My First Year as a Mother, I Only Read Women Authors. Here’s What I Learned.

When I was six months pregnant, I moved across the world, and I found myself thinking a lot about containers. First, in order to move I had to put everything I owned, including books, into containers. Then those containers had to be loaded into a shipping container that went across the Atlantic. My old life had to be folded and put away in the trunks of memory as I said goodbye to friends, quit a job I was sorry to leave, broke the lease on my one-bedroom apartment, and signed the paperwork for my spousal visa. And in the third trimester, it had become more and more obvious that my body was itself a container—one that was struggling to contain a writhing, wriggling being.

The boxes carrying my things arrived at my new home a few weeks before my due date, and I put my books back on the shelf, not knowing how to organize them. When would I get to read again? As I waited for contractions to start, I read as fast as I could, soaking up the alone time. But it turned out having a baby didn’t mean I couldn’t find time to read. It just meant reading was different. I read on my Kindle app on my iPhone as the baby nursed. I spent long, lonely maternity leave days browsing the shelves at the local library, and then I read my picks while the baby napped.

But what should I read, now that I inhabited this strange, new life? The world was no longer defined by containers—I was outside of all the boxes now, wandering around in a cold new world and watching over a vulnerable, needy being who didn’t know or care what I was thinking about.

I decided to take on a year-long experiment of reading only women authors. My energy to read—and especially to be an engaged, opinionated reader—was dwindling. I wanted to find inspiration and understanding in the voices of other women. It was reductive, I knew, to imagine other women were the solution, but at the same time I craved reductive thinking. I just wanted things to be simple, and to work.

Early in the year, I found a book that let me look inside another new mother’s postpartum mind, and I recognized my own warped perceptions. The book was Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. “She had appeared as an animal,” Galchen writes about her newborn daughter. “A previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic. We were rarely apart.” Galchen’s book is in fragments, in dream-like observations and factually-presented metaphors that echoed my own disordered internal world. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a container again—a box labeled “Mothers like Rivka Galchen.” I was sure my experiment was working.

But right away I found another book that made me just as sure it wasn’t. I read Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. This book showed me the futility of imagining a single, unified female narrative. I saw the futility of even trying. It was a book I read eagerly, because it promised to tell me something about women’s desire. My own poorly-timed child had been the product of my unruly desires, which I struggled to understand in their aftermath. But after I finished racing through the pages, I was disappointed. I’d seen nothing of myself. I was alienated again; I didn’t fit in to this story. Women talking to women did not create a container in which all women fit.

I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and I felt an old, familiar container opening back up again, like an inviting little side door on my slog towards the dim light at the end of the tunnel. This was the familiar feeling of geeking out over a new writer (even if I’d come late to the party on this one). It was like I was 17 and holding the first issue of the Believer magazine all over again. The escapism of fandom was intoxicating. The narrator of this book cloistered herself in her Upper East Side apartment and dulled her days with sleeping pills. I was away from society, too, pushing my baby around in a stroller through our deserted, November-dark suburb, so empty during the weekdays that it was like a post-apocalyptic dystopia. I’d see another mother pushing a baby on the horizon and we’d skitter away from each other like dead leaves, rather than risk interaction. I related to My Year of Rest and Relaxation and I was in awe of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It felt good to care about something like that again.

I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and I was outraged. This book had been so hyped, was so incredibly, vastly long—and it was so, so bad. Again, it felt good to care. It felt good to be invested enough to be outraged. The rage I felt at having completed such a frustrating and deeply problematic tragedy/fantasy was a healthy, jumping-jacks kind of rage.

I read How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn and The Book You Wish your Parents Had Read by Phillipa Perry, and I thought both were helpful, but that both also needed to be read my husband for their strategies to work. Suddenly the idea of women’s self-help seemed like an unfair racket: women lecturing women about how we could help ourselves, I thought, as if we existed in a vacuum. It was depressing, and the opposite of escapism. It made the world harsh again. I needed a balance, I thought, between escaping to contained pockets of my old life and crashing into the boundless difficulties of my new one.

I read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (I loved it, I devoured it, but I could barely remember being 19 and it made me feel like I’d wasted my life). I read The Idiot by Elif Batuman (same, pretty much, although it made me glad not to be 19 anymore, instead of regretful). I read My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and What I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton.

The year wore on, and the days began bringing our suburb a buttery June light, and my son saw trees with leaves for the first time, and I found something that helped. I began to read collections of essays that used the authors’ stories to talk about the stories of the wider world, and vice versa. These were The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang, Against Memoir by Michelle Tea, Coventry by Rachel Cusk, and Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. Once I read one, the rest dominoed after. In these essays, I heard women speaking about themselves and their own stories, without any trace of self-absorption or self-pity.

Wang writes about her experiences with a type of schizophrenia, and then weaves the history and experience of others with schizophrenia into, out of, and around her story. Cusk writes about her parents giving her the silent treatment, and her sadness about the difficulties of mothering adolescents, with an unemotional clarity that gives a kind of grounded, factual comfort to these painful experiences.

It was as though the essayists were opening and shutting a door to the outside world as they wrote, letting its weather into their internal world. At other times, they stood outside themselves and looked in through their windows. The interior and exterior were distinct, and there was a power in the dramatic, architectural interplay created between the two. I luxuriated in the richness of these essays, and I was inspired. I wanted to write about my own journey, my difficulty with motherhood, and my new country. Most of all, I wanted to feel the solidity of knowing how to talk about these things: to paint a square picture with black-and-white lines, then to run colors all over the top, creating something both coherent and ambiguous. Wanting to do that didn’t mean I knew how to, yet. But it was a start.

Image Credit: WikiArt.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Wilkerson, Emezi, Simon, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Isabel Wilkerson, Akwaeke Emezi, our own Ed Simon, and more—that are publishing this week.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Caste: “In this powerful and extraordinarily timely social history, Pulitzer winner Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) investigates the origins, evolution, and inner workings of America’s ‘shape-shifting, unspoken’ caste system. Tracking the inception of the country’s race-based ‘ranking of human value’ to the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, Wilkerson draws on the works of anthropologists, geneticists, and social economists to uncover the arbitrariness of racial divisions, and finds startling parallels to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. The Nazis, Wilkerson notes, studied America’s restrictive immigration and anti-miscegenation laws to develop their own racial purity edicts, and were impressed by the ‘American custom of lynching’ and ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’ While India abolished formal laws that defined its caste systems in the 1940s, and America passed civil rights measures in the ’60s, their respective hierarchies live on, Wilkerson writes, in ‘hearts and habits, institutions and infrastructures.’ Wilkerson cites studies showing that black Americans have the highest rates of stress-induced chronic diseases of all ethnic groups in the U.S., and that a third of African Americans hold antiblack biases against themselves. Incisive autobiographical anecdotes and captivating portraits of black pioneers including baseball pitcher Satchel Paige and husband-and-wife anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis reveal the steep price U.S. society pays for limiting the potential of black Americans. This enthralling exposé deserves a wide and impassioned readership.”

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Death of Vivek Oji: “Emezi returns to adult fiction (after YA novel Pet) with a brisk tale that whirs around the mysterious death of a young Nigerian man, Vivek Oji. As a child in the 1990s, Vivek secretly identifies as a girl, the psychological strain of which causes Vivek to slip into blackouts. Only his close male cousin, Osita, recognizes the seriousness of these fugue states. (Vivek’s parents dismiss them as ‘quiet spells.’) As a teenager, Vivek grows his hair long in defiance of gender expectations, and Emezi affectingly explores the harm of threats to Vivek’s gender expression from other boys and men, who sling insults and glass bottles at him on the street. As Vivek finds solace in his female friends and Osita, he discovers he is not the only one with secrets. After his death, the heartbreaking details of which are gradually revealed, the other characters learn more about his secret life . While Emezi leans on clichés (‘hit me in the chest like a lorry’) and two-dimensional supporting characters, they offer sharp observations about the cost of transphobia and homophobia, and about the limits of honesty in their characters’ lives. Despite a few bumps, this is a worthy effort.”

Luster by Raven Leilani

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Luster: “Leilani debuts with a moving examination of a young black woman’s economic desperation and her relationship to violence. Edie is a 20-something low-level employee at a New York city publishing house. She paints on the side, but not often or well enough to comfortably call herself an artist, and she’s infatuated with Eric Walker, a married white man twice her age she met online, with whom she explores his thirst for aggressive domination (‘I think I’d like to hit you,’ he says; she lets him) and is caught breaking the rules of Eric’s open marriage (no going to his house). After Edie loses her job, Eric’s wife, Rebecca, invites her to stay with them in New Jersey. The arrangement functions partly to vex Eric and partly to support Akila, the Walkers’ adopted black daughter. An inevitable betrayal cracks the household’s veneer of civility, and suddenly Edie must make new arrangements. She does so in earnest, but not before a horrific scene in which Edie and Akila are victims of police brutality. Edie’s ability to navigate the complicated relationships with the Walkers exhibits Leilani’s mastery of nuance, and the narration is perceptive, funny, and emotionally charged. Edie’s frank, self-possessed voice will keep a firm grip on readers all the way to the bitter end.”

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about To the Lake: “Bulgarian-born poet Kassabova (Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe), who now lives in Scotland, explores the religious, political, and ethnic tangles of the Balkans in this potent and meditative travelogue steeped in family history. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, nestled in the mountains between western Macedonia and eastern Albania, provide Kassabova’s entry point into the region as she searches for her maternal grandmother’s roots: ‘What I had come to seek was as simple as it was elusive—continuity of being through continuity of place.’ During a tour of Lake Ohrid’s eastern shore, Kassabova sketches Macedonia’s history, vividly describes its natural beauty, and recounts the life of her great-grandfather, Kosta, who rowed across the lake in 1929 to escape political persecution in Bulgaria. Exploring Lake Prespa, Kassabova delves into Albania’s long history of repression and violence, including the ruthless rule of communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Despite the grim history of regional strife, Kassabova’s faith in the power of forgiveness leads her to draw hopeful conclusions about the past and the future of the Balkans. This heartfelt exploration of the intersections between geography, history, and identity mesmerizes.”

What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Happens at Night: “In this dreamlike, resonant fable, Cameron (Coral Glynn) depicts a pair of lost souls who travel to the edge of the world. Two unnamed New Yorkers in a frosty marriage disembark from a train in Borgarfjaroasysla, a fictional, far-northern European city, and check into the elegant Grand Imperial Hotel. The childless couple has come to the wintry land to adopt a baby boy from an orphanage, and they’re baffled, frustrated, and occasionally comforted by the city’s inhabitants as they endure delays with the adoption. There’s a mannered quality to the pervasive strangeness (a receptionist maintains an ‘impassive, unseeing attitude’; long dark days end before they begin), and the occasionally solemn dialogue doesn’t help (‘I know what I’ve become. How I am. What I am’), but generally Cameron doles out the right amount of eeriness and eccentricity. Livia Pinheiro-Rima, a bighearted lounge singer and pathological liar who looks after the adrift couple, is particularly memorable. Less convincing is the portrait of a local healer, Brother Emmanuel, whose mystic aura inspires the wife with hopes of recovery from her cancer. A torpor hangs over the events and protagonists, who respond passively to the bizarre world around them. While the idiosyncratic setting can sometimes serve as a foil for the couple, their response makes Cameron’s admirable tale emotionally affecting.”

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun (translated by Lizzie Buehler)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Disaster Tourist: “South Korean author Yun’s spare but provocative novel (after the collection Table for One) offers perceptive satire laced with disconcerting imagery. In her mid-30s, Yona Ko has devoted the last decade of her life to her employer, Jungle, which offers package tours to areas of the world ravaged by disasters, from hurricanes to nuclear meltdowns. After being sexually assaulted by her boss and assigned to a new role, Yona suspects she’s being pushed out of the company. On the verge of quitting, she’s given a new opportunity: evaluate the disaster ecosystem on a Vietnamese island (a sinkhole, a volcano) and determine whether the destination should be kept in Jungle’s portfolio. Upon arriving, Yona soon realizes that the island’s power brokers are aware that their tourist income is imperiled, and she is appalled when an investor tells her of a plan to engineer a sinkhole during a village festival that would kill at least 100 people, after which they would use international aid for urban redevelopment. In Yona’s increasingly bizarre encounters, she learns just how severe the local environmental degradation is and the frightening extent of corporate greed. Yun cleverly combines absurdity with legitimate horror and mounting dread. With its arresting, nightmarish island scenario, this work speaks volumes about the human cost of tourism in developing countries.”

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Love After Love: “Persaud’s auspicious debut traces the gut-wrenching lives of a makeshift Trinidadian family over the past two decades. After Betty Ramdin’s abusive, alcoholic husband, Sunil, dies, Betty invites a reserved math teacher, Mr. Chetan, to rent a room in her house. Chetan, who knows Betty as an administrator at his school, accepts the offer and forms a bond with Betty’s five-year-old son, Solo. The three quickly form a de facto family, and Chetan shines in the kitchen (‘She hand nowhere near sweet like mine,’ he says). Cracks emerge later, as Betty’s attempt to initiate sex with Chetan falters when he reveals he is gay, and Solo, now a teenager, overhears Betty confess to Chetan that she caused Sunil’s death by pushing him down a set of stairs. After Solo graduates high school, he illegally immigrates to New York City and cuts off all contact with his mother. Though Solo’s uncle helps him find work, he isolates himself socially and descends into self-harm. Meanwhile, Chetan, who came of age when sodomy was illegal in Trinidad, navigates clandestine relationships with a controlling police officer and an old flame, now married. After Solo hears tragic news from Trinidad, he returns for a bittersweet reunion. In chapters alternately narrated by Solo, Betty, and Chetan in vibrant Trinidadian dialect, Persaud expertly maps the trio’s emotional development and builds a complicated yet seamless plot full of indelible insights and poignant moments. This affecting family saga shines brightly.”

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Migrations: “Young adult novelist McConaghy (the Chronicles of Kaya series) makes her adult debut with the clunky chronicle of Franny Stone, a troubled woman who follows a flock of endangered Arctic terns on what is believed to be their final migration home. Franny’s mother, who vanished when Franny was seven, warned her that women in their family are unable to resist the urge to wander. While working at a university in Galway, she meets ornithologist Niall Lynch, who immediately declares they’ll spend their lives together, and they implausibly marry. Unfortunately, Franny’s overwhelming desire to travel, her sorrow over their stillborn daughter, and a sleepwalking episode in which she chokes Niall drive a wedge in their marriage. Niall had always longed to track the terns, and Franny does so by convincing a fishing boat captain that she can help him find fish in exchange for transportation. Despite the ragtag crew’s initial distrust of Franny, she becomes part of the team. McConaghy divulges more about Franny’s dark past as she writes Niall letters and reflects on their relationship, as well as the true nature of her quest. While McConaghy’s plot is engaging, her writing can be a heavy-handed distraction (‘out flies my soul, sucked through my pores’). Lovers of ornithology and intense drama will find what they need in this uneven tale.”

In the Valley by Ron Rash

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Valley: “The 10 stories in Rash’s revelatory collection (after The Risen) range from contemporary slices of life to period character studies, and from quiet closet dramas to miniature epics. The title story, a pendant to his 2008 novel, Serena, flirts with the mythological in its extraordinary depiction of Serena Pemberton, the steel-willed owner of a Depression-era logging camp, who rules over her employees and the forests that they’re felling like a raging Fury. Standouts among the book’s contemporary entries include ‘L’homme Blessé,’ in which a grieving widower finds consolation in prehistoric art reproduced by a traumatized WWII veteran on the walls of his room; ‘Ransom,’ about the peculiar bond a kidnap victim develops with her abductor; and ‘Sad Man in the Sky,’ whose main character, a newly released con, engineers an audacious airborne stunt to deliver presents to children that a restraining order prevents him from visiting. In simple but eloquent prose, Rash describes the vulnerabilities, fears, and desires of his characters and shows how often they unite persons from vastly different walks of life and social strata. The skillful craftsmanship of these tales and their subtle but powerful climaxes make for profoundly moving reading.”

Talking Animals by Joni Murphy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Talking Animals: “In this bighearted if flawed eco-fiction satire, pun-loving alpaca Alfonzo Velloso Faca takes on corruption and climate change. The novel’s sweeping opening describes an alternate-reality New York City populated by a menagerie of talking animals, a hierarchical city arranged by ‘unwritten laws of class, order, family, genus, and species.’ Alfonzo, the son of immigrant Bolivian camelids, toils in the city’s Department of Records. He is also nearing completion of a dissertation in mammalian studies ‘that would tease out the myth of empire from the unwashed raw wool of reality.’ Rot is all around him, from the city’s venal equine mayor (the scion of an elite family), to the polluted, rising oceans and the troubling demonization of sea creatures (‘They hate our legs and our free society,’ claims a porcine city hall official). Alfonzo’s best friend, a llama named Mitchell, introduces him to the nonviolent Sea Equality Revolutionary Front (SERF) and embroils him in an effort to expose the mayor’s graft and bring down his antisea administration. The intrigue takes its time heating up and never fully comes to a boil, and speechifying abounds in the dialogue. Murphy has great fun animalizing the streets of N.Y.C. and writes beautiful paeans to the sea, but the gags, heady sociological riffs, and lyricism can’t quite sustain the novel.”

Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Imperfect Women: “This heart-wrenching psychological thriller from British author Hall (Our Kind of Cruelty) charts the fraught lives of three best friends from university. Nancy Hennessy has stayed ostensibly close to Eleanor Meakins and Mary Smithson in the nearly three decades since they were at Oxford together. When Nancy is murdered after meeting with her secret lover, Eleanor’s affair with Nancy’s husband becomes so engrossing and guilt-wracked that it keeps Eleanor from helping Mary with her husband’s illness. Three successive narratives center on the interior life of each woman: Eleanor immediately after the murder, Nancy in the time leading up to her death, and Mary further along in the murder’s aftermath. Hall shows each woman being emotionally drawn to doing something she knows is awful, revolting against feeling trapped, and feeling separated from her support system by guilt, evoking both empathy and outrage in the reader. The suspense alone is crafted skillfully enough to hold interest, but the dark portrait of the stifling nature of contemporary womanhood makes this story really stick.”

Also on shelves: Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms, If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan and Printed in Utopia by our own Ed Simon.

Kent Russell’s Long March

When Kent Russell published his debut collection of essays back in 2015, I readily enlisted in his growing army of fans. My review of Russell’s book, the unfortunately titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, praised his imagery and sentence-making and his empathy with fringe characters, while lamenting his tedious dissection of his relationship with his impossible father. Readers reacted to that review with some foam-at-the-mouth vitriol. One reader identified as Toad wrote: “It’s not uncommon for young, confidence-lacking writers to baldly ape their influences (and to pepper their work with obscure, incorrectly utilized mega-words), but such attempts are better left in the desk drawer.” A reader named Anon suggested this alternative title for the book: I Am So Tired To Think That These Types of Books by These Types of Insufferable Twits Are Still Being Published and Will Continue to Be Until My Asshole Bleeds Out.

Wow. Russell is now out with a new book called In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida that’s sure to make readers like Toad and Anon foam and bleed all over again. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it is wildly uneven—with flashes of brilliance that are too often bogged down by half-baked analysis, clunky mega-words and, most disappointing of all, muddy writing.

The trouble begins in the opening pages, which are written in screenplay format. Why? Because our three heroes—Glenn, Noah and Kent—have loaded up a shopping cart with camping packs and film gear, and they’ve embarked on a thousand-mile walk from the Florida panhandle all the way to Russell’s hometown, Miami, a journey they hope to turn into a “gonzo” documentary movie—and this book. Kent, our author and tour guide, is described in screenplay-ese as a “PAUNCHY NEBBISH” and “something of an ARTIST and/or INTELLECTUAL” who grew a “long flowing mullet” for this return to his home state. Glenn is “a blond, blue-eyed, dad-bodied man in his early thirties” who is “UNAPLOGETICALLY CANADIAN.” And Noah is “a short, scowling IRAQ WAR VETERAN” whose once-bulging muscles are now swaddled in fat, “as if the action figure of his past life has been packed away under Bubble Wrap.” So far, sorta so-so. The real trouble is Kent’s reason for embarking on this journey: “I owed $37,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. For, you see, when you are granted an advance on a book prior to its publication, the check you receive has none of your federal, state, or city taxes deducted from it. It’s one big lump sum, like the number stamped on an over-sized game-show check.”

So there you have it. Kent Russell is a graduate of the University of Florida, he has taught at Columbia University—and yet when he sold his first book to a major New York publisher, he was unaware that writers, like all other working stiffs under God’s sun, have to pay income taxes. What do they teach the kids down there in Gainesville? So by page 13, you’re aware that you’re reading a back-taxes-plus-penalties-and-interest book. A little later, Russell comes right out with his motivation for undertaking this project: “I am in debt up to my fucking eyeballs.”

From this unpromising set-up, the book tries to take flight, and sometimes it succeeds. Russell is especially good at thumbnail historical sketches of the avarice and chicanery that made Florida possible, beginning with the first white visitors from Spain and running right up to American industrialist Henry Flagler and Walt Disney. We learn interesting things not only about conquistadors and tourism and orange groves, but also about the influx of retirees, the spread of military installations, the importance of air conditioning, the demise of the Apalachicola oyster beds, the rapaciousness of real-estate developers, and Donald Trump’s deeply visceral appeal to Floridians. (The trip took place during the 2016 presidential campaign, which now feels like the Paleozoic Era.) Along the way we meet some engaging characters, including shrimpers, strippers, swamp dwellers, a “nuisance-alligator wrestler” (nice work if you can get it), and a recovering junkie named Rodrigo who plays Jesus at Disney World’s Holy Land Experience. These people go beyond being merely colorful, all the way to perceptive and, frequently, insightful. They’re also a reminder that Russell is at his best when he gets out of his own skull and does what good reporters do: he listens.

Less successful are Russell’s attempts to analyze What Florida Means. This produces a cloud of gas and a bushel of those mega-words that so infuriated Toad, including simulacrum (a word only a French philosopher could love), synecdoche (don’t bother looking it up, just watch the pretentious Charlie Kaufman movie with the word in its title), plus pestiferous, scrying, gibbous, plosive, syncretic, and strabismic. This is tricky terrain. No writer should be faulted for having an expansive vocabulary, but there’s a fine line between using unfamiliar words to good effect and using unfamiliar words to show off or, worse, to give badly assembled ideas a glossy paintjob. Too often, Russell uses these candy-apple words to dress up analyses that are, to be kind, on the thin side. Consider St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, which, according to Russell, has been turned into “a taxidermied approximation of its former self” and “a historical fiction like Colonial Williamsburg” and an “olde tyme simulacrum of Spanish Florida.” Which leads to these 10-cent aperçus: “History qua history matters only to the extent that it can be monetized. That it can be disarticulated into a series of attractions—a competitive advantage.” And: “The lure and blur of the real. That’s what St. Augustine had to work with.” Our trio deals with the lure and blur by pitching a coke-fuelled blackout drunk.

That world “real” keeps popping up. At one point, Glenn voices a reasonable fear: “I’m afraid we aren’t getting the real Florida. Right now we are just drifting through towns barely scratching the surface.” Russell shoots back: “You wanna get Florida? OK, well—you get Florida by inventing an interpretation of it. Preferably a for-profit interpretation. Think of, like…Seaside. Seaside got Florida by substituting its own simulation ‘Florida’ in the place of Florida.” I think I get it, but I’m not sure.

In this meta vein we learn why Dale, the aforementioned nuisance-alligator wrestler, rebuffed the overtures of a “real ‘reality’ TV” crew from L.A. but allowed Russell and his fellow gonzo documentarians into his world—because the L.A. crew had come to Florida “wanting to show the country how they already think we are back in L.A.” This leads Russell to an epiphany about the makers of “reality” TV that’s worth quoting at length:
These folks have power, real power, to fabricate narratives about the world. And Dale with his practical knowledge—his common sense—will forever be at odds with the malleable “reality” encoded and presented by television, social media, all of it. This malleable “reality” (which, let’s be honest, is displacing Dale’s reality via every screen in the land) is largely a rhetorical achievement. “Reality” no longer refers to the natural world and its limits. “Reality” rejects preconditions. “Reality” is whatever people want it to be, and then say it is, individually and en masse, making it so. In a sense, the real “reality” folks and the stars they have produced really are a breed of artist. Credit where credit is due…These artists, they act natural. And that is their art. The real “reality” artist is his own best fiction. His best fiction is his true self. One thing you could say about him—he’ll never be found guilty of insincerity! Or, for that matter, sincerity. “Kent” can no more be separated from Kent (were I one of these cretins) than lightning could be separated from its flashing.
Shortly after that flash of insight, Russell agrees to give a talk to a magazine-writing class at his alma mater. Russell’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ, n+1, and The Believer, among other venues, so his former thesis adviser figures he has some “real”-world wisdom to pass along to the students. “Brass tacks,” Russell begins, while chugging on a Contigo full of hundred-proof booze, “if you’re going to be a magazine writer, you’re going to have to deal with magazine editors. You will prepare for these editors a free-range, pan-roasted squab of a story, OK, and they will take it, and they will rip it apart, and they will pluck nuance and complexity like so many fine bones.” Chug, chug. Lowering his voice, he staggers on, “This is the secret to all publishing, from magazines, to books, to I don’t care what. If you really want to get published, what you do is ape the stuff that’s already succeeded. You go after consensus. You tell a story to these editors about the things they already believe to be true. You hand them a mirror they can see themselves in. Or see themselves as they wish they were. Now, if that sounds less like writing than flattery, well…Not everybody is cut out for this business. I’m not even sure I am, now that I think about it.” After delivering this cynical screed, Russell polishes off the Contigo and heads for the exit while saying, “Writing is serving. Living is serving. Choose what you’re gonna serve…Point is, you gotta serve something.” If I were paying tuition for such hard-won wisdom, I’d demand my money back.

Which brings us to the muddy writing. In Timid Son, Russell showed himself to be capable of producing dazzling sentences and diamond-hard metaphors, but here the writing is frequently fuzzy and imprecise. A few samples: “Kent’s glare ratchets toward him like the head of a socket wrench.” (This makes no sense if you have ever used a socket wrench.) “Torn clouds flew overhead like the last shavings of a buzz saw nicking through wood.” (Likening clouds to buzz saw shavings strikes me as a stretch.) “Children kept their eyes trained on us while remaining still as things trapped under ice.” (Shouldn’t that be “trapped in ice”?) “The green inferno was humid to the point of hindered exhalation.” (This is what I mean by fuzzy and imprecise.) Disney World brings out the worst in Russell. There he boards a trolley that’s full of “a whole honking gaggle of Europeans.” These geese-like “Euros,” as he calls them, carry “water-bladderesque purses,” smoke unfiltered cigarettes and wear Capri pants “hemmed at inspired lengths.” Then: “I stretched out as the Euros exited the trolley. To the driver they trilled thank-yous, their English scented with accents that sounded the way flavored waters taste.” This sounds like it was written by one of the 200 million Americans who don’t own a passport and who, having never traveled to Europe, assume that all “Euros” share an accent, whether they come from Latvia or Luxembourg. It’s just plain bad writing—condescending, provincial and lazy.

Russell claims to loathe walking narratives, their “epiphanies” and “treacly sentimentality.” But the truth is that walking trips have inspired memorable writing by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Muir (whose own thousand-mile walk ended not far from where Russell’s began), Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson, and Cheryl Strayed, to name a few. You could even throw Mao Zedong into the mix. At its best moments, In the Land of Good Living is a reminder of the walking narrative’s chief virtue: it allows a writer to pass through ever-changing worlds, observing and absorbing at a leisurely pace. In our revved-up, screen-addicted age, it’s quite possibly an idea whose time has come again.

In the end, Russell does arrive at some sharp insights. “Florida isn’t just Weird America,” he writes, “it is Impending America.” Meaning it’s where we’re headed as a nation— straight off the cliff and into the deep warm sea. Florida, he adds, is an “unplanned, untenable boondoggle,” a place where “fixed meanings are prohibited by the spirit if not the letter of the law.” Surprisingly, the book’s sharpest insight comes from UNAPOLOGETICALLY CANADIAN Glenn, who looks around at the human flotsam of central Florida and delivers an observation that explains a lot of things, right up to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Some 300 miles into the journey, Glenn stretches out his arms and blurts: “All of this Rebel flag, meth lab, Breaking-Bad-slave-compound militia business. Like, ‘I got a God-given right to defend my crappy, ignorant life! You wanna make my existence better? You wanna send my kids to school? You wanna give me healthcare? Fuck you!’” It would not be much of a stretch to update this sentiment with: “You wanna try to tell me to wear a mask? You wanna try to tell me to stay six feet away from that sneezing meth-cooker in the MAGA hat? I’m an American! Fuck you!”

I’m not giving up on Kurt Russell because of one uneven book. He has too much talent and too much promise. I just hope he clears up his back taxes and finds a subject that springs from his pure passion—as opposed to his need for a quick buck. And when he embarks on his next book, I hope he has the good sense to ditch the Canadian and the Iraq War vet, then keep his mouth shut and listen to the people he meets along the way.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Li, Bender, Smith, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Yiyun Li, Aimee Bender, Zadie Smith, and more—that are publishing this week.

Must I Go by Yiyun Li

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Must I Go: “Li (Where Reasons End) writes with relentless seriousness about a woman taking stock of her past while living in a nursing home. Lilia Liska, 81, works on annotating the collected letters of Roland Bouley, a Canadian writer, and writing a personal history for her favorite granddaughter, Katherine, while most people around her have ‘droopy lids and fogged-up eyes.’ Despite Lilia’s five children and three marriages, Lilia is a solitary soul, harsh and short with family and strangers. Li presents Lilia’s notes on Bouley—whom Lilia had a brief affair with as a girl that resulted in the birth of Katherine’s mother, Lucy—and Lilia’s writings to Katherine as windows into her interior, and the meandering story is laden with tortuous doses of Lilia’s self-reflection and too-clever bon mots. Lucy’s suicide and the toll it takes on Lilia’s first marriage and Bouley’s lifelong romance with the enigmatic poet Sidelle Ogden provide the story’s emotional anchors, but more often than not, with Lilia and Bouley’s stories confined to remembrances of the past, the love, longing, and loss that they recount fails to materialize for the reader. Li adeptly captures the dreamlike, bittersweet qualities of memory, but misses the color and substance that makes that remembrance worthwhile.”

Unspeakable Acts edited by Sarah Weinman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Unspeakable Acts: “Weinman (The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World) provides a worthy successor to the Best American Crime Reporting annual series in this thoughtful and wide-ranging true crime anthology, which includes 13 previously published essays. The recent shift in reporting such stories from the victim’s perspective is exemplified in the deeply sad retelling of the 1966 University of Texas mass shooting, Pamela Colloff’s ‘The Reckoning: The Story of Claire Wilson.’ Wilson was seriously injured by the sniper who carried out a shooting spree from the UT Tower, killing Wilson’s boyfriend and the baby she was carrying at the time. Sarah Marshall’s disturbing ‘The End of Evil’ details her struggle to decide whether serial killer Ted Bundy should be thought of as belonging ‘to a separate species from the rest of us.’ And in an era when true crime podcasts and TV shows continue to proliferate, Alice Bolin’s ‘The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime’ details the problems of such popular fare, which often contains unverified and potentially libelous speculations. The superior quality of these essays begs for future volumes.”

The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Butterfly Lampshade: “In Bender’s astounding meditation on time, space, mental illness, and family—her first novel in a decade (after The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake)—a 28-year-old woman works to solidify her memories from childhood. Francie is eight years old when her mother has a psychotic break and smashes her own hand with a hammer in an attempt to destroy the ‘illness that could still swerve and jag inside her.’ Francie’s aunt and uncle arrange for Francie to stay with them, and as she lays in bed at her babysitter’s house anticipating her trip, she admires a lampshade covered in butterfly prints, only to discover, upon waking, a dead butterfly floating in the glass of water beside her. Desperate to hold onto the butterfly, and to hide it from the babysitter, she swallows it. Now, 20 years later, with the help of younger cousin, Vicky, who she grew up with and is like a sister, Francie builds a ‘memory tent,’ and imagines the ‘tiny triangular empty moneyless canvas silent casino’ will restore the slippery memories of her childhood. Bender grounds the tale with observations on the ephemeral nature of moments in time (‘when it seems like words won’t bruise the moment’), as Francie harnesses a childlike perspective to explore the trauma of her mother’s breakdown. Rich in language and the magic of human consciousness, Bender’s masterpiece is one to savor.”

The Island Child by Molly Aitken

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Island Child: “Aitken brings myth and folklore to bear in her haunting debut, a chronicle of troubled mothers and daughters set in the late 20th century. Like generations of women before her on the fictional Irish island of Inis, Oona is reared for domesticity and motherhood. As a teenager, she envies her brothers’ freedoms and is fascinated by Aislinn, a free-spirited young widow who dares to suggest women can control their own reproductive futures. Oona dreams of escape, and eventually seizes her opportunity. Years later, when her own young adult daughter disappears, Oona returns to the bleak and treeless island of her youth, where she must contend with secrets that still lie buried. Though set in the recent past in parallel chronologies, Aitken’s tale feels outside of time. The primitive nature of life on Inis reinforces the mood, as does the inclusion of folk- and fairy tale–vignettes set between chapters. Bearing overtones of Greek mythology and Celtic folklore, Oona’s story also addresses very real concerns: sexual violence, abortion, postpartum depression, and the legacy of familial trauma. Similarly, Aitken’s prose is by turns placidly lyrical, humorous, and sharply pointed, honed by women’s anger over countless generations. Bold and perceptive, Aitken’s self-assured storytelling and understanding of classic themes stand out in contemporary Irish fiction.”

Florida Man by Tom Cooper

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Florida Man: “Beach bums, wack jobs, and refugees populate Cooper’s Technicolor vision of 1980s Florida in this darkly entertaining tale (after The Marauders) set on fictional Emerald Island on the Gulf Coast. Reed Crowe has a secret, but no idea how dangerous it will prove. Two decades earlier, at 17, Reed and his soon-to-be wife, Heidi, witnessed a plane crash and found a shipment of marijuana in the burning wreckage. ‘This is going to change our life,’ Reed says. Now, proprietor of a cheesy tourist attraction called the Florida Man Mystery House and owner of the seedy Emerald Island Inn (acquired thanks to his sudden windfall from the drugs), Reed is middle-aged, often stoned or drunk, and melancholy. Reed and Heidi’s marriage has unraveled, partly because of the murky circumstances around their daughter’s death, and partly because he wanted to stay put, while she insisted on leaving for New York City to advance her art career. Wayne Wade, Crowe’s degenerate, drug-peddling childhood friend and ‘de facto factotum,’ works at the motel, but not much, and runs his mouth at local watering hole the Rum Jungle, where Henry Yahchilane, a Seminole Vietnam vet, overhears something from Wayne about a human skull sighting on a Florida Man swamp tour. After a series of violent, misunderstood encounters, Crowe and Yahchilane team up against crack-addicted Cuban refugee and assassin Hector ‘Catface’ Morales, who seeks revenge on Crowe for stealing his drugs years earlier. As Crowe manages to avoid death by snake, sinkhole, stabbing, explosion, Jet Ski, and heartbreak, he begins to know himself better, along with those around him. Throughout, Cooper’s macabre and brutal universe crackles with energy and wit, and will hold readers’ attention until the very end. Cooper’s riotous, riveting tale rivals the best of Don Winslow.”

Intimations by Zadie Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Intimations: “In this incisive and insightful collection, Smith (Grand Union) ruminates on the pandemic, racial injustice, and the writer’s role in a time of social upheaval. The collection begins with ‘Peonies,’ in which a memory of admiring flowers in a community garden sparks reflections on the female body. In ‘The American Experience,’ Smith blasts Donald Trump’s pandemic response and considers how the crisis has undermined ideas of American exceptionalism. ‘Something to Do,’ the most substantial piece, reflects on doing creative work during quarantine and how her own life of ‘executing self-conceived schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat’ was upended by having family at home. In ‘Screengrabs,’ she briefly profiles familiar faces around her neighborhood, including a man Smith fans will recognize from a story in her Grand Union collection and a woman who is the ‘ideal city dweller’ and cultivates ‘community without overly sentimentalizing the concept.’ In a postscript to this essay, Smith skillfully demonstrates how the pandemic and police brutality constitute two sides of the same coin for Black Americans. Smith is at her perceptive and precise best in this slim but thematically weighty volume of personal and civil reckoning.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lacey, Johnson, Dickey, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Catherine Lacey, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Colin Dickey, and more—that are publishing this week.

Pew by Catherine Lacey

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pew: “Lacey (Certain American States) sets an ambitious, powerful fable of identity and belief in the contemporary American South. An unnamed person with no sense of gender or race (‘Anything I remember being told about my body contradicts something else I’ve been told. I look at my skin and cannot say what shade it is’) is found sleeping in a church pew by Steven, Hilda, and their three boys. The family decide to house the mute stranger, whom they name Pew. The action, which takes place over one week, mostly consists of Pew’s interactions with the town’s residents, who offer one-sided monologues to Pew about their Christian beliefs and believe Pew is their ‘new jesus.’ Pew’s indeterminate features and the townspeople’s habit of projecting onto Pew lead them to see what they want to see, and here Lacey showcases a keen ear for the lilting, sometimes bombastic music of human speech that reveals more than her speakers intend. Pew, meanwhile, bonds with Nelson, a teenage refugee from a war-torn country whose intelligence his caretakers underestimate. Lacey’s incisive look at the townspeople’s narrow understanding draws a stark contrast with Pew’s mute wishes, imagining a life in which ‘our bodies wouldn’t determine our lives, or the lives of others.’ The action builds toward a mysterious Forgiveness Festival and a memorable climax with disturbing echoes of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ unveiled in a harrowing crescendo of call and response. Lacey’s talent shines in this masterful work, her best yet.”

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trouble the Saints: “This sumptuous fantasy from Johnson (Love is the Drug) splits focus between three uncannily gifted characters as they struggle against their fates and the pervasive racism of America on the cusp of WWII. Phyllis LeBlank is mixed-race but passes for white to mingle with New York City’s mobsters, using her supernatural knife throwing skills to kill people her boss assures her are worthy of death. But when Phyllis reunites with her ex-boyfriend, half-Indian police informant Dev Patil, she questions her line of work. Dev, who can foretell threats against anyone he touches, and Phyllis flee the mob to Dev’s childhood home upstate. There, the couple become enmeshed in the disagreement between a white family and an erratic young black man with powers of his own. As racial tensions explode into violence, Phyllis discovers she’s pregnant and Dev gets drafted into war. Phyllis’s best friend, clairvoyant Tamara, helps Phyllis through her difficult pregnancy with a fetus capable of sending visions of the future. But Tamara’s own visions lead her to a challenging choice. With a sweeping but overstuffed plot, dynamic characters, and style to spare, this alternate history demands the reader’s full attention. Fans of challenging, diverse fantasy will enjoy this literary firecracker.”

The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lives of Edie Pritchard: “Set mostly in eastern Montana, Watson’s vibrant character study (after As Good as Gone) reads like a trio of scintillating novellas, each set 20 years apart. In the late 1960s, young bank teller Edie Linderman is married to Dean, a domineering sporting goods clerk. Their wobbly marriage is beset with maybes and ifs. Maybe she should have married Dean’s more ambitious twin brother, Roy, a flirtatious furniture salesman. If she hadn’t gone with Roy to buy a pick-up, maybe he wouldn’t have had the crippling accident, the murky circumstances of which ignited Dean’s jealousy, and maybe she wouldn’t have left town with a one-way bus ticket west and married smarmy insurance agent Gary Dunn, as she does in the second part of the novel, set in 1987. Edie and Dean have a daughter who, by 18, wearies of her dull life. Edie leaves Gary, hoping to develop a better relationship with her rebellious teenager. In 2007, now 64, Edie relies on her life experiences to rescue her self-absorbed adolescent granddaughter who becomes embroiled with yet another set of battling brothers. Like in the best works of Richard Ford and Elizabeth Strout, Watson shows off a keen eye for regional details, a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and an affinity for sharp characterization. This triptych is richly rewarding.”

Grove by Esther Kinsky (translated by Caroline Schmidt)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Grove: “German writer and translator Kinsky (River) offers an exquisite and elusive diaristic work comprised of entries analogous to a researcher’s field notes. Kinsky follows an unnamed narrator who has sought refuge in Northern Italy after the death of her husband, M. The narrator’s references to M. are scant, and come to her in flashes of grief-laden memory. She heals by grounding herself in the present, detailing her excursions through Italian villages. Her observations of the landscapes are vivid and historicized (after seeing a Mussolini poster in a shop, she is unnerved by distant blasts from a construction site, which no one but her and the birds seems to notice), but the narrator’s descriptions of people, in particular a portrait of the narrator’s late Italophile father, are the most moving. By revisiting memories of her father, a jovial and troubling figure, the narrator is able to prepare herself for the more difficult acceptance of M.’s death. To call this a plotless novel would be a misunderstanding: Kinsky is a photographer’s novelist; her prose unravels like a roll of film as visual meditation. The true beauty of this work emerges with patience and contemplation.”

Riding with the Ghost by Justin Taylor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Riding with the Ghost: “A writer grapples with the legacy of his father’s depression and his own shadow self in this lucid memoir of connection, family, and loss. Taylor (The Gospel of Anarchy) kicks off with a riveting account of his father Larry’s attempted suicide in 2013 at a parking garage, which reverberates with pity, helplessness, and sarcasm (‘he was pretty sure [the parking garage roof] was tall enough to do the job’). From there, Taylor shifts to the story of his family in southern Florida, where his parents’ ‘working-class romance’ turned problematic as the intensely intelligent Larry’s career prospects narrowed due to his belligerence and a ‘massive, killing pride.’ Describing his own halting passage from being a squatter punk to an inconsistently employed but generally content writer, professor, and husband, Taylor finds more empathy for Larry’s depression as he sees its longer arc and parallels to his own life. Though the subject matter is weighty and knotty, Taylor’s approach is light; he has a knack for unobtrusive description (referring to staying at a chain hotel as being ‘like falling asleep inside a piece of clip art’) and sudden flashes of cutting insight (‘How do you save a drowning man who doesn’t want a life preserver?’). This is an astute and balanced memoir that finds grace in appreciating another’s pain.”

The Unidentified by Colin Dickey

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Unidentified: “Dickey (Ghostland), a National University creative writing professor, leads readers on a fascinating expedition through fringe belief and theory. Conducting extensive research into cryptozoology, UFOlogy, and other pseudoscientific fields, he investigates myths throughout the U.S., from Northern California’s Mount Shasta, inside which the possibly extraterrestrial Lemurians are said to dwell, to the ‘southern New Jersey creature of note,’ the Jersey Devil, a fusion between Lenape myth and Puritan folklore reborn in the early 20th century as a ‘money-making hoax’ when a kangaroo was passed off to paying crowds as the captured Devil. Dickey posits various ideas about why unproven and outlandish stories exert such a hold on the imagination: conspiracy theories upset the divide between science and religion, while the concept of humanlike animals such as the Bigfoot ‘trouble[s] the line between human and nonhuman’ and ‘interrupts the categories we make to make sense of the world.’ With a wry tone and incisive analysis, Dickey explores how these stories have developed alongside the country through scientific innovations, evolving frontiers, changing ideas about race, and more. Readers will find this to be a thought-provoking and deliciously unsettling guide into the stranger corners of American culture.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Kwan, Center, Iglesias, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Kevin Kwan, Katherine Center, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, and more—that are publishing this week.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sex and Vanity: “Kwan follows up his Crazy Rich Asians trilogy with an intoxicating, breezy update of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Lucie Tang Churchill, 19, a privileged ‘hapa’ (she is half Chinese, half WASP) attends her richer friend Isabel’s wedding in Capri. After Lucie meets Isabel’s cousin George Zao, a rich, handsome, Chinese-Australian surfer, she becomes a ‘bundle of conflicting emotions,’ repulsed by her attraction to the ‘brooding weirdo [who] took himself much too seriously.’ Still, they hook up, at risk of jeopardizing Lucie’s reputation as an eligible bride. Four years later, Lucie and George’s paths cross in New York, only now Lucie is engaged to Cecil Pike. However, Lucy can’t get George out of her mind, and she is flummoxed by his kindness. When Lucy, George, and Cecil attend a film screening featuring a sex scene that reminds her of what she did with George in Capri, Lucie doubles down on suppressing her true desires. Kwan exploits the Forster frame for clever references—including Merchant and Ivory—and provides amusing footnotes. Kwan also relishes describing lavish meals and haute couture clothing, as well as Isabel’s decadent wedding and Cecil’s imaginative, over-the-top proposal. There are moments both catty and witty, but this delectable comedy of manners—the literary equivalent of white truffle and caviar pizza—is still pizza.”

What You Wish For by Katherine Center

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What You Wish For: “Center’s quirky story (after Things You Save in a Fire) follows offbeat librarian Samantha Casey, who’s found the tight-knit family she’s always longed for and a place to call home in a small Texas beach town. The Kempner School, where she works, is a bright, cheery place, and principal Max Kempner sparks joy at every turn—until his sudden death from a pulmonary embolism. When Sam hears the news about Max’s replacement, Duncan Carpenter, she remembers Duncan as a former fellow teacher, crush, and all-around ‘human mood-enhancer.’ Sam sings Duncan’s praises as an ideal replacement until Duncan swoops in and declares the school a security ‘nightmare’ that he is determined to make a model of safety and security through a series of extreme measures. Soon, Sam schemes with the school’s cofounder Babette, Max’s widow, to stage a ‘Joy-bomb’ intervention, forcing Duncan to eat a sundae each day and perform juggling in front of the students at lunchtime in exchange for the privilege of keeping his job, in hopes of unearthing the fun Duncan and saving the school. In the process, Sam’s old crush on Duncan reignites. The cast of eccentric supporting characters adds to a fast-paced tale steeped with whimsical, yet sometimes outlandish, plot points. This is one for the beach bag.”

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inheritors: “Serizawa follows a winding maze through a Japanese family’s history in her dynamic debut collection. A family tree beginning with Masayuki (born in 1868) and continuing through to Mai (born in 2013) creates the work’s backbone, as Serizawa constructs a nonlinear narrative filled with abrupt turns, accidental betrayals, and supposed curses and myths. The opening story, ‘Flight’ (covering 1911–1981), follows Masayuki’s daughter, Ayumi, as she loses some of her memories while others become more vivid. In the collection’s standout, ‘Train to Harbin,’ Ayumi’s doctor brother contemplates his youthful nationalism in the years just after WWII and his role in the wartime occupation of China. In ‘Luna,’ set in 1986, Ayumi’s Japanese-American grand-niece Luna learns her father, Masaaki, was adopted and is of Korean heritage (not Japanese, as he believed), leading her to recall her earliest memories of visiting Japan. In ‘Passing,’ set in 2010, Luna returns to Japan to collect Masaaki’s possessions and ruminates not on ‘where he belonged’ but ‘how he wanted to fit in.’ The final two stories, ‘The Garden’ and ‘Echolocation,’ jump into the future to investigate the fallacies of perception and what cyber warfare might look like after Mai’s brother, Erin, develops a global VR climate simulator for predicting disaster. By showing Japan as both colonizer and colonized, Serizawa delivers an elegant, stimulating web of stories.”

The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The All-Night Sun: “Zinna’s intimate debut dazzles with original language, emotional sentience, and Swedish folklore as it plumbs the depths of grief, loss, and friendship. Lauren Cress, a 28-year-old woman teaching English comp at a small college outside of Washington, D.C., takes a leap out of her lonely, sedentary routine by agreeing to travel with Siri, an 18-year-old art student, to her home in Sweden. Until now, her life has been comprised of walking her dog, Annie; studying Latin to pass her insomniac nights; occasional one-night stands; and devoting much of her time to obsessively commenting on her students’ essays. These habits were formed as coping mechanisms after her parents died in a car crash 10 years earlier. Siri also lost her parents, and the women are intensely bonded by grief. Tension ensues after Lauren meets Siri’s older artist brother, Magnus, whom she was primed to dislike before the trip but can’t stop thinking about. This leads to a rift in Lauren and Siri’s friendship and a heartbreaking climax during the Midsommar celebration. The descriptions of the never-ending sunlight are inventive and luminous (‘when I think of our talks there, they can sometimes feel like sun in my eyes’). Zinna reaches an inspired emotional depth that, as the title signifies, never stops blazing.”

Age of Consent by Amanda Brainerd

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Age of Consent: “Brainerd’s bracing debut focuses on a group of teens at a Connecticut boarding school and an ill-spent summer in New York City. In 1983, classmates Eve Straus and Justine Rubin struggle with difficult parents, teenage crushes, and predatory older men. Eve comes from a wealthy Park Avenue home, while Justine is from New Haven, where her parents are struggling middle-class theater owners, too preoccupied with their own lives to guide her away from trouble. Justine is already growing rapidly into adulthood, while Eve is intent on losing her virginity. Eve’s English instructor trades grades for sex with her; Justine already lost her virginity at 14 to a family friend. While the goings-on at Griswold Academy are engaging, and a musical interlude at a David Bowie concert is well written, Brainerd’s tale really takes off in the second half, when the two young women navigate a gritty summer in New York City, where Eve works at a SoHo art gallery and Justine moves in with Eve’s childhood friend. Eve and Justine eventually drift apart, each envying the other’s life. On the surface, Brainerd’s tale is a nostalgic trip into the early 1980s, including an inspired evocation of the Downtown art scene, but her teenage characters make the greatest impact. The takes on parental neglect and the ways young women are taught to see sex as transactional make this more than a throwback.”

My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog: “This profound and delightful novel-in-stories by Cuban poet Iglesias, her English-language debut, is a breathtaking exploration of identity, country, art, and family. Iglesias’s narrator slips with ease into a different voice in each chapter, though they all retain facets of her consciousness. In ‘Politics,’ the narrator explores her relationship with Cuba through the reminiscences of her dead grandfather. ‘Monster’ is written in a heightened bureaucratic voice, a formal choice that makes concrete the narrator’s stress as she navigates the emigration process. The chapters that follow reveal different aspects of the narrator’s identity—an erudite queer woman; a U.S. émigré; a poet with a deep knowledge of literary and musical history, and an all-consuming affection for her darling French bulldog. While the narrator worries about ‘being no one’ or ‘accepting, that you are no one here and now,’ Iglesias’s voice is too sure, too fresh, and too in command of form to be overlooked. Iglesias’s distinctive style carries her narrator on an unforgettable journey of self-discovery through language.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Nugent, Tenorio, Martin, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Benjamin Nugent, Lysley Tenorio, Andrew Martin, and more—that are publishing this week.

Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fraternity: “Terry Southern Prize–winner Nugent digs into Greek life at an unnamed western Massachusetts university in this winning collection (after Good Kids). In ‘God,’ Delta Zeta Chi members admiringly nickname a classmate God after she writes a poem calling out Delta president Newton as an ‘early detonator’ in bed. ‘The Treasurer’ stars incoming Delta treasurer Pete, whose dedication to the brotherhood impairs his reasoning after he’s sexually assaulted during a leadership test, while in ‘Ollie the Owl,’ Nugent conceives a comical alternate reality where the fraternity’s wooden owl mascot comes to life and attacks students. ‘Safe Spaces,’ the lone tale featuring a female protagonist, ponders the aimless nature of a broken heart, as dropout Claire, high on cocaine, seeks refuge at Delta house after being rebuffed by a former lover. While Nugent shows consistent talent for capturing the voices and shallow ambition of college students, he stumbles when he leaves the campus—the collection’s weakest story, ‘Fan Fiction,’ dawdles as Newton, the Delta president from ‘God,’ moves to Los Angeles and dates a famous director. Despite this aberration, the rest of the collection pulses with energy, and Nugent commendably weaves humor and drama to shine an unflinching light on the young adults convening behind fraternity walls. One can almost smell the stale beer on the page.”

Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Scorpionfish: “In Bakopoulos’s ruminative follow-up to The Green Shore, 30-something Mira returns from the U.S. to Greece after her parents’ deaths to clean out the apartment she grew up in. The city she encounters is not the one of her childhood. Athens is plagued by strikes, drugs, the government debt crisis, and the junta, and refugees hoping for a better future have migrated to the city, ‘the safest dangerous place in the world.’ Like the city itself, Mira’s sense of self is in flux as she lingers in her parents’ apartment. Enter the Captain. Mira’s new neighbor is an older man recently separated from his wife and children who prefers the ‘placeless universality of the sea’ to land. Both spend the summer figuring out who they are in the wake of huge life changes as they explore the city with old friends: Fady and Dimitra, who have taken in a refugee; Aris, Mira’s ex-boyfriend, a rising politician and father-to-be; and Nefeli, an older artist Mira’s known since childhood, who understands, better than anyone, how the past, present, and future selves coexist. While Bakopoulos’s emphasis on themes of identity is at times heavy-handed, she skillfully captures the characters’ sense of feeling stuck between stations. This riff on the adage that you can never go home poses essential questions on what it means to belong.”

The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Son of Good Fortune: “Tenorio’s mordant and moving debut novel (after the collection Monstress) follows the travails of an undocumented Filipino immigrant mother and son. Nineteen-year-old Excel reluctantly makes the long trek back to the apartment where he grew up in Colma, Calif., from Hello City, a relaxed town of hippies and techies near the Mexican border, where he’d moved nine months earlier with his girlfriend, Sab. Excel has a debt in Hello City—$10,000, to be exact—and his only option is to ask for his old job at The Pie Who Loved Me, a restaurant where ‘pizza goes to die.’ His mother, Maxina, a former action star, lives with Joker, Maxina’s childhood martial arts instructor and a grandfather figure to Excel. These days, Maxina makes a living scamming American men seeking obedient Filipina wives online. Excel and Maxina have had a turbulent relationship since Excel’s 10th birthday, when Maxina told him they were tago ng tago (hiding and hiding)—but with such a large debt to pay back, the pizza earnings aren’t enough, and Excel turns to Maxina for help. Written with great empathy and sly humor, Tenorio’s tale of Excel and Maxima’s gradual reconciliation takes a searing look at the ways they’ve taken care of and failed each other. This is a wonderful achievement.”

Alice Knott by Blake Butler

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Alice Knott: “Butler (300,000,000) unwinds a vertiginous, deeply interior tale of art vandalism and a woman’s derangement. When a video showing the destruction of a Willem de Kooning painting goes viral, copycat crimes erupt across the world. The de Kooning, among other destroyed works, turns out to have been stolen from Alice Knott, an aging heiress isolated in her family home for decades. Traumatized by her childhood, Alice suffers from extreme dissociation and is bewildered by herself and her mother, father, stepfather, and twin (or ‘untwin’) brother. Her confusion extends even to the nature of her house, which shape-shifts in her mind (‘there always seemed to be new rooms, and different dimensions to the past ones’). As Alice becomes a suspect in the crimes, Alice Novak, a conceptual artist Butler confusingly describes as Alice Knott’s doppelgänger, dies, apparently during a performance. Meanwhile, acts of art-terror proliferate along with a pandemic of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; natural disasters; and a contagious delirium that infects even the U.S. president. Butler’s penchant for ambiguities flowers in Alice’s convoluted ruminations, which predominate in this challenging novel. Unfortunately, the labyrinthine language will leave readers trapped alongside Alice in her harrowing hall-of-mirrors self, unmoored to any grounding context, and Butler’s attempt to portray mental illness is overwrought and tedious. The conceit and experimentation are fascinating and admirable, but miss their mark.”

Want by Lynn Steger Strong

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Want: “Strong’s impressive follow-up to Hold Still explores the energy it takes for women to sustain themselves in a world that leaves them feeling ‘less than, knocked down, not quite in control.’ Now living in New York City, Elizabeth and her unnamed husband are ‘eighties babies, born of plenty, cloistered by whiteness… brought up to think that if we checked off certain boxes we’d be fine.’ Elizabeth has a PhD, but tenure-track professorship remains out of reach, and her husband, the first in his family to attend college, once worked for Lehman Brothers and now struggles to get a carpentry business off the ground. Due to their unstable employment and scant insurance coverage for her C-section and root canals, they are deep in debt (‘my body almost single-handedly bankrupted us’). As the couple advance through the bankruptcy process, buoyed by their love for their young children and at times each other, Elizabeth becomes caught up in repeating an old pattern with her friend, Sasha, who is anxious about her pregnancy after a previous miscarriage. Strong unpacks the fraught history of Elizabeth and Sasha’s friendship dating back to their teenage years, delivering great insight on how the exhausted women have found themselves wanting—male attention, babies, choices, recognition, respect—as they compromise their dreams in order to survive. This is well worth a look.”

After the Body by Cleopatra Mathis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about After the Body: “Over the last four decades, Mathis (Book of Dog) has quietly crafted lyrically precise, often harrowing poems in which the poet’s ‘throat is a long avenue of ice,/ cutting the familiar good words/ at their source.’ This generous volume draws from the poet’s recorded gifts and losses: poems of early and late motherhood, a child’s mental illness and institutionalization, human and nonhuman deaths within and beyond the poet’s purview. As the poet studies ‘the art of now and wait, to love/ what’s not a part of me,’ the swamps and bayous of her childhood home morph into the woods and coastlines of New England: ‘Some pinion/ connects who we are with whatever pulls us/ to walk into the evening’s wetland grasses/ in an air made of sounds we listen for/ …the grace of seeing that will save us.’ To these earlier works are added two dozen new poems of extraordinary acuity, many of them attempts to describe the wracking pain as the poet struggles with crippling illness. Rereading the poet’s past work through her present reveals hidden continuities. In these knowing poems, readers may recognize their own humanity, as well as the sometimes-impossible conditions of living.”

Cool for America by Andrew Martin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cool for America: “Martin (Early Work) captures young adults’ aimless searches for stability in this bleak, revealing collection. In ‘The Changed Party,’ during a rained-out vacation on the Jersey shore, Lisa and Gary, freshly reunited following a separation, discover their eight-year-old daughter Amanda’s compulsive habit of picking through the garbage and are troubled by a friend’s drinking. In the title story, an unnamed assistant professor spending the summer in Missoula, Mont., wrestles with a powerful attraction to his friend’s wife, who helps him recuperate from a broken leg. In ‘The Boy Vet,’ a baby-faced veterinarian pressures a softhearted literature PhD dropout to pay for emergency surgery on a stray dog. The protagonist of ‘Bad Feelings’ distracts himself from his mom’s surgery by going to ‘the third sequel to a blockbuster adaptation of a young adult book series’ despite having not seen the others, and loses his keys in the empty theater. Moments of cynical humor pop up amid drug use, tumultuous relationships, or other self-defeating outlets for the characters’ creative and personal frustrations. Though the people begin to blend together, each story has at least one or two standout, bleakly funny lines. Martin’s sardonic tales are decent, if not breathtaking.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Stein, Sullivan, Baker, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of  Leigh Stein, J. Courtney Sullivan, Calvin Baker, and more—that are publishing this week.

Self Care by Leigh Stein

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Self Care: “In this sharp satire, Stein (The Fallback Plan) revels in wellness culture gone toxic. Devin Avery and Maren Gelb are cofounders of Richual, a Goop-like lifestyle company seeking to ‘catalyze women to be global changemakers through the simple act of self-care.’ (That the company doesn’t have a maternity leave policy is a particularly juicy irony.) Richual uses sponsored content, paid influencers, confessional blog postings, and merchandise like ‘Believe Victims’ beach towels to attract and monetize its user base. Devin, rich and devoted to a strenuous dietary and beauty regimen, is the face of the company, while Maren, who got her start working for a nonprofit feminist organization and has a mountain of student loan debt, ensures Richual runs ‘like a well-moisturized machine.’ That machine hits a rough patch after a woman publishes an essay about the problematic sexual predilections of Evan, a former Bachelorette contestant and prominent male investor in Richual, threatening the company’s feminist bona fides and driving a wedge between its cofounders. The plot flies by, but the real appeal lies in Stein’s merciless skewering of startup culture, bloviating entrepreneurs, fatuous trends, and woker-than-thou internet denizens, a vanity fair of 20-somethings who are at once conspicuously privileged yet vulnerable, earnest yet hypocritical, navel-gazing yet engaged, independent-minded yet tribal. Stein’s sharp writing separates her from the pack in this exquisite, Machiavellian morality tale about the ethics of looking out for oneself.”

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mexican Gothic: “Moreno-Garcia’s energetic romp through the gothic genre (after Gods of Jade and Shadow) is delightfully bonkers. In the 1950s, Noemí, a flirtatious socialite and college student, travels from Mexico City to rescue her cousin Catalina from the nightmarish High Place, a remote Mexican mountain villa. Catalina has recently married the chilly, imperiously seductive Virgil Doyle, heir to a now defunct British silver mining operation. Beset by mysterious fevers, Catalina has written to her uncle, Noemí’s father, telling him, ‘This house is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.’ Noemí clashes with Virgil’s father, Howard—who subscribes to theories of eugenics—along with a set of oddly robotic British servants. Beset by horrifying dreams and visions, and unsettled by a peculiar fungus that grows everywhere, Noemí soon fears for her own life as well as Catalina’s. In a novel that owes a considerable debt to the nightmarish horror and ornate language of H.P. Lovecraft, the situations in which Noemí attempts to prevail get wilder and stranger with every chapter, as High Place starts exhibiting a mind of its own, and Noemi learns that Howard is far older than he appears to be. Readers who find the usual country house mystery too tame and languid won’t have that problem here.”

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Friends and Strangers: “Sullivan’s intimate, incisive latest (after Saints for all Occasions) explores the evolving friendship between a new mother and her babysitter. After journalist Elisabeth Ronson moves with her husband, Andrew, and infant son, Gil, from Brooklyn to Upstate New York, Elisabeth struggles with the demands of motherhood and faces loneliness and disconnection. Then she hires Sam O’Connell, an art student at the nearby women’s college, to babysit. Elisabeth likes the upbeat Sam, though she has misgivings about Sam’s 30-something boyfriend, Clive, who proves to be untrustworthy,. Elisabeth and Sam correspond over Christmas break while Sam visits Clive in London and Elisabeth spends the holiday entertaining her parents and in-laws at home. Elisabeth and Sam argue about Clive, and Elisabeth’s father-in-law, George, provides another source of tension: Elisabeth finds his leftist rants tiresome, while Sam, via email, takes encouragement from George to campaign for improved working conditions on her campus, and struggles to understand if Elisabeth sees her as a friend or employee. Observations on domestic and social interactions add weight to Sullivan’s inquiry into Elisabeth and Sam’s interior lives, showing where the cracks seep into their friendship. Readers will be captivated by Sullivan’s authentic portrait of modern motherhood.”

A More Perfect Reunion by Calvin Baker

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A More Perfect Reunion: “In this rich, meditative account, novelist Baker (Grace) identifies the current ‘backlash of white bigotry’ following the election of the first African-American president as a moment of national reckoning akin to the Continental Congress, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. In the process of examining why and how those earlier opportunities to ‘escape from the original sin and eternal problem of race’ by fully integrating blacks and other minority groups into American society fell short, Baker offers a wide-ranging and erudite analysis of U.S. history, politics, and culture—from the arrival of the first slave ship at Port Comfort, Va., in 1619 to discriminatory policies built into FDR’s New Deal and an interracial adoption story line on the TV show This Is Us. He critiques identity politics (‘my grievance versus your grievance’) on both the right and the left, and accuses liberals of preserving racist power structures by reaching compromises with white supremacists in order to advance piecemeal progressive reforms. Though Baker doesn’t make the mechanisms for ‘extend[ing] the full social contract’ to African-Americans clear, he paints an incisive picture of the gaps—in wages, education, life expectancy, and criminal justice—that he says need to be closed in order for the promise of democracy to be fulfilled. This powerful call to action resonates.”

Also on shelves: Destination Wedding by Diksha Basu.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Loving That Wild Thing: Leigh Stein’s ‘Land of Enchantment’
Arrested Development: Leigh Stein’s ‘The Fallback Plan’

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Doyle, Burton, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Roddy Doyle, Susan Burton, and more—that are publishing this week.

Love by Roddy Doyle

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Love: “This witty, satisfying novel about male friendship, aging, and guilt from Doyle (A Star Called Henry) dramatizes language’s inadequacies when it comes to affairs of the heart. ‘The words are letting me down,’ says Dubliner Joe to Davy, his old friend visiting from England, while telling him that he has left his wife for another woman, Jessica, whom they both briefly adored as young men. Over pints at several pubs, the two 50-something Irishmen get back into their old rhythms and revive, or occasionally reinvent, the past. Joe grasps for the right metaphors or analogies with which to explain his life-altering decision to Davy as much as to himself, ‘testing the words’ for how they sound. Davy, burdened by his own sense of guilt with regard to his rapidly declining father, is at times intrigued, bored, contemptuous, resentful, provoking, or supportive of his friend as Joe circles around his infidelity with an almost Jamesian vagueness. Some readers may chafe at Doyle’s leisurely unfolding of the plot, though the two men are nothing if not good company. By closing time, Doyle has focused the novel’s rambling energy into an elegiac and sobering climax. This one is a winner.”

Empty by Susan Burton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Empty: “This American Life producer Burton debuts with an unfiltered discussion of how binge eating and anorexia plagued her throughout her adolescence and into her 20s and turned her into a ‘desperate wreck.’ Around the time she entered puberty, Burton began worrying about getting fat; she started controlling her portions and took ‘perverse pleasure in [her] smallness.’ Burton ably recreates her anxiety-filled youth, when she struggled with her parents’ divorce, her mother’s alcoholism, and with eating disorders. She offers raw descriptions of binging late at night in her kitchen as a teen, eating ice cream, muffins, and power bars to fill a void (‘This was tearing things, a frenzy’), then, later in life, starving herself to the point that she developed osteoporosis, all in an effort to feel ‘light’ and ’empty.’ Burton traces her issues with food back to her grandmother, who obsessed about weight, but offers no easy answers about what ultimately drove her own behavior. Physically healthy now, she writes that she remains ‘inflexible, paranoid, and self-loathing about food,’ and is still on the road to recovery, aided by therapy, writing, and family support. Burton convincingly conveys the desperation and darkness of eating disorders.”

Barcelona Days by Daniel Riley

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Barcelona Days: “A volcano grounds a pair of 29-year-old New Yorkers at the end of their 2017 Barcelona vacation in Riley’s emotionally grinding latest (after Fly Me). Whitney, a rising television producer, suggests that she and her fiancé, Will, each sow their wild oats over the two months she’ll spend working in L.A., before their planned trip to Barcelona. They agree to three sexual encounters with strangers, and in Barcelona, they disclose the details of their hookups in light-hearted banter. The next morning, an ash cloud from Iceland indefinitely postpones their return flight, and the fallout of their experiment begins to strain the relationship. At a party, they bump into Jack Pickle, the star of their alma mater’s basketball team, and Jenna Leonard, a quirky college student from Southern California. Then Will and Jenna attend a concert together, ramping up Whitney’s jealousy as she goes back to Jack’s apartment. The next morning, both accuse the other of cheating, and their argument upends the already fractured relationship. While Riley’s cool, sensuous prose evokes the ‘promise of being trapped in the city forever,’ pages of acrimony between Will and Whitney and a lurid backstory involving Jenna throttle the tale’s momentum. There are better stories of love on the rocks.”

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Tokyo Ueno Station: “In Yu’s coolly meditative, subtly spectral tale (after Gold Rush), Kazu, a former denizen of a Tokyo tent city, looks mournfully on the past. Kazu lingers around Ueno Park in present-day Tokyo, where he once spent several years camping among the homeless, and spends the days people-watching and reminiscing. He recalls his birth in 1933 in rural Soma; remembers how he sought work for long stretches away from his family, including a grueling stint doing construction work in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; and replays his response to the death of his only son at 21, in 1981 (‘My shock, my grief, my anger were all so great that crying felt inadequate’), which led him to drift away and spend more time alone in Tokyo. After two decades pass, he winds up living in the park. The banal conversations he overhears in the present from middle-class park visitors clash with the bleak recollections of his perpetual misfortune, along with the fraught history of the park as a mass grave and site of rebellion, details that emerge in Kazu’s remembered conversations with a fellow homeless man. The novel’s melding of memory and observation builds toward Kazu’s temporary eviction from the park in 2006. Yu’s spare, empathetic prose beautifully expresses Kazu’s perspective on the passage of time; he feels a ‘constant absence from the present, an anger toward the future.’ This slim but sprawling tale finds a deeply sympathetic hero in a man who feels displaced and longs for connection after it’s too late.”

Also on shelves this week: Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory.

Please! Hold Off on That Novel Coronavirus Novel!

Got some bad news for you, on the off chance your bad news supply chain is breaking down. American publishers have gone on a spending spree in hopes of snagging breakout books spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. “Three months into the biggest public health and economic crisis of our era,” The New York Times reports, “authors and publishers are racing to produce timely accounts of the coronavirus outbreak, with works that range from reported narratives about the science of pandemics and autobiographical accounts of being quarantined, to spiritual guides on coping with grief and loss, to a book about the ethical and philosophical quandaries raised by the pandemic, written by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.”

The operative words in that sentence are racing and timely because they point to an irony that can be viewed as an axiom: writing that’s forged in the cauldron of a crisis almost always winds up being undercooked. A writer racing to be timely is, by definition, not pausing to digest, muse, rethink, revise. Some of the forthcoming writing about the pandemic might throb with immediacy, but the bulk of it will likely be solipsistic and slapdash, especially the fiction and diaries and, ugh, those autobiographical accounts of being quarantined. In this case, writing that’s timely is likely to be ephemeral, destined to fade soon after the virus runs its course or gets vanquished by a vaccine. Remember the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all those proclamations that irony was dead? Irony didn’t merely rise from the ashes of the Twin Towers; it went on to become the gyroscope of much contemporary fiction, sometimes for better, mostly for worse, and by now it has become a universal mechanism for coping with day-to-day life in a rattled world. And that was before this pandemic descended.

Some of the forthcoming plague books might prove me wrong, especially the nonfiction titles about the economic fallout of the pandemic, frontline accounts from overwhelmed hospitals, forensic studies of how the virus took root in human hosts, and a forthcoming collection of case studies of how Covid-19 and other infectious diseases spread. (The question must be asked: who’s racing to write the books about cooking, binge TV watching, pet grooming, and Donald Trump’s golf scores during this pandemic?)

Far less promising is the coming glut of personal accounts, whether they’re fiction, poetry, diaries, or journals. Exhibit A: the ongoing “Pandemic Journal” series in The New York Review of Books, which features writers all over the world sending in personal dispatches. These accounts blur after a while because they swim in a soup of sameness and lack the specificity that brings writing to life. When everybody in the world is doing the same thing, just how unique or interesting can it be? For instance, we learn that there are chronic toilet paper shortages in both London and Sydney (and, I’m guessing, in every other hamlet on the planet). Ali Bhutto writes from Karachi that the usual hum of traffic coming through the bedroom window “has been replaced by silence” (Ditto here in downtown Manhattan). Liza Batkin writes from Rhinebeck, N.Y., that she had to pause to ask her mother if she should dry the dishes with a dish towel or a paper one (I know the feeling). Christopher Robbins writes from New York that “a playground writhing with children in 60-degree weather feels downright sinister” (Got that right). If I know these feelings, do I benefit from knowing that millions of other people know them, too?

Exhibit B: a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, which features a roster of writers relating “What We’ve Learned in Quarantine.” Among the predictable lessons are that many people liken quarantine to being in prison or at war, yet there are salutary rewards to be found in such solitary activities as braiding your own hair, learning to play the piano, watching birds, and photographing your daughters. Most of these accounts barely rise to the level of tepid uplift, and they’re further proof just how difficult it is to say something wise, or even original, about a pandemic. If you doubt this, I present Exhibit C: a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review by Michiko Kakutani, who was struck by the eerie silence and emptiness of the streets in New York, which, she reminds us, used to be known as “the city that never sleeps.” When the high priestess of American lit crit is reduced to borrowing clichés from Ol’ Blue Eyes, you know you’re in trouble. Kakutani then reminds us just how primitive life was in 17th-century London when the bubonic plague descended: “There was no Purell back then, no Clorox wipes or Lysol spray, no grocery deliveries from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, no Netflix or Roku to help pass the time.” Thanks for the heads-up, Michiko!

Now I’d be the last person to knock writers who have the good sense and the good luck to get paid for their work. So on one hand, I say bravo to all the writers with freshly inked contracts for pandemic books. On the other hand, I would like to make a simple plea, especially to the writers of poetry and fiction: don’t rush, take your time, let the current horrors seep in deep before you try to make art out of this nightmare we’re all living through. For inspiration, novelists and poets and short story writers should look at the examples set by two writers, one from the 18th century, the other working today.

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective.

Back on April 8, Edan Lepucki, a gifted novelist and one very funny mother of three, imagined the “least anticipated” fiction that might come out of the pandemic that was then beginning to unleash its ghastly fury. If ever there was a time that demanded a good laugh, this was it. And Lepucki delivered, imagining novels with such titles as Social Distance Warrior, The Spread and my personal favorite, Stay-at-Home Mom. This last, in Lepucki’s overheated imagining, is the story of a woman named Hannah who’s cooped up in her tiny Brooklyn apartment with her husband and daughter and feels her sanity slipping. Slipping so badly, in fact, that “sometimes she imagines cutting off her own arms and legs and hoisting her bleeding torso into her rollaway suitcase and zipping it up (with her teeth) and rotting there forever.” (After being cooped up in my tiny apartment for 11 weeks, I know the feeling.) “And,” Hannah muses, “how all this is better than her old publishing job where she was regularly expected to kiss the egomaniacal asses of Bookstagrammers who never read the novels they posed next to succulents and mugs of bone broth.” Now there’s a novel coronavirus novel I would pay good money to read.

Image Credit: health.mil.

Bonus Link:
On Pandemic and Literature