). They were never reciprocated.

Until one day.

My second book, a middle grade novel set in junior high and completely Patti free, had just been published and had gotten some press in the Minneapolis newspapers, including mentions that I was in town. Patti, who had moved there shortly after our high school graduation, called me up without preamble, congratulated me on my new book, told me she had a coupon for a favorite restaurant, Ciatti’s (RIP), and would I help her fulfill the buy one, get one?

I was ready to leap into her arms when we met, but she clearly was not intending to resume where we left off. Conflict avoidant as always, I didn’t push. I ate my meal, we talked about my new book. I remember we laughed, sporadically, perhaps about how “cappuccino” at this restaurant was Sanka with whipped cream on top. The connection was still there.

We tentatively put each other on Christmas card lists. With social media, we friended and accepted the requests. We enjoyed spying on her former piano nemesis this way. Years later, she and another high school friend, Lisa, visited me in New York. Back at the apartment, she noticed my compendia of MADs and asked to borrow one. We still didn’t talk about “it.” The novel had gone out of print for a second time years ago, so it seemed we could just not talk about it forever.

Occasionally things go better than you expect—not often, even less often in publishing, but it happens. My novel had a brief second life at HarperCollins, then promptly went out of print again. But maybe 10 years later, an out-of-nowhere BuzzFeed article listed Finding My Voice as one of 15 YA Books From The ’80s And ’90s That Have Stood The Test Of Time, and set it on its third reanimation, with Soho Press.

This time, I resolved to be a better friend than artist.  During a visit to Minneapolis, I asked Patti—making sure to do it while we were driving in a car and at night so I wouldn’t have to look at her—if it was “okay” to republish.

“Oh my God Mawee,” she said, using my childhood nickname. “Of course it is.”

“But, um, you were kind of mad back then.”

“I was out of my mind then.”

She explained more about what she’d been going through at the time, and she said she felt she had acted inappropriately. I told her that the things she had said to me in anger—”You ripped out huge pieces of my life.” “Is that what you think of me?”—still stand. My bleating “But you were the hero in the book and in my life” was not a good defense on my part. I built a character on the details of her life I had gleaned as her friend, not someone doing an interview, something I now do routinely for research for my fiction.

Patti was sincere in her permission for this third go-round. Needing to reread it for republication, I was startled at how the novel now read like it had been written by someone else. Obviously, I could easily pick out where I mined the shared details of our lives, but  enough time has passed that I could see that the real/actual memories had been transformed beyond recognition–something I think Patti saw before I did. I remember writing that very first draft, being conscious that I was altering the “car accident” narrative to include alcohol, to make a character point that Ellen is aware she would not drink and drive—only to find the lived detail was Patti’s mother having a heart attack in the car, which I had somehow misremembered as a car accident. Thus, this detail in the book, which works in the text to provide characterization is still “inspired” if not “copied” from a real person’s life—and the most devastating event of that person’s life, at that. Is it okay to use it just for my “art”? I consider then the grace she extended to me despite my complete lack of consideration of her feelings when we were 28 and I was working so hard to get published. In late 2020, I casually informed my high school friends via group email about my virtual (COVID-19) launch for Finding My Voice, and I almost cried with joy to see her face in the Zoom panes.

Last, week, I did a book club visit to group of Korean American adults reading YA. All the readers, one by one, mused on how much better their high school lives would have been if they had had a Jessie  by their side. They were all amazed and somewhat envious when I explained Jessie was more or less my real BFF.  I know that I am lucky this way, now more than ever. Not just to have a viable writing career but to have a lifelong friend.

One important life lesson from these decades of career, ambition, writing, and friendship is that change is real and it’s happening all the time despite our attempts to deny it. What both Art Friend stories show is that there’s no one way to be an artist, and there’s no one way to be a friend. The who-what-why changes over time, as do the boundaries of what is moral, ethical, allowable. What is appropriation, what is theft, and the big question: Is the artist solely responsible for her art (for praise or opprobrium, including the legal kind)? I think the only remedy is to resist our very human urge to adjudicate sides: Who’s right? Who’s the bad one here? This is a toxic path that can spiral forever, with nothing resolved, feelings continually hurt, nothing generative, and only the lawyers and the third-party chronicler (in Bad Art Friend’s case) profiting. If there’s one thing being Buddhist has taught me, it’s that once you let go of attempting to impute value—win/loss, good/bad—to whatever it is unfolding in front of your face, you can actually be open to what the moment is. And that by just being actively kinder, defaulting to the kinder impulse is spiritually profitable for all. In my defense, my version of our friendship is also mine to tell, and it is my blind spot to not consider others’ feelings while I work that actually allows me to create; in fact, I consider such focus a help, not a hindrance as far as my writing is concerned. Furthermore, we see that no one actually owns memories, and even these change with time and perspective. For Patti and me, the very same event that was “bad” back then has proved to be “good” today. But the whole time, the only thing that mattered and still matters is our connection, in art and life.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday New Release Day: Starring Ball, Orlean, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Bethany Ball, Susan Orlean, 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 Pessimists by Bethany Ball

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Pessimists: “An expensive private school in an affluent Connecticut suburb becomes the focal point for three families in Ball’s appealing if predictable sophomore effort (after What to Do About the Solomons). City expats Gunter and Rachel meet fellow Petra School parents Tripp and Virginia at a New Year’s Eve party thrown at their house, where doomsday prepper Tripp stockpiles guns in the basement. Tripp’s best friend, Richard, is there with his wife, Margot, but he’s pursuing Virginia, a novelist with no shortage of fawning male fans who appreciate her looks as much as her work. There’s also a trickster principal named Agnes, a secret cancer, an accidental near-murder, and an extramarital affair almost happens, and while the threads occasionally captivate, no single plot line prevails, and the many asides fizzle out with almost no consequence. Unfortunately, the narrative’s emotional flatness (as well as that of the characters) makes this feel somewhat schematic, and the plot is too intricate for its own good. Despite some moments of charm, this feels like it’s missing a sense of purpose.”

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky: “In this richly imagined historical from Pulitzer finalist Verble (for Maud’s Line), a young Cherokee woman performs as a horse-diver at an amusement park in Nashville, Tenn. It’s 1926, and automobiles and movies are starting to make electric streetcars and live-entertainment venues obsolete, but Two Feathers’s novelty act is still a big draw at Glendale Park, built at the end of a trolley line. One day, as Two Feathers and her horse are performing, a giant sinkhole opens up and swallows them. Two’s beloved mare, Ocher, dies in the fall, and Two’s leg is broken. With her act no longer possible and her future uncertain, Two recuperates in her dormitory. Her friends rally to her side, notably Hank Crawford, the descendant of enslaved people and a plantation owner. But owning land and having light skin don’t guarantee protection from the deadly dangers of Jim Crow, and Verble shows how Crawford takes various matters into his own hands rather than go to the racist police. Visions of the departed haunt many of these characters, and the dead have an impact on the present. When a hippo dies and a beloved bear cub is found dead, Two discerns how and why they were killed, and, later, after a man is found scalped, prejudice leads some to suspect Two of the murder. Verble beautifully weaves period details with the cast’s histories, and enthralls with the supernatural elements, which are made as real for the reader as they are for the characters. This lands perfectly.”

MacArthur Park by Judith Freeman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about MacArthur Park: “Freeman returns to characters from her first novel, The Chinchilla Farm (1991), for a story of two women whose lives range well beyond the origins of their small Utah town. In 1984, Verna Fields’s husband leaves her, prompting her to travel to Los Angeles and move in temporarily with her old friend Jolene Carver, now a renowned feminist performance artist who left their town and their faith after being disillusioned by her parents’ infidelity. Shortly after Verna’s arrival, Jolene divorces her husband, Vincent, and ends up in Europe, where her artistic reputation continues to blossom. Three years later, Verna marries Vincent, an eccentric, self-absorbed musician and composer who introduces her to the arts, and she eventually publishes a collection of short stories and a book about Raymond Chandler. After a 30-year absence, Jolene, diminished in health, reappears in L.A. and asks Verna to drive her to their hometown for one last visit. During their trip, jealousies, secrets and passions are revealed, underscoring their opposing views on life: Verna prefers a cocoon of complacency with married life, while Jolene feels the radical feminist views she adopted in the 1970s still apply. Despite some tedious pedantic dialogue, Freeman manages to convey the bonds and challenges of the women’s friendship. The author’s fans will appreciate this layered story.”

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Small Pleasures: “In Chambers’s affecting latest (after the YA mystery Burning Secrets), the year is 1957 and Jean Swinney is a single Englishwoman approaching 40 who cares for her demanding mother and lives for the small pleasures in life—like pottering in her vegetable patch or loosening her girdle at the end of the day. Jean works as features editor for the North Kent Echo. Her new assignment is to interview Gretchen Tilbury, who claims to have delivered a child through virgin birth. Wanting to keep an open mind, Jean meets with the no-nonsense Gretchen, who was confined to an all-female nursing home, St. Cecilia’s, with rheumatoid arthritis at the time of conception. Jean also meets Gretchen’s charming 10-year-old daughter, Margaret, and her dedicated husband, Howard. Jean arranges for Gretchen and Margaret to undergo medical tests at Charing Cross Hospital to prove if parthenogenesis actually took place. As the months pass, Jean becomes more and more enmeshed in the lives of the Tilbury family even as her friendship with Howard threatens to turn into something more. Chambers does an excellent job of recreating the austere texture of post-WWII England. In Jean, the author creates a character who strives admirably to escape her cloistered existence. Chambers plays fair with Gretchen’s mystery, tenderly illuminating the hidden yearnings of small lives.”

We Imagined It Was Rain by Andrew Siegrist

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Imagined It Was Rain: “In his debut collection of loosely connected stories set mostly in Tennessee, some of which draw on local folklore, Siegrist shows a remarkable ability to evoke the missing pieces in his characters’ lives. As the title suggests, water, in all its variations, is central to these tales of lost love, memory, and transformation. In the haunting ‘Heirloom,’ Cole, who has lost his son and moved to a cabin in the woods, meets Tia, a young woman who tells him about a coffin full of water buried in the hills. At the end of the story, she lures him into the dark forest where he can smell the ‘heavy scent of salt from a buried sea.’ Rae, a young woman in ‘Beneath Dark Water,’ lives in fear of her physically abusive boyfriend, Darcy, a heavy drinker. In ‘Shouting Down the Preacher,’ a man has lost his wife and his calling to infidelity, and blames himself when his former church floods. Even in the midst of the author’s piercing look into the human heart, however, there is humor, albeit dark. ‘Elephants’ and ‘How to Hang a Circus Elephant’ are connected stories about Mary, a rogue elephant who has to be shot, hanged, and buried. Her tusks, rumored to be visible aboveground, give the town an odd notoriety. With their universal themes, Siegrist’s folkloric stories have plenty of appeal.”

On Animals by Susan Orlean

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Animals: “New Yorker staff writer Orlean (The Library Book) delivers an entertaining and informative look at various animals in this clever collection of essays. According to Orlean, her ‘animalish’ personality has driven her to track down critters her whole life, as well as stories of humans as animalish as she. In ‘Lady and the Tigers,’ she profiles a tiger owner in Jackson, N.J., while ‘Little Wing’ sees her documenting a teenager’s relationship to her carrier pigeons in Boston. The essays are well researched and showcase a keen journalistic eye, as in ‘Lion Whisperer,’ which covers Kevin Richardson’s frolicsome relationship with lions, and ‘The Rabbit Outbreak,’ which details the spread of a disease in rabbits across the globe. Orlean’s prose dazzles when she uses human metaphors to describe the natural world, conjuring up hilariously vivid images: Biff, a show dog, has ‘the earnest and slightly careworn expression of a smalltown mayor’; Keiko the whale, who starred in Free Willy, is ‘a middle-aged piebald virgin living as good a life as captivity could offer’; and carrier pigeons are ‘muttering to themselves like old men in a bingo hall.’ While not all the essays land (some leave something to be desired in Orlean’s examination of the human-animal relationship), they’re nonetheless packed with spirit. Animal lovers will find much to savor.”

Also on shelves this week: The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Franzen, Toews, Watkins, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jonathan Franzen, Miriam Toews, Claire Vaye Watkins, 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.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Crossroads: “Franzen (Purity) returns with a sweeping and masterly examination of the shifting culture of early 1970s America, the first in a trilogy. The action is centered on the small Illinois town of New Prospect, where the each of the Hildebrandts is experiencing a sea change. The father, Russ, is an associate minister at First Reformed Church and has developed an illicit attraction to a new parishioner, the widow Frances Cottrell, whose zest for life makes Russ feel a renewed sense of his ‘edge.’ Russ is also embroiled in a yearslong feud with Rick Ambrose, who runs the church’s youth organization, Crossroads. Clem, Russ’s oldest son, is at college and having a sexual awakening with his girlfriend, Sharon, who pleads with him not to drop out and lose his deferment (‘I’m going to do whatever they want me to do, which probably means Vietnam,’ he says, referencing his low lottery number). Becky, Clem’s younger sister, inherits a large sum of money from an aunt and isn’t sure if she should share it with her brothers, especially Perry, who is brilliant but cold and self-medicates with weed and ’ludes. All of the characters’ sections are convincingly rendered, and perhaps best of all are those narrated by Russ’s wife, Marion, who had a psychotic breakdown 30 years earlier that she is just starting to come to terms with. As complications stack up for the Hildebrandts, they each confront temptation and epiphany, failure and love. Throughout, Franzen exhibits his remarkable ability to build suspense through fraught interpersonal dynamics. It’s irresistible.”

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fight Night: “Toews (Women Talking) continues her consideration of the theme of women’s self-determination in this indelible and darkly hilarious portrait of an unforgettable Toronto family. Framed as a long letter to eight-year-old Swiv’s absent father in her brisk, matter-of-fact voice, it also features letters to her mother and others. After being expelled from school for fighting, she grows closer to her larger-than-life grandmother, Elvira, who ‘has one foot in the grave’ and dives into homeschooling with gusto, convening so-called editorial meetings and devising assignments to write letters to one another. Meanwhile, Swiv’s mother, Mooshie, a pregnant actor, is prone to dramatic and sometimes violent mood swings, leading Swiv to fear Mooshie might succumb to the same mental illness that led to her aunt’s and grandfather’s suicides. The harder-edged Mooshie, who wants a ‘cold IPA and a holiday’ for her birthday, and the exuberant Elvira, are both brash and fearless, traits that alternately embarrass and inspire Swiv. Through these women’s letters and stories, readers glimpse histories of grief, loss, and abuse, making Grandma’s assertion that ‘joy… is resistance’ even more powerful. The moving conclusion, which has its roots in a plan for Swiv and Elvira to visit family members in California, shuns sentimentality and celebrates survival. Fierce and funny, this gives undeniable testimony to the life force of family. It’s a knockout.”

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lincoln Highway: “Towles’s magnificent comic road novel (after A Gentleman in Moscow) follows the rowdy escapades of four boys in the 1950s and doubles as an old-fashioned narrative about farms, families, and accidental friendships. In June 1954, 18-year-old Emmett Watson returns to his childhood farm in Morgen, Neb., from a juvenile detention camp. Emmett has been released early from his sentencing for fighting because his father has died and his homestead has been foreclosed. His precocious eight-year-old brother, Billy, greets him, anxious to light out for San Francisco in hopes of finding their mother, who abandoned them. Plans immediately go awry when two escaped inmates from Emmett’s camp, Duchess and Woolly, appear in the Watsons’ barn. Woolly says his grandfather has stashed $150,000 in the family’s Adirondack Mountains cabin, which he offers to split evenly between the three older boys. But Duchess and Woolly take off with Emmett’s Studebaker, leaving the brothers in pursuit as boxcar boys. On the long and winding railway journey, the brothers encounter characters like the scabrous Pastor John and an endearing WWII vet named Ulysses, and Billy’s constant companion, a book titled Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventures, and Other Intrepid Travelers, provides parallel story lines of epic events and heroic adventures. Woolly has a mind for stories, too, comparing his monotonous time in detention to that of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo and hoping eventually to experience a ‘one-of-a-kind kind of day.’ Towles is a supreme storyteller, and this one-of-a-kind kind of novel isn’t to be missed.”

April in Spain by John Banville

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about April in Spain: “Banville’s slow-moving eighth crime thriller featuring Irish pathologist Quirke (after 2015’s Even the Dead) finds Quirke and his wife, Evelyn, vacationing in San Sebastián, Spain. When the couple forget to buy an oyster-opening tool, Quirke tries to use a nail scissors instead and accidentally wounds himself badly enough that Evelyn insists they go to a hospital. There, he’s initially examined by Angela Lawless, an Irish physician who looks familiar, but who never returns to the exam room, leaving another doctor to tend to the injury. Her appearance and her initials lead Quirke to suspect that she’s actually April Latimer, a woman believed to be dead. April’s brother, who was sexually involved with his sibling, had confessed to killing her before taking his own life. Quirke shares his suspicions with his daughter, Phoebe, who had been April’s friend, and Phoebe travels to Spain to see for herself. Meanwhile, a psychotic hit man emotionally attached to his gun lurks in the background. The melodramatic ending doesn’t compensate for a story line too slight for the book’s length. Banville has been much better.”

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Monticello: “Johnson wrestles with questions of racial identity, post-racial society, and the legacies of slavery in her masterly debut collection. The pitch-perfect opener, ‘Control Negro,’ follows Cornelius, a Black history professor whose peers mistake him for a janitor and whom white students mock with racist jokes, prompting him to plot with a married Black graduate student to have a son together and give him opportunities equal to those of ‘Average Caucasian Males.’ In the experiment, the ‘Control Negro’ doesn’t learn the identity of his father, and Cornelius observes from a distance, hopeful his son will turn out better. Other stories reckon with institutionalized racism in schools (‘Something Sweet on the Tongue’) and the collateral damage wrought by the trauma endured by immigrants prior to leaving their homelands (‘King of Xandria’). The superb title novella is set in the near future in Charlottesville, Va., where the Unite the Right rally has cast a long shadow and white supremacists pillage the downtown area. A collective of BIPOC residents decamp to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, seeking refuge. There’s Da’Naisha Hemings Love; her white boyfriend, Knox; and her other largely Black and brown neighbors. Love and her grandmother, MaViolet, descend from the Jefferson-Sally Hemings lineage, and thus occupy a unique position in the group. The author’s riveting storytelling and skill at rendering complex characters yield rich social commentary on Monticello and Jefferson’s complex ideologies of freedom, justice, and liberty. This incandescent work speaks not just to the moment, but to history.”

Reprieve by James Han Mattson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Reprieve: “Mattson (The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves) returns with the smart and harrowing story of a killing at a haunted house. In 1997, Victor Dunlap, a bank manager who used to teach English in Thailand, agrees to participate in a full-contact escape room–style challenge at Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebr. His four-person team includes his fiancée, Jane Roth, who is obsessed with Halloween but finds being handcuffed, shocked, and muzzled with electrical tape by the haunted house’s staff to be a bit too much; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a university student whom Victor had taught in Kanchanaburi, and who sought Victor out in the U.S. because he had a crush on him. The house supplies a fourth teammate, Bryan Douglas, a Black university student whose throat is slit in the house by Leonard Grandton in front of the others, who initially think it’s part of the act. Leonard had developed a friendship with the man who owns Quigley, before becoming needy and erratic. The tense, well-paced story—meted out in snippets of courtroom transcriptions during Leonard’s trial and chapters from various characters’ points of view, including Bryan’s cousin Kendra, who recently moved to Lincoln from Washington, D.C., and whose friend back east was concerned about her ‘managing all that white’—gradually reveals thematic connections as everyone grapples with understanding why Bryan was killed. It adds up to a canny use of horror as metaphor for themes of guilt, race, and sexuality.”

Search History by Eugene Lim

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Search History: “Montage is the message in the elliptical, swirly latest from Lim (Dear Cyborgs), who delivers a post-human manifesto on loss, identity, and the transfigurative potential of art. Billed as ‘a murder mystery, an outdated owner’s manual… a broken novel,’ this outing opens with a ‘dysthymic artificial intelligence scientist’ experimenting with machines capable of creating poetry and prose on behalf of a galactic corporation while a robot named César Aira discusses cyborg aesthetics with his own ex-wife. A no less outlandish plot soon bubbles up in New York City. Based on an overheard conversation, a grieving friend of the late Frank Exit—outré pianist, drug aficionado, virtual reality explorer—becomes convinced that Frank has been reincarnated as a robot dog named Izzy and teams up with an amnesiac clown-school graduate calling herself Donna Winters, who is herself convinced that the dog holds the key to being reunited with her deceased mother, to steal Izzy from the enigmatic Doctor Y before they can escape by rocket to the far side of the moon. Meanwhile, a group of old friends gather at the restaurant they’ve dubbed ‘Inauthentic Sushi’ to discuss dreams, ghosts, and the lives of Asian American entertainers. Also in the mix is an autobiographical interlude concerning Lim’s mother, and a poet and nurse named Muriel. The resulting novel is profound and casually bonkers, featuring a drift of photographs, screen grabs, and an eclectic lexicon of quotations from W.G. Sebald, David Byrne, and more that reveal the shuffled heritage of Lim’s distillation. This brilliant sui generis takes storytelling to new heights.”

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness: “In this vivid if overstuffed outing from Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus), a writer named Claire Vaye Watkins returns to her hometown of Reno for a reading. The trip is meant as a brief respite for Claire from her husband and daughter, but it becomes a monthslong stay as she grapples with memories of those who are gone. Her late father, Paul, a member of the Manson Family, was described by her mother, the late Martha, as the cult’s ‘number one procurer of young girls.’ Martha, meanwhile, died when Claire was in her 20s, either by an accidental opiate overdose or by suicide. She also remembers an ex-boyfriend who died in a car crash. And as Watkins catalogs her ‘maternal ambivalence’ and ‘wifely rage,’ she breaks the rules of her open marriage by falling in love with an extramarital partner. While Claire’s memories provide the narrative thrust, nearly a third is spent on her family’s history, including letters from Martha to her cousin from 1968 through the ’70s (‘I think I’m mentally ill. Love is a fucking hassle’), and the material doesn’t quite illuminate Claire’s story or develop the plot. What makes this work is Claire’s raw sense of pain on the page, and the evenhanded honesty with which Watkins portrays her actions. Thought Watkins overreaches, her talent is abundant.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Knausgaard, Doerr, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Anthony Doerr, 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 Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Morning Star: “Knausgaard’s first traditional novel since the 2008 translation of A Time for Everything offers a dark and enthralling story of the appearance of a new star. The action, which verges on horror, teems with brutalized people and animals behaving unpredictably. Arne, a teacher with a drinking problem whose bipolar wife, Tova, often disappears on long walks, observes a horde of crabs crossing the road toward the glare of the star. He and eight other narrators alternately react to the astrological event—and yet the turbulence of their home lives overrides their capacity to grasp its shocking effects. Among the players are Kathrine, a Church of Norway priest who is struggling with her marriage; Solveig, a nurse who recognizes a patient from when she was young; Jonnstein, a caustic reporter who gets a tip on a serial killer after committing adultery; and Egil, who is connected to many of the threads, and whose interpolated essay provides a dose of philosophy and one of the strongest narrative beats. Knausgaard wheels wildly and successfully through various forms. His focus on the beauty and terror of the mundane will resonate with fans of My Struggle as they traverse this marvelous, hectic terrain. For the author, it’s a marvelous new leap.”

Chronicles from the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Chronicles from the Happiest People on Earth: “Nobel Prize winner Soyinka’s first novel in almost 50 years (after the essay collection Beyond Aesthetics) delivers a sharp-edged satire of his native Nigeria. The tone is set early, as an omniscient narrator caustically refers to the country as the home of ‘the Happiest People in the World,’ a status bolstered by a Nigerian governor’s creation of ‘a Ministry of Happiness,’ to be led by the governor’s spouse. Soyinka presents a dizzying array of characters and plotlines to bolster the notion that his country’s ‘success’ is a facade built on corruption and lies. This is perhaps best illustrated by the story line involving Dr. Kighare Menka, a surgeon particularly adept at treating the victims of terror attacks. Menka’s approached by representatives of Primary Resources Management, dedicated to combating waste by maximizing ‘human resources.’ Menka learns that behind the slogans is a business plan to obtain body parts for an affluent clientele, and that he’s viewed as a steady source for the limbs and organs the venture needs. Soyinka injects suspense as well with a whodunit plot. Those with a solid grounding in current Nigerian politics are most likely to pick up on allusions to events and personalities that will elude the lay reader. Still, the imaginatively satirical treatment of serious issues makes this engaging on multiple levels.”

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Calling for Charlie Barnes: “NBA and Booker finalist Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) returns with a compassionate metafictional portrait of a flawed father and his crumbling notion of the America dream. Jake Barnes, the sincere but unreliable narrator, sets out to recount the life of his dad, Charlie Barnes, aka ‘Steady Boy,’ a corporate gadfly and small business schemer who never made it through college. After multiple marriages, a few kids, and countless failed ideas for making it big—clowns and weedkiller, flying toupees—Steady Boy is working from his basement when he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Jake takes it upon himself to gather his older brother Jerry and his resentful half sister Marcy, both of whom believe Steady Boy is a fraud. Ferris makes the quotidian sing, such as Jake’s description of a ‘thundering, brain-clearing sneeze’ while Steady Boy retrieves the morning paper from the curb. Ferris also flirts with a cheesy happy ending, until it becomes likely that this, too, is a fraud, prompting readers to wonder if Ferris is toying with them via Jake, who channels his namesake from The Sun Also Rises, he of the Lost Generation who no longer believes in anything. Despite the heavy subject matter, the story is often quite funny, and the themes at its core are those that will forever preoccupy humankind: purpose and death, but, mostly, love. Of Ferris’s work, this is the big kahuna.”

Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Things Are Against Us: “In this offbeat essay collection, novelist Ellmann (Ducks, Newburyport) addresses complex systemic ills alongside petty grievances in an acerbic and hilarious litany of complaints. The title essay features a tirade against ‘things’ that are constantly being lost or broken or otherwise creating a nuisance, and is punctuated with the personified hijinks of various objects: ‘Rugs grab you and knock you over whenever they can. Needles prick you. They sit in the sewing box waiting patiently to prick you some day.’ Several essays contend with sexism, including ‘Three Strikes,’ which calls for women to institute a sex and work strike until the demand of ‘female supremacy’ is met (Ellmann draws from historical examples to prove its efficacy along the way). Elsewhere, Ellmann rails against air travel, bras, and electricity. Readers of Ducks, Newburyport will be familiar with her expansive writing style, which here manifests as a plethora of footnotes, some of which point to sources for further reading or illustrate the author’s points, while others are tangents on ancillary topics (such as the ‘spiraling vaginas’ of fruit flies) and can occasionally be disorienting. Nevertheless, fans of feminist satire will delight in these rants and ruminations.”

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cloud Cuckoo Land: “Pulitzer winner Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See) returns with a deeply affecting epic of a long-lost book from ancient Greece. In the mid-22nd century, Konstance, 14, copies an English translation of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes with her food printer’s Nourish powder while aboard the Argos, an ark-like spaceship destined for a habitable planet. She found the book in the Argos’s library, and was already familiar with Diogenes’s story of a shepherd named Aethon and his search for a book that told of all the world’s unknown lands, because her father told it to her while they tended the Argos’s farm. Her father’s connection to the Diogenes book is gradually revealed, but first Doerr takes the reader farther back in time. In chapters set in and around Constantinople leading up to the 1453 siege, two 13-year-old children, Anna and Omeir, converge while fleeing the city, and Omeir helps Anna protect a codex of Cloud Cuckoo Land she discovered in a monastery. Then, in 2020 Lakeport, Idaho, translator Zeno Ninis collaborates with a group of young children on a stage production of Cloud Cuckoo Land at the library, where a teenage ecoterrorist has planted a bomb meant to target the neighboring real estate office. Doerr seamlessly shuffles each of these narratives in vignettes that keep the action in full flow and the reader turning the pages. The descriptions of Constantinople, Idaho, and the Argos are each distinct and fully realized, and the protagonists of each are united by a determination to survive and a hunger for stories, which in Doerr’s universe provide the greatest nourishment. This is a marvel.”

Nothing Outside the Text

- | 3

Let’s pretend that you work in a windowless office on Madison, or Lex, or Park in the spring of 1954, and you’re hurrying to Grand Central to avoid the rush back to New Rochelle, or Hempstead, or Weehawken. Walking through the Main Concourse with its Beaux Arts arches and its bronzed clock atop the ticketing booth, its cosmic green ceiling fresco depicting the constellations slowly stained by the accumulated cigarette smoke, you decide to purchase an egg-salad sandwich from a vendor near the display with its ticking symphony of arrivals and departures. You glance down at a stack of slender magazines held together with thick twine. The cover illustration is of a buxom brunette wearing a yellow pa’u skirt and hauling an unconscious astronaut in a silver spacesuit through a tropical forest while fur-covered extraterrestrials look on between the palm trees. It’s entitled Universe Science Fiction. And if you were the sort of Manhattan worker who, after clocking in eight hours at the Seagram Building or the Pan Am Building, settles into the commuter train’s seat—after loosening his black-knit tie and lighting a Lucky Strike while watching Long Island go by—ready to be immersed in tales of space explorers and time travelers, then perhaps you parted with a quarter so that Universe Science Fiction’s cheap print would smudge your gray flannel suit. The sort of reading you’d want to cocoon yourself in with nothing outside the text. As advertised, you find a story of just a few hundred words entitled “The Immortal Bard,” by a writer named Isaac Asimov.

Reprinted three years later in Earth Is Room Enough, “The Immortal Bard” is set among sherry-quaffing, tweedy university faculty at their Christmas party, where a boozed-up physicist named Phineas Welch corners the English professor Scott Robertson, and explains how he’s invented a method of “temporal transference” able to propel historical figures into the present. Welch resurrects Archimedes, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, but “They couldn’t get used to our way of life… They got terribly lonely and frightened. I had to send them back.” Despite their genius, their thought wasn’t universal, and so Welch conjures William Shakespeare, believing him to be “someone who knew people well enough to be able to live with them centuries away from his own time.” Robertson humors the physicist, treating such claims with a humanist’s disdain, true to C.P. Snow’s observation in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that “at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists… Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Welch explains that the Bard was surprised that he was still taught and studied, after all, he wrote Hamlet in a few weeks, just polishing up an old plot. But when introduced to literary criticism, Shakespeare can’t comprehend anything. “God ha’ mercy! What cannot be racked from words in five centuries? One could wring, methinks, a flood from a damp clout!” So, Welch enrolls him in a Shakespeare course, and suddenly Robertson begins to fear that this story isn’t just a delusion, for he remembers the bald man with a strange brogue who had been his student. “I had to send him back,” Welch declares, because our most flexible and universal of minds had been humiliated. The physicist downed his cocktail and mutters “you poor simpleton, you flunked him.”

“The Immortal Bard” doesn’t contain several of the details that I include—no sherry, no tweed (though there are cocktails). We have no sense of the characters’ appearances; Welch’s clothes are briefly described, but Robertson is a total blank. A prolific author, penning over 1,000 words a day, by Asimov’s death in 1992 he had published more than 500 books across all categories of the Dewey Decimal System (including Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare). Skeletal parsimony was Asimov’s idiom; in his essay “On Style” from Who Done It?, coedited with Alice Laurence, he described his prose as “short words and simple sentence structure,” bemoaning that this characteristic “grates on people who like things that are poetic, weighty, complex, and, above all, obscure.” Had his magisterial Foundation been about driving an ambulance in the First World War rather than a galactic empire spanning billions of light years, it’d be the subject of hundreds of dissertations. If his short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” had been written in Spanish, then he’d be Jorge Luis Borges; had Asimov’s “The Last Question” originally been in Italian, then he’d be Italo Calvino (American critics respect fantasy in an accent, but then they call it “magical realism”). As it was, critical evaluation was more lackluster, with the editors of 1981’s Dictionary of Literary Biography claiming that since Asimov’s stories “clearly state what they mean in unambiguous language [they] are… difficult for a scholar to deal with because there is little to be interpreted.”

Asimov’s dig comes into sharper focus having admitted that “The Immortal Bard” was revenge on those professors who’d rankled him by misinterpreting stories—his and other’s. A castigation of the discipline as practiced in 1954, which meant a group that had dominated the study of literature for three decades—the New Critics. With their rather uninspired name, the New Critics—including I.A. Richards, John Crow Ransome, Cleanth Brooks, Allen K. Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, and a poet of some renown named T.S. Eliot (among others)—so thoroughly revolutionized how literature is studied that explaining why they’re important is like explaining air to a bird. From Yale, Cambridge, and Kenyon, the New Criticism would disseminate, and then it trickled down through the rest of the educational system. If an English teacher asked you to analyze metaphors in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 12″—that was because of the New Critics. If an AP instructor asked you to examine symbolism in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—that was because of the New Critics. If a college professor made you perform a rhetorical analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—that was because of the New Critics. Most of all, if anyone ever made you conduct a “close reading,” it is the New Critics who are to blame.

According to the New Critics, their job wasn’t an aesthetic one, parsing what was beautiful about literature or how it moved people (the de facto approach in Victorian classrooms, and still is in popular criticism), but an analytical one. The task of the critic was scientific—to understand how literature worked, and to be as rigorous, objective, and meticulous as possible. That meant bringing nothing to the text but the text. Neither the critic’s concerns—or the author’s—mattered more than the placement of a comma, the connotation of a particular word, the length of a sentence. True that they often unfairly denigrated worthy writing because their detailed explications only lent themselves to certain texts. Poetry was elevated above prose; the metaphysical over the Romantic; the “literary” over genre. But if the New Critics were snobbish in their preferences, they also weren’t wrong that there was utility in the text’s authority. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argued in a 1946 issue of The Sewanee Review that the “design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” In a more introspective interview, Asimov admitted that what inspired “The Immortal Bard” was his inadequacy at answering audience questions about his own writing. Asimov was right that he deserved more attention from academics, but wrong in assuming that he’d know more than them. The real kicker of the story might be that Shakespeare actually earned his failing grade.     

When New Critics are alluded to in popular culture, it’s as anal-retentive killjoys. Maybe the most salient (and unfair) drumming the New Critics received was in the 1989 (mis)beloved Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society, featuring Robin Williams’s excellent portrayal of John Keating, an English teacher at elite Welton Academy in 1959. Keating arrives at the rarefied school urging the boys towards carpe diem, confidently telling them that the “powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” With vitality and passion, Keating introduces the students to Tennyson, Whitman, and Thoreau, and the audience comprehends that this abundantly conservative curriculum is actually an act of daring, at least when contrasted to the New Critical orthodoxy that had previously stultified the children of millionaires. On his first day, wearing corduroy with leather arm patches, Keating asks a student to recite from their approved textbook by Professor J. Evans Pritchard. In a monotone, the student reads “If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.” We are to understand that after the cold scalpel of analysis cuts the warm flesh of the poem—that if it wasn’t already dead—then it certainly perished thereafter. Keating pronounces the argument to be “Excrement,” and demands his students rip the page out, so that a film that defends the humanities depicts the destruction of books. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for,” Keating tells his charges, and how could dusty Dr. Pritchard compete with a Cartesian coordinate plane ?

The fictional Pritchard’s essay is an allusion to Brook and Warren’s influential 1938 Understanding Poetry, where they write that “Poetry gives us knowledge… of ourselves in relation to the world of experience, and to that world considered… in terms of human purposes and values.” Not soaring in its rhetoric, but not the cartoon from Dead Poets Society either, though also notably not what Keating advocated. He finds room for poetry, beauty, romance, and love, but neglects truth. What Keating champions isn’t criticism, but appreciation, and while the former requires rigor and objectivity, the latter only needs enjoyment. Appreciation in and of itself is fine—but it doesn’t necessarily ask anything of us either. Kevin Detmar in his defenestration of the movie from The Atlantic writes that “passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous.” Pontificating in front of his captive audience, Keating recites (and misinterprets) poems from Robert Frost and Percy Shelley, demanding that “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.” Estimably sensible, for on the surface an enjoinder towards critical thought and independence seems reasonable, certainly when reading an editorial, or a column, or policy proposal—but this is poetry.

His invocation is diametrically opposed to another New Critical principle, also defined by Wimsatt and Beardsley in The Sewanee Review in 1946, and further explicated in their book The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, published the same year as Asimov’s story. Wimsatt and Beardsley say that genuine criticism doesn’t “talk of tears; prickles or other physiological symptoms, of feeling angry, joyful, hot, cold, or intense, or of vaguer states of emotional disturbance, but of shades of distinction and relation between objects of emotion.” In other words, it’s not all about you. Being concerned with the poem’s effect tells us everything about the reader but little about the poem. Such a declaration might seem arid, sterile, and inert—especially compared to Keating’s energy—and yet there is paradoxically more life in The Verbal Icon. “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice,” Keating tells a room full of the children of wealth, power, and privilege, who will spend the whole 20th century ensuring that nobody has the option not to hear them. Rather than sounding the triumphant horn of independence, this is mere farting on the bugle of egoism. Poetry’s actual power is that it demands we shut up and listen. Wimsatt and Beardsley aren’t asking the reader not to be changed by a poem—it’s the opposite. They’re demanding that we don’t make an idol from our relative, contingent, arbitrary reactions. A poem is a profoundly alien place, a foreign place, a strange place. We do not go there to meet ourselves; we go there to meet something that doesn’t even have a face. Keating treats poems like mirrors, but they’re windows.

With austerity and sternness, New Criticism is an approach that with sola Scriptura exactitude understood nothing above, below, behind, or beyond the text. Equal parts mathematician and mystic, the New Critic deigns objectivity the preeminent goal, for in the novel, or poem, or play properly interpreted she has entered a room separate, an empire of pure alterity. An emphasis on objectivity doesn’t entail singularity of interpretation, for though the New Critics believed in right and wrong readings, good and bad interpretations, they reveled in nothing as much as ambiguity and paradox. But works aren’t infinite. If a text can be many things, it also can’t mean everything. What is broken are the tyrannies of relativism, the cult of “I feel” that defined conservative Victorian criticism and ironically some contemporary therapeutic manifestations as well. New Criticism drew from the French tradition of explication de texte, the rigorous parsing of grammar, syntax, diction, punctuation, imagery, and narrative. Not only did they supplant Victorian aesthetic criticism’s woolliness, their method was estimably democratic (despite their sometimes-conservative political inclinations, especially among the movement known as the Southern Agrarians). Democratic because none of the habituated knowledge of the upper-class—the mores of Eton or Philips Exeter, summering at Bath or Newport, proper dress from Harrod’s or Brooks Brothers—now made a difference in appreciating Tennyson or Byron. Upper class codes were replaced with the severe, rigorous, logical skill of being able to understand Tennyson or Byron, with no recourse to where you came from or who you were, but only the words themselves. Appreciation is about taste, discernment, and breeding—it’s about acculturation. Analysis? That’s about poetry.

From that flurry of early talent came Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism and 1929 Practical Criticism, Empson’s 1930 Seven Types of Ambiguity, Brook and Warren’s 1938 Understanding Poetry, Brooks’s classic 1947 The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, and Wimsatt and Beardsley’s 1954 The Verbal Icon, as well as several essays of Ransome and Eliot. The New Critics did nothing less than upend literature’s study by focusing on words, words, words (as Hamlet would say). “A book is a machine to think with,” Richards wrote in Principles of Literary Criticism, and disdain that as chilly, but machines do for us that which we can’t do for ourselves. Reading yourself into a poem is as fallacious as sitting in a parked car and thinking that will get you to Stop & Shop. Lest you think that Richards is sterile, he also affirmed that “Poetry is capable of saving us,” and that’s not in spite of it being a machine, but because of it. They sanctified literature by cordoning it off and making it a universe unto itself, while understanding that its ideal rigidity is like absolute zero, an abstraction of readerly investment that by necessity always lets a little heat in. In practice, the job of the critic is profound in its prosaicness. Vivian Bearing, a fictional English professor in Margaret Edson’s harrowing and beautiful play W;t, which contains the most engaging dramatization of close reading ever committed to stage or screen, describes the purpose of criticism as not to reaffirm whatever people want to believe, but that rather by reading in an “uncompromising way, one learns something from [the] poem, wouldn’t you say?”

There have been assaults upon this bastion over the last several decades, yet even while that mélange of neo-orthodoxies that became ascendant in the ’70s and ’80s when English professor was still a paying job are sometimes interpreted as dethroning the New Critics—the structuralists and post-structuralists, the New Historicists and the Marxists, the Queer Theorists and the post-colonial theorists—their success was an ironic confirmation of the staying power of Wimsatt, Beardsley, Brooks, Warren, Richards, Empson, and so on. “Like all schools of criticism, the New Critics have been derided by their successors,” writes William Logan in his forward to Garrick Davis’s Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism, “but they retain an extraordinary influence on the daily practice of criticism.” After all, when a post-structuralist writes about binary oppositions, there are shades of Empson’s paradox and ambiguity; when Roland Barthes wrote in 1967 that “the reader is without history, biography, psychology” there is a restatement about effect, and that he was writing in a book called The Death of the Author is the ultimate confirmation against intention. And Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, that much maligned and misinterpreted word, bane to conservative and balm to radical? It’s nothing more than a different type of close reading—a hyper attenuated and pure form of it—where pages could be produced on a single comma in James Joyce’s Ulysses. We are still their children.

Though far from an unequivocal celebrant of the New Critics, Terry Eagleton writes in Literary Theory: An Introduction that close reading provided “a valuable antidote to aestheticist chit-chat,” explaining that the method does “more than insist on due attentiveness to the text. It inescapably suggests an attention to… the ‘words on the page.'” Close reading is sometimes slandered as brutal vivisection, but it’s really a manner of possession. In the sifting through of diction and syntax, grammar and punctuation, image and figuration, there are pearls. Take a sterling master—Helen Vendler. Here she is examining Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, where he writes “In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire/That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.” She notes that the narrator across the lyric “Defines himself not by contrast but by continuity with his earlier state. He is the glowing—a positive word, unlike ruin or fade—of a fire.” Or Vendler on the line in Emily Dickinson’s poem 1779. The poet writes that “To make a prairie it takes a clover and a bee,” and the critic writes “Why ‘prairie’ instead of ‘garden’ or ‘meadow?’ Because only ‘prairie’ rhymes with ‘bee’ and ‘revery,’ and because ‘prairie’ is a distinctly American word.” Or, Vendler, once again, on Walt Whitman, in her book Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. In Leaves of Grass he begins, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” and she observes that “The smallest parallels… come two to a line… When the parallels grow more complex, each requires a whole line, and we come near to the psalmic parallel, so often imitated by [the poet], in which the second verse adds something to the substance of the first.” And those are just examples from Helen Vendler.

When I queried literary studies Twitter about their favorite close readings—to which they responded generously and enthusiastically—I was directed towards Erich Auerbach’s Dante: The Poet of the Secular (to which I’d add Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature); Marjorie Garber’s reading of Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies; the interpretation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd in The Barbara Johnson Reader: The Surprise of Otherness; Shoshana Felman’s paper on Henry James titled “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” in Yale French Studies; Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson; Randall Jarry writing about Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” in The Third Book of Criticism; Olga Springer’s Ambiguity in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette; Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake; Vladimir Nabokov on Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert in Lectures on Literature; Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Nina Baym on Nathaniel Hawthorne in Novels, Readers, Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America; Minrose Gwin on The Sound and the Fury in The Feminine and Faulkner; Edward Said on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in Orientalism; Christopher Ricks’s Milton’s Grand Study (to which I’d add Dylan’s Vision of Sin, which refers not to Thomas but Bob), and so on, and so on, and so on. If looking to analyze my previous gargantuan sentence, just note that I organized said critics by no schema, save to observe how such a diversity includes the old and young, the dead and alive, the traditional and the radical, all speaking to the vitality of something with as stuffy a name as close reading. Risking sentimentality, I’d add another exemplary participant—all of those anonymous graduate students parsing the sentence, all of those undergraduates scanning the line, and every dedicated reader offering attentiveness to the words themselves. That’s all close reading really is.

Naïve to assume that such a practice offers a way out of our current imbroglio. However, when everyone has an opinion but nobody has done the reading, where an article title alone is enough to justify judgement, and criticism tells us more about the critic than the writing, then perhaps slow, methodical, humble close reading might provide more than just explication. Interpretations are multifaceted, but they are not relative, and for all of its otherworldliness, close reading is built on evidence. Poorly done close reading is merely fan fiction. Something profound in acknowledging that neither the reader—nor the author—are preeminent, but the text is rather the thing. It doesn’t serve to affirm what you already know, but rather to instruct you in something new. To not read yourself into a poem, or a novel, or a play, but to truly encounter another mind—not that of the author—but of literature itself, is as close to religion as the modern age countenances. Close reading is the most demonstrative way to experience that writing and reading are their own dimension.

Let’s pretend that you’re a gig worker, and while waiting to drive for Uber or Seamless, you scroll through an article entitled “Nothing Outside the Text.” It begins in the second-person, inserting the reader into the narrative. The author invents a mid-century office worker who is travelling home. Place names are used as signifiers; the author mentions “New Rochelle,” “Hempstead,” and “Weehawken,” respectively in Westchester County, Long Island, and New Jersey, gesturing towards how the city’s workers radiate outward. Sensory details are emphasized—the character buys an “egg-salad sandwich,” and we’re told that he stands near the “display with its ticking symphony,” the last two words unifying the mechanical with the artistic—with the first having an explosive connotation—yet there is an emphasis on regularity, harmony, design. We are given a description of a science fiction magazine the man buys, and are told that he settles into his train seat where the magazine’s “cheap print… smudge[s]” his “gray flannel suit,” possibly an allusion to the 1955 Sloane Wilson novel of that name. This character is outwardly conformist, but his desire to be “immersed in tales of space explorers and time travelers” signals something far richer about his inner life. Finally, if you’re this modern gig worker reading about that past office worker, you might note that the latter is engaging the “sort of reading you’d want to cocoon yourself in, a universe to yourself with nothing outside the text.” And in close reading, whether you’re you or me, the past reader or the present, the real or imagined, all that the text ever demands of us—no more and no less—is to enter into that universe on its own terms. For we have always been, if we’re anything, citizens of this text.   

Image Credit: Pixabay

Novelizing Turkish Feminism: On Suat Derviş’s ‘In the Shadow of the Yalı’


The novel In the Shadow of the Yalı has been translated afresh for contemporary Anglophone readers by Maureen Freely, an author of seven novels, chair of English PEN, and perhaps best known as a translator for Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In the Shadow of the Yalı was initially written as a Turkish newspaper serial in 1944, and Freely likens its flamboyant prose to the heady atmosphere of midcentury feminism led by Simone du Beauvoir, particularly in her book The Second Sex. When Suat Derviş’s pulpy novel first appeared for Turkish readers, France had just granted women the right to vote, a full decade following Turkey’s suffragette movement, which, while granting women voting rights in 1934, did not overturn single-party rule until 1950.

In the wake of such seemingly garish political contradiction, Derviş and her sister, Hamiyet, lived and starved in Paris between the Literary Left and the Communist Party, the latter eventually supporting Derviş because of her connections with poet Nazim Hikmet, who was then exiled from Turkey in the Soviet Union. In France, she rewrote her novel in Turkish, and Hamiyet translated it into French. The sisters were navigating the borders of liberality, where society and literature were lovers whose intimacies turned heads from Paris to Istanbul. Freely reflected on the pressures that Derviş experienced from the general secretary of the French Communist Party, putting her name to romantic fictions that served to express the very bind in which women were caught: between stable marriages and impetuous affairs, under the multigenerational gravity of patronymic male inheritance, and at the mercy of officialdoms that treated women as voiceless functionaries born to uphold family honor.

In the Shadow of the Yalı, as it appears in the 2021 edition published by Other Press, is more true to the Turkish original, even if Freely herself confessed that its language was “breathy,” “occasionally baggy,” and dripped with the “gothic excess” of its emotional extravagance, making it comparable to a soap opera or telenovela. The plot is simple, even redundant, and although its literary merit is arguably farfetched, Derviş wrote with an evergreen intuition for metaphor. It is a classic tale of wifely disenfranchisement, of a party-going modern woman named Celile who goes from a steady, 10-year marriage with Ahmet to his financier and her seducer, Muhsin, whose political ambitions and unrivaled wealth appear as spectacular as the night sky. Celile, however, is from a decrepit Ottoman yalı, or seafront mansion on the Bosphorus strait, many of which still dot Istanbul’s shores. Her romantic tragedy is indicative of the dishonor that Ottoman families endured as 1920s modernism roared them into oblivion.

Derviş was a prolific novelist, writing since the age of 16, setting her fictions in the manner of social realism, a genre that, when she wrote, was surpassed by interwar postmodernism. Yet, with Turkish women as her readers, she drew her genteel audience to the page amidst a progressive if censorial publishing climate in Turkey that had printed feminist news and views since the 1870s. She had led double lives in those pages, as a political journalist, she earned the attention of her mostly male readership while becoming a popular subject of interest herself. She could be found overspending at dessert cafes in sight of the Bosphorus mansions that she novelized to capture Ottoman decadence—a reality that continues in Turkey’s government culture of Islamic populism. In the Shadow of the Yalı frames Celile and her mansion-bound grandmother, Çeşmiahu, as figments of a vestigial past in confrontation with a sociopolitical guard that, while changing, adheres to a shared and ongoing patriarchy in which Turkish women fall between the cracks of male-led Westernization.

Çeşmiahu is a lightly fictionalized autobiographical adaptation of Derviş’s grandmother, as both grew up as Circassian slaves to the sultan’s harem before being married to wealthy pashas. Yet, if Freely’s prefatory biographical notes are any indication, Celile was perhaps the least like Derviş herself (their beret-clad feminist bohemian fashion sense might have been similar). Although she would go on to marry the general secretary of the Turkish Communist Party, Derviş preferred to be seen as an independent woman, not in her husband’s shadow. She demanded to be introduced as a writer, not a wife. That the status quo saw her as subordinate to her spouse runs parallel to Celile, not only in the shadow of the Ottoman yalı but of her husband and lover. She rewrote her novel in French, but, as Freely’s translation emphasizes, its English reads like a quotidian Ottoman romance, Francophile in its gushing melodrama, roundly simplistic and full of tropes that challenge the reader to wonder if, at times, Derviş merely co-opted the salable objectification of women that she spent a lifetime rewriting, exposing, and overturning.

Toward the novel’s end, Celile repeatedly bemoans her fate, pitying herself after listening to Muhsin mansplain her into submission to convince her that their love is such that they need not marry, appear in public, or, when she is pregnant, have a child. But she later hides three months of pregnancy from him. He reacts by demanding she abort the baby. As a narrator and in Celile’s voice, Derviş blurred representation and critique of misogyny for dramatic effect: “‘What a helpless, passive creature I am!’ she thought. She lacked the will to die, just as she lacked the will to live.” In other passages, such as when Celile goes missing on the night of another young woman’s death, Derviş uses terms like “loose” or “demented” for women (as translated into English by Freely).

Celile’s character is divulged elaborately, her personality formed in the vise of her school, which was mostly comprised of modern children from the “new order.” That she came from a “rotting, crumbling yalı” where “dying traditions” could be smelled in the air, placed her square outside of the social life of her fellow students. Her anxiety as an outsider defined her marriage, although her condition, which she suppressed, went unnoticed by her husband Ahmet, who would not be able to detect her affair until Muhsin broke the news to him face-to-face. It was 10 years after they were married when Ahmet came across Muhsin at a “gazino,” where men gathered to eat, drink, and revel. Muhsin secured a bank guarantee for Ahmet, who had been involved in smuggling food from Bulgaria.

In the Shadow of the Yalı is shaped by the narrator’s voice, an omniscient observer whose running commentary reflects on Celile’s experience as a woman in Istanbul, where, despite being married, “a beautiful woman was always under watch, no matter how private or solitary her life.” The narrator wonders, on behalf of Muhsin, why Ahmet might exhibit his wife, and more, why she might accept his advances. The colorful narration has the effect of fomenting a gossipy Greek chorus that explores the dramatic tensions of moral conscience against the temptations of love and money—and of belonging to the saga of modernism. When the cat is out of the bag and Celile’s affair with Muhsin is known, Ahmet responds, firstly, with affectionate forgiveness. His relatively progressive stance is matched by Muhsin, who poses a number of arguments for Celile to remain with him, in love, but unwed.

Quite quickly, Celile exclaims that she loves Muhsin, the words falling from her lips to enchant him. As the narrator unsentimentally explains, “Wouldn’t any woman say this to her lover as she lay in his arms in his small apartment.” It is his love that provides an antidote, however fleeting and deceptive, to her lifelong waywardness. The yalı’s shadow lifts when they consummate their passion, and by the force of their desire slaked, she is, as Derviş wrote: “Freed at last from the decaying yalı and its dying breed.”

There is an undercurrent to Muhsin’s motives in which his desire to subdue Celile comes to symbolize the assimilative, even imperialistic tendencies of modernism. Celile, to him, is not merely a beautiful woman, nor simply the wife of his underling business partner, but an emblem of the past that they would all like to see snuffed out. After describing the voluptuous features of Celile—her “leopard eyes” and “white skin, soft as velvet”—Derviş wrote: “For what he sensed in Celile’s devotion was the extravagance of the old aristocrats, whose wealth and power belonged to the distant past.”

But instead of digging further into a more nuanced tale of socio-historical metaphor, Derviş, pressured by the conditioning of her immediate social spheres among the elite leftists who supported her in Paris, dove headlong into what Freely has called “puzzling aspects of indigenous sexual mores.” These, as her novel reads, are the surface-level tit-for-tat in which Muhsin and Ahmet engage, quite pathetically, by a series of unspoken or indirect gestures. Theirs is a shamefaced and rather flaccid passive-aggressive male sexual competition over the possession of a woman. The sore loser, Ahmet rages at parties defaming his wife as a prostitute, while Muhsin is rankled by doubt and jealousy. He imagines that Celile has successfully played him to benefit her husband, sacrificing herself to social suicide out of love for Ahmet, or worse that, eventually, she could leave him too.

Ultimately, Derviş leaves the last word to Celile, but her utterance is as obscure and unfulfilled as her very life. The men, as is common to patriarchal oppression, are heavy-handed in their words and actions so that by the time she has a moment to speak, she has lost all sense of love, life, and self. She is still every bit in the shadow of the yalı, those fixtures of the past that, like American suburbia or the downtown tenements of New York and Istanbul, once glimmered with the sheen of hope but since have endured the depravities of impoverishment—returning to capture the imagination of new money and old stories.

Grace and Oblivion in the Forgotten Neighborhoods of ‘Shaky Town’


Knowing full well that every city’s defining sights take up only a scant percentage of the whole, Lou Mathews has spent much of his life chronicling the ignored sectors of Los Angeles. His stories investigate the ways in which our best and worst tendencies play out in community—and the paradoxical manner in which community itself both preys upon and elevates the individuals within it. Yet, like the broken neighborhoods his fiction documents, Lou Mathews’s work has remained rather close to the shadows, its many qualities passed over as readers make their way to established literary landmarks. This is an unfair oversight that his newest work, Shaky Town, is poised to correct.

Shaky Town is a tough and beautiful mural of a novel constructed though interwoven short stories that explore the streets of East Los Angeles in the 1980s. Eschewing even the faintest strain of stereotypical L.A. glam, Shaky Town is populated with chain link fences instead of pools, pollution instead of seashores, and the “watercolor sadness of smog,” as an art professor tells his students.

Like the city itself, Shaky Town is situated precariously on a latticework of geological, interpersonal, and psychological fault lines. The characters and locations crisscross each other’s narratives, providing the novel’s natural sense of zoning. Throughout the book, our through-line is Emiliano, the self-appointed mayor of Shaky Town. We are first introduced to Emiliano in “Emiliano Part I: The Mayor Proclaims” as he chats up a “constituent” at a bus stop, trying to convince him that they share a knowledge of Spanish. When the “constituent” denies this, Emiliano says, “You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno… That’s part of the language,” which causes a chuckle and a small degree of camaraderie. In Lou Mathews’s capable hands, it is enough.

And it is essential: after this fleeting moment, the stories veer sharply into tragedy, beginning with Emiliano recapping his long life in Shaky Town. Employed, years prior, by the movie industry to make breakaway furniture for fight scenes, Emiliano lost three of his fingers while working drunk after his son died of polio. “I measured wrong… The table saw didn’t care.”

Soon after, in “Crazy Life,” we follow Dulcie Gomez as she goes to the police station to advocate for her boyfriend, Chuey, freshly arrested for his role as wheel man in a drive-by. Chuey now shares a cell with the Mephistophelian Sleepy Chavez, who did the actual shooting and threw the gun out the window to blur responsibility. Dulcie knows if Chuey betrays Sleepy, he is putting himself in immediate danger from the gang. But, if he doesn’t, he will take the fall and enter the legal system. So, Dulcie watches helplessly as Chuey shuts down in indecision and the lawyer “packs his briefcase and walks away, shaking hands with everybody. The TV is waiting for him outside.” Though Chuey will eventually choose, we already know neither choice leads to good things.

“The Garlic Eater” finds Mr. Kim buying a local grocery store, in which he proudly displays Korean flags and products behind the counter. His wife “thought it was foolish to put the only goods their customers wouldn’t steal behind the counter, but Mr. Kim liked the display.” Immediately after opening, Mr. Kim is greeted with the tough realities of his new neighborhood and, shortly after his wife is brutally beaten by the junkies he is trying to fend off, he decides to stand his ground—and to buy a gun.

Providing the emotional center of the book, “Emiliano Part II: A Curse on Chavez Ravine” recounts the redevelopment Chavez Ravine in the 1950’s to accommodate the construction of Dodger Stadium. The stadium, Emiliano says, is built upon a place that once was “like living in the hill country of Mexico. No paved streets, no sewers, no electricity… It smelled like Mexico. Woodsmoke, chiles… tortillas, and beans. Roosters woke you in the morning, but you could see City Hall.” But the city unscrupulously repossessed the land from residents, and the final holdouts were forcibly removed. Emiliano recounts how his Aunt Lupe fought the city by chaining herself to her house. When she failed to stop the demolition, she put a curse “on any Latino who played for the Dodgers.”

Then, with “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siqueiros Painting,” we return to the book’s current time, as an art professor punctuates his commute with liquor stores and drinks his way home, “safe: inside the car, behind the [sun]glasses, surrounded by music” while his mother is in a nearby hospital, dying from cancer.

In “Con Safos Rifa,” aimless machismo drives a group of St. Patrick’s high school students to arrange a fight with students from a rival school. As it turns out, the fight would have been a rout aided by local gang members had the St. Patrick’s students not first been arrested while waiting for their opponents to arrive.

Again and again, oddly graceful moments present themselves as the antidotes to the haze of violence and self-destruction. Emiliano, in “Emiliano Part III: Last Dance,” delivers a speech praising a neighbor he resents at her 75th birthday party after the priest scheduled to give the speech doesn’t show up. Emiliano paints a lush and flattering portrait for the crowd and, though he doesn’t believe his own words, his speech is a balm for his neighbor’s hidden emotional wounds. After the speech, he dances with her while the band plays her unfaithful late husband’s favorite song, then he leads “her to the dark corner of the gym so that her family won’t see her crying and blame me.”

In the eponymous novella occupying the bulk of the book’s closing, Brother Cyril, the newly appointed dean of discipline at St. Patrick’s, discovers his position was previously occupied by a priest who had molested numerous children. Learning the school’s new marble alter table had recently been donated by the diocese in exchange for the school’s willingness to harbor the priest, Brother Cyril takes a hammer and destroys the gift. His faith in the church shattered, he turns to alcohol and prostitution.

Finally, with “Emiliano Part IV: Ride the Black Horse,” we are presented with a panoramic view of the earthquake we’ve long been sensing. Providing a perfect coda, Emiliano describes how the landscape itself loses solidity. “The freeways looked like gray snakes rippling upward… The hills of Elysian Park humped and twisted.”

Lou Mathews never shies away from exploring the way integrity so often becomes a liability diametrically opposed to self-preservation. Again and again, the social, emotional, and economic fissures that striate Shaky Town are exposed by sudden bursts of pent-up aggression. Our choice of actions may not be easy, Mathews reminds us, but it is usually clear: though there is often no reward, do the right thing.

With Shaky Town, Lou Mathews has constructed a prismatic singularity replete with elegant and empathetic renderings of people forced to weigh difficult choices. The stories gleam, despite their sadness, with the glow of every person’s potential to rise above the wreckage that surrounds them or, if nothing else, to go down swinging for what they know, beyond all else, is true.

The Year of the Whale

- | 2

I once had a professor who would read, every year, the same 10 books. He called them THE TEN. CandideSiddhartha, Screwtape Letters, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were regulars; the others he’d swap out after a six- or seven-year run. Taken with this idea, I decided I, too, would do a yearly re-reading. The book would be Moby-Dick, and I would begin it each year on Christmas, the day the Pequod sets sail.

And so I did: 2017, 2018, and 2019. But last year I read it three times. In the winter of 2020, I read it with a student doing an independent study. She told a friend how great Moby-Dick is, and so the following spring he, too, wanted an independent study.  And then, in fall, I ran another independent study on Moby-Dick, this time with two students I met just a few months earlier when we were, as it turns out, building a whale.

“Building a whale is a lot like building a deck.” So says biologist Rus Higley. “You can get all the parts at Home Depot, and there are a few tricks that, if you know them, make everything a hell of a lot easier.”

Higley knows the tricks. He built the gray whale skeleton hanging at Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center and the humpback skeleton in the Foss Waterway Seaport. And he helped me (an English professor) lead 158 volunteers in building the gray skeleton that now hangs at Seattle Pacific University.

The whale had washed up on Longbranch Beach, on the southern end of Washington’s Kitsap peninsula. She was a juvenile, 29 feet long, her ribs jutting out, skin over them as a blanket over knees. Her stomach, the necropsy would soon find, was empty. We towed the whale to Gig Harbor, where a ship crane hoisted her 16,000-pound carcass into a dump truck. At a nearby farm, our crew flensed her, retrieving her 250 bones and burying them in pile of horse shit, its enzymes and critters leaching the oil from her bones. Six months later, we exhumed them––now bone dry––brought them to campus, and put them on a roof to bleach in the sun. And then, in August, we began building.

It’s a strange thing to spend so much time with a book over the course of a year. I think of Jean Giono. With his good friend Lucien Jacques, he translated Moby-Dick into French. “Long before I embarked on this project,” Giono says, speaking of that translation, “for at least five or six years, Melville’s book was my foreign companion.”

What does it mean for a book to be your foreign companion for nearly a decade? For Giono, it means walking alongside Ishmael, who, Giono writes, “would accompany me on my homeward path.” He explains:
I never had to take more than a few steps to catch up with him and, once the depths of the shadows were black, to become him. I would reach him with what felt like a single, longer stride. Then it was as though I’d entered inside his skin, my body clothed in his like an overcoat.
I can’t quite say that I, too, put on Ishmael like a jacket. But I can say that he, and Melville, through all those re-readings, have been my companions.

Of all the work ahead of us, measuring the whale––our first task––seemed the simplest. We needed to know whether she’d fit in our 30-foot lobby. Higley told me to bring a rope to the beach, and I did, 200 feet of it. He laid one end in the notch between the whale’s flukes, and I stretched the rope across the corpse, trying to follow the backbone as best I could, the rope sliding off the knobby knuckles of this emaciated gray’s spine.

I then laid that rope on the beach, next to a maxed-out tape measure. “Nine hundred seven centimeters,” I called from the whale’s snout. “Twenty-nine feet, nine inches. She’ll fit.”

When I read the whale’s necropsy now, months later, I see that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has her at 867 cm––nearly 16 inches shorter than the measurement Higley and I came up with.

That’s a big difference, and I’m not sure how to account for it, given that WDFW measured the same way Higley and I did, with a rope laid across the whale. For me, the discrepancy points to an even bigger question: can we ever really know how long a whale is?

A live whale, her tonnage buoyant in the ocean’s salty water, would never stay still long enough to measure. A dead whale rests on a beach, gravity pulling that weight down into the sand. Is a live whale the same length as a dead whale? I doubt it, that body disfigured, either slumped over and cowered by death, or stretched and bloated and distended by all those fermenting gasses. And which is a better representation of a whale’s length, a measurement running across the topography of its backbone, or as the crow flies, a taut line snout to tail, tangent to the highest knuckle of the spine? And if that beached whale lays not on its belly but on its side, its torso twisted such that its jaw faces the sky, unobstructed measurement impossible––what then?

In the messiness of trying to determine a whale’s length, my companions offer some help. When he’s asked whether a whale’s spout is water or air, Ishmael responds, “My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all.” Water from air, the length of a whale—plain things as these are, they are not simple.

Later in the book, an imaginary interlocutor, frustrated with Ishmael’s exhaustive cetology, admonishes him to “have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone.” But Ishmael, whaler that he is, is in a place to know, and I think that I, too, may be in a place to say something, having myself sat in the mouth of a gray whale, pushed up against her tongue, cutting away at the flesh holding her jaw, her throat behind my shoulder.

This imaginary opponent continues, saying that Jonah alone has “the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and underpinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan.” I’ve sat within that rib cage, lifted the ridge-pole spine as we tried to shift the orientation of the whole skeleton. I’ve handled all 518.3 pounds of her bones, matching growth plates to vertebrae, wedging nasal cavities into the cranium, rotating a pair of hips this way and that to discern, as best I can, their proper orientation. 

And just as Jonah alone has the right speak to the skeleton, Ishmael’s conversant argues, only Jonah can speak to the insides, “the tallow-vats, dairy rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.” But these, too, I have held, have sliced away from the body, have seen strewn about a grassy field as the flensing crew cut, cut, cut away, looking for bones and discarding the rest. Her ovaries, the size of basketballs. Her eye, the size of a grapefruit. I placed that eye in a jar filled with cheap vodka, an all-purpose preservative until I could get back to the lab. Whale lice I pried from her flesh with my pocketknife, those, too, going in the vodka. I’ve stroked her broom-stiff hair, each strand an inch or two long, blonde, those near her blowhole reddened from the blood oozing from it.

Ishmael’s response to this interrogation is to tell a story of when, on leave from another voyage, he found himself on an island housing an assembled sperm whale skeleton. He cuts himself a “green measuring-rod” and sets about measuring it. Once he’s done measuring, Ishmael tattoos the whale’s dimensions on his right arm. “There was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics,” he says.

In this moment, the extraordinary––these invaluable statistics––becomes markedly ordinary. Every time Ishmael looks down at that arm, at these numbers made flesh, he re-reads the whale, that whale, in all its mystery and majesty, becoming a bit more familiar with each glance encounter. And so it was through our own day-to-day work with these bones, the novelty of carrying a radius and ulna across the room soon wearing off, the strangeness of sorting ribs and the surreal act of threading vertebrae onto a two-inch metal pipe, this sacred work of handling another’s bones, the innermost part of a body, somehow becoming routine––routine as reading a book three times in a year. Each rereading invites me into Melville’s sentences. Those sentences have become my companion, a companion not unlike my whale, sentences I’ve only yet begun to learn to read, a whale whose length I never will.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Powers, Alameddine, Ozeki, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Richard Powers, Rabih Alameddine, Ruth Ozeki, 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.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bewilderment: “Pulitzer winner Powers (The Overstory) offers up a marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculations about alien life. Astrophysicist Theo Byrne simulates worlds outside Earth’s solar system as part of lobbying efforts for a new spaceborne telescope. As a single parent in Madison, Wis., his work takes a back seat—his wife, Aly, mother of their nine-year-old, Robin, died two years earlier. Theo shares his fictional descriptions of life on exoplanets with Robin in the form of bedtime stories, and they bond over a Trumpian administration’s hostility to scientific research. Theo allows Robin to protest neglect of endangered species at the state capitol, despite Robin’s volatile behavior. He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, and ADHD, and Theo refuses to give him psychoactive medication (‘Life is something we need to stop correcting,’ goes Theo’s new ‘crackpot theory’). More cutting-edge is the neurofeedback program run by an old friend of Aly’s, who trains Robin to model his emotions from a record saved of Aly’s brain activity. It works, for a while—the tragic, bittersweet plot has some parallels to Flowers for Algernon. The planetary descriptions grow a bit repetitive and don’t gain narrative traction, but in the end, Powers transforms the wrenching story into something sublime. Though it’s not his masterpiece, it shows the work of a master.”

The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Wrong End of the Telescope: “A Lebanese doctor travels to the island of Lesbos to help refugees and confront her past in the profound and wonderful latest from Alameddine (The Angel of History), a meditation on loss, resilience, and love. Born in Beirut but long settled in the U.S., Mina Simpson is trans and estranged from every member of her family except her older brother Mazen, who flies to the island to assist her. Soon, their paths cross that of a blocked Lebanese writer. The chapters alternate between Mina’s account of her time on Lesbos, where she treats a Syrian woman named Sumaiya who is dying from liver cancer and pleads with Mina not to tell her family, and second-person narration directed at the writer, who encouraged Mina to write about the refugees because he didn’t feel up to the task (‘You weren’t able to find the right words even after numerous sessions on your psychiatrist’s couch,’ Mina narrates). Confronted by the pain so many refugees describe, Mina recalls the lost world of her own childhood and bonds with Sumaiya over their shared desire to protect their families from the truth. As Mina and her writer-interlocutor are each consumed by the effort to communicate the horror of the refugee experience, Alameddine crafts a wise, deeply moving story that can still locate humor in the pit of hell (Mina, agreeing to let the writer tell her story, jokes, “Whatever you do … don’t fucking call it A Lebanese Lesbian in Lesbos”). This is a triumph.

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When Ghosts Come Home: “The trouble for Sheriff Winston Barnes, the upstanding hero of this leisurely whodunit set in 1984 from bestseller Cash (A Land More Kind than Home), begins when he drives late one night to the tiny Oak Island, N.C., airport, where an airplane has crash landed. On the runway near the plane, which is empty, lies the body of Rodney Bellamy, who’s been shot to death. Rodney went to school with Winston’s estranged daughter, Colleen, and was the son of one of the county’s leading civil rights advocates. An FBI investigation into the mysterious plane, which may have been carrying cocaine, threatens Winston’s image as a capable cop—and his chances in a tough re-election against rich boy Bradley Frye. Racial tensions escalate as Frye’s crew of thugs threaten Rodney’s widow and her 14-year-old brother. Meanwhile, Colleen is in town from Texas to figure out her law career and marriage after the death of her baby. A surfeit of background exposition and multiple tangential story lines slow the momentum of the murder plot. This rich character-driven tale works best as a social portrait of a community and an era.”

The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Body Scout: “Michel’s brisk, entertaining debut weaves familiar cyberpunk tropes through a gritty, near-future world of corporate greed and pro baseball. As young boys growing up in the bleak underground warrens of a New York City partly submerged due to climate change, Kobo and his best friend, JJ Zunz, dreamed of playing ball in the big leagues. Kobo washed out of the now-defunct Cyber League and became a talent scout for the pros, though the sport is now controlled by Big Pharma, whose cutting-edge drug blends fuel the top players. Zunz, on the other hand, had the skills and luck to become a star hitter for the Monsanto Mets—until he drops dead on the field during a playoff game. Was it poison or a careless overdose? Kobo’s determined to find the truth, and his investigation plunges him deep into a web of corporate politics, intrigue, and cutthroat shenanigans. The plot moves fast and features well-wrought if expected worldbuilding details, including floating billboards, advanced drug and gene therapies, cybernetic rebuilds, obnoxious and über-wealthy CEOs, and ecological collapse. Readers won’t need to be baseball fans to enjoy this gripping ride.”

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lean Fall Stand: “McGregor’s stunning latest (after Reservoir 13) explores the aftermath of a traumatic accident. Robert Wright has spent a good deal of his professional life as a technician at Station K in Antarctica with a team of geographic researchers. During a storm, Robert is separated from his crew and suffers a near-fatal injury. McGregor beautifully captures Robert’s ensuing struggle for survival through passages of fragmented stream of consciousness. After Robert’s wife, Anna, is informed he had a stroke, she flies to meet him in Chile, where he has been hospitalized. But the Robert she encounters is a very different man from the one she last saw: among other injuries, his stroke has severely affected the language center of his brain. As the survival story becomes one of recuperation, Anna, an academic who studies the effects of global warming, must care for her disabled spouse, and McGregor portrays the tribulations of speech therapy with as much drama and depth as the depictions of men fighting for their lives on an Antarctic ice floe. Readers will be drawn into Robert and Anna’s heartbreaking struggle, all rendered in McGregor’s crystalline language. This gorgeous work leaves an indelible mark.”

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Book of Form and Emptiness: “Zen Buddhist priest Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest (after the meditation memoir The Face: A Time Code) explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination. Benny Oh, a 13-year-old boy, begins hearing voices after his jazz musician father dies in a tragicomic accident involving a truck full of chickens. The voices launch Benny on a quest of self-discovery at the library, where he meets a slovenly poet-philosopher called ‘the Bottleman’ and his stunning, anarchic protégé, ‘the Aleph,’ a young woman obsessed with Borges and the Situationists. The duo cause Benny’s life to become more chaotic and yet more thrilling as they encourage him to embrace his inner madness. Meanwhile, Benny’s mother, Annabelle, whose job for a media-monitoring agency requires her to clip and catalogue print newspaper and magazine articles, and who now works from home, starts hoarding, and the house’s clutter becomes increasingly overwhelming. Sometimes this reads like a simple coming-of-age tale, but Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall—Benny, embarrassed by a passage about him being bullied, says to ‘the Book,’ ‘Can we just skip this, please?’—and she cultivates a striking blend of young adult fiction tropes with complex references to Walter Benjamin, Zen Buddhism, and Marxist philosophy. This is the rare work that will entertain teenagers, literary fiction readers, and academics alike.”