Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Shipstead, Ryan, Walker, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Maggie Shipstead, Eimer Ryan, Sarai Walker, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
You Have a Friend in 10A by Maggie Shipstead

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about You Have a Friend in 10A: “The 10 stories in this daring, wide-ranging debut collection from Shipstead (after the novel Great Circle) resonate as they leap across time and space. ‘The Cowboy Tango,’ set at a Montana dude ranch, cruises through several decades as the complicated relationship between the ranch’s owner and a woman who works for him remains uncomfortably static, then changes radically upon the arrival of the owner’s nephew. ‘Lambs,’ on one level a casual piece about the interactions of those at an artist’s colony in Ireland, is haunted by an eerie foreshadowing as each character is introduced with parenthetical summaries of their birth and death dates, which makes its ending both surprising and believable. The masterwork is the deeply unsettling ‘La Moretta.’ Interspersed with segments from an enigmatic inquisition, it documents a honeymoon excursion gone horribly wrong. Here and throughout, Shipstead demonstrates a remarkable ability to interlace the events of ordinary life with a mythological sense of preordained destruction. Both formally inventive and emotionally complex, this pays off with dividends.”

Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Holding Her Breath: “An Irish collegiate swimmer unearths the truth about her grandfather, a famous poet, in Ryan’s penetrating debut. Beth Crowe, 20, is just starting university away from home on a sports scholarship, and is slowly acclimating after an undisclosed crisis. She meets Justin Kelleher, an older postdoc lecturer who is curious about the archives of famed poet Benjamin Crowe, Beth’s grandfather who died by suicide at age 43 after completing his collection Roslyn, later declared his masterwork. As Beth settles into swimming and schoolwork, she begins a secret affair with Justin while trying to find out more about her grandparents. She’s close to her grandmother, Lydia, who previously barred Justin from viewing Benjamin’s archives. Eventually, she makes an allowance for Beth, and Beth discovers the unpublished biography of Benjamin by Julie Conlon-Hayes, a friend of her grandparents who was rumored to have had an affair with Benjamin. As tensions from her personal life come to a head, Beth begins to wonder if she’s inherited her grandfather’s self-destructive tendencies. Despite some underdeveloped plot points, Ryan’s strong character-building and intriguing narrative parallels keep this afloat. Readers will want to see what Ryan does next.”

Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance by Alison Espach

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance: “A young woman addresses her older sister, who died when they were teens, in Espach’s inventive and powerful latest (after The Adults). Sally Holt, now 28, continues to find her life shaped by sister Kathy’s absence, prompting her to recount her life story, here unfolded in second-person narration. As a child, Sally is the subject of family concern because of her shyness, while Kathy, three years older, is comfortable in the spotlight and praised for her beauty. Despite the sisters’ contrasting temperaments, they are each other’s closest confidantes as they grow up in 1990s small-town Connecticut. Of particular interest to them both is high school senior Billy Barnes—a dreamy basketball player and the son of the town florist—who is in the grade above Kathy. After Billy saves 13-year-old Sally from drowning at the public pool, he begins dating Kathy, to Sally’s fascination and envy. A car accident involving all three teenagers permanently shifts the Holt family dynamic (‘To sue for reckless driving or not to sue? That was the question,’ Sally narrates, describing the tension between her parents over what to do about Billy, who was behind the wheel). In the aftermath, Billy and Sally unite in their shared grief and guilt. Espach captures the minutiae of love and loss with unflinching clarity and profound compassion, and pulls off the second-person point of view unusually well. Readers will be deeply moved.”

Family Album by Gabriela Alemán (translated by Dick Cluster and Mary Ellen Fieweger)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Family Album: “Ecuadorian writer Alemán’s sparkling collection (after the novel Poso Wells) brims with humor and adventure. In the poignant ‘Baptism,’ an unnamed bartender and expert on Alexander Selkirk, inspiration for the Robinson Crusoe character, befriends Max, an 81-year-old customer who convinces the narrator to take him on an underwater voyage in the Galápagos in search of Selkirk’s long-lost treasure. The shadowy narrator in ‘Family Outing’ finds work in Ecuador escorting young, overzealous missionaries attempting to convert the native Huao people, with whom the missionaries unexpectedly end up in a violent confrontation. A widow in ‘Marriage’ discovers her recently deceased husband isn’t the failure she always thought he was after stumbling across large bank accounts, cash, and references to children that aren’t hers, leading her on an investigation involving a nefarious notary. ‘Honeymoon’ finds an overweight, balding real-life John Wayne Bobbitt in Buenos Aires, where he goes home with a woman he meets at a film screening and weeps while listening to her Ecuadorian records, which remind him of his ex-wife, Lorena. Alemán’s sly wit and descriptive power—Max, underwater, looks to the bartender ‘like a moss-covered statue from an ancient civilization’—portray the beauty and ravages of South America. This dynamic collection has a lot to offer.”

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies: “Lama debuts with the heartfelt and magical saga of a Tibetan family’s love, sacrifice, and heritage. Starting in 1960, Lama interweaves the lives of four characters: Lhamo and her younger sister Tenkyi, whose parents don’t survive the rigors of the Himalayas during their flight from Tibet to Nepal, where they resettle in a village for refugees; Lhamo’s daughter Dolma; and Samphel, Lhamo’s childhood love, whom she meets in Nepal. Lama also explores the influence of a ku—an ancient statue that Samphel’s uncle brings into Lhamo’s village—on each of their lives. Lhamo, despite heartache, encourages her younger sister to leave their village to study in India and improve her future prospects. Decades later, in another act of selflessness, Lhamo suggests her daughter join Tenkyi, now in Toronto, to complete her studies and have a better life. When Dolma discovers the ku of Lhamo’s childhood in the possession of a private collector in Canada, she sets in motion a series of events that illustrate the power of the ancient relic and its hold on Lhamo’s family. Lama imbues this mesmerizing tale—informed by her own family fleeing Tibet for Nepal in the early 1960s— with a rich sense of history, mysticism, and ritual. This brings great revelations and significance to a family’s courage and acts of cultural preservation.”

The Cherry Robbers by Sarai Walker

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cherry Robbers: “The delightfully eerie latest from Walker (Dietland) follows a woman who reinvents herself after a painful childhood. The story begins with Sylvia Wren, a famous artist in her 80s, living in present-day Abiquiu, N.Mex., while her partner, Lola, is away in Brazil. Sylvia receives a letter from a journalist with questions about her past that threaten to reveal her true identity as Iris Chapel. Walker then flashes back to 1950s Connecticut, where Iris grows up with her five older sisters and a mother who has a habit of staring off into the woods and dropping her china before declaring she feels ‘something terrible’ will happen. Their father, who isn’t around much, runs Chapel Firearms, and the women believe their house is haunted by those who were killed by the guns manufactured by the company. Walker does a great job weaving this thread of gothic mystery with revelations about the woman Iris becomes, a ‘haunted mother, haunted daughter.’ A mix of bildungsroman and ghost story, the narrative gains strength as it illuminates its characters’ power of intuition, especially when they’re not afraid to use it. This uncanny tale of dark origins shines brightly.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Smith, Harpman, Haber, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Bud Smith, Jacqueline Harpman, Mark Haber, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Teenager by Bud Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Teenager: “Smith’s vibrant and violent debut novel (after the collection Double Bird) captures the pain, ebullience, and illusions of a troubled young man’s adolescence. Kody Green, 17, raised in New Jersey foster care, has a wild imagination and dreams of becoming a cowboy. He also has seizures and delusions from a skull injury caused by one of his foster mom’s boyfriends. The best part of his life is his girlfriend Tella Carticelli, though her sexually abusive father has recently forced her to have an abortion after Kody got her pregnant. After learning Tella’s parents are sending her to Rome to break up their relationship, Kody murders them and the couple flees. Driving west in a series of stolen cars, they try to get pregnant again, visit Graceland (it’s disappointingly small), descend into the Grand Canyon, and dodge a series of dim-witted cops. After Kody invents false identities to land them jobs at a Montana ranch, their experience doesn’t quite match his visions of the West. Meanwhile, Tella’s older brother Neil goes AWOL from the Navy to search for her. Though a muddled resolution disappoints, there are plenty of mythic motifs and pithy insights (‘Kody thought they looked like any average family did, absolutely unhinged’), and the author evokes the surreal contrasts of the American landscape in smart, jittery prose. Smith makes this a trip worth taking.”

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (translated by Angela Rodel)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Time Shelter: “A radical new therapy tests the power of nostalgia in the electric and fantastical latest from Gospodinov (The Physics of Sorrow). In present-day Vienna, geriatric psychiatrist Gaustine redecorates his clinic in the style of the 1960s, replete with miniature pink Cadillacs and Beatles memorabilia. Patients with memory issues appear invigorated by the decor and share more during therapy. The narrator, an unnamed amateur novelist who had the same idea as Gaustine years earlier, comes across an article about the psychiatrist and seeks him out. They strike up an unusual collaboration: Gaustine establishes clinics that painstakingly recreate bygone eras with artifacts tracked down by the novelist. The clinics rapidly expand and start offering services to healthy people, and eventually entire countries opt to simulate returns to supposedly happier eras (France, Germany, and Spain all choose the 1980s). The clever prose sells the zany premise and imbues it with poignant longing: ‘Everything happens years after it has happened…. Most likely 1939 did not exist in 1939, there were just mornings when you woke up with a headache, uncertain and afraid.’ Thought-provoking and laced with potent satire, this deserves a spot next to Kafka.”

I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman (translated by Ros Schwartz)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Who Have Never Known Men: “An account of a near future on an unknown planet where 40 women are imprisoned in underground barracks guarded by mysterious uniformed men, this novel marks the American debut of a writer the publisher proclaims as a new ‘womanist’ voice but who is in fact a veteran French novelist (Orlanda, winner of the 1996 Prix Medicis, etc.). The story is divided in two. It first describes the countless years of the women’s imprisonment; then is recounts their fortunate escape and slow realization that they are still prisoners, the only survivors on a barren planet they can’t flee. Nonetheless, their new freedom inspires an emotional and intellectual reawakening. The women search for answers to explain how and why they came to be imprisoned; they remember, painfully but fondly, their past lives. The most enthusiastic of them is the nameless narrator, the youngest member of the group. She explores the land, demands that the other women educate her and maintains her curiosity long after her companions have given up. But her insights are neither provocative nor profound, and the authority she assumes rings false. More interesting is her emotional development. As prisoners in the barracks, the women were forbidden to touch each other. The narrator never learns to appreciate fully the new possibilities of physical closeness and remains emotionally unattached to all but one of her companions, who serves as her mentor. But such telling details are rare here. While offering hints and glints of Harpman’s talent, this novel proves a disappointing Stateside debut.”

Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Saint Sebastian’s Abyss: “Haber (Reinhardt’s Garden) returns with a sharp-witted exploration of friendship, art, and criticism. The unnamed narrator receives an email from his former best friend, Schmidt, after 13 years of estrangement, with the news that Schmidt is on his deathbed in Berlin. The narrator flies to Germany, and what ensues is an examination of their decades-long friendship, initially forged over a mutual fascination with Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, a painting of the apocalypse that the two first discovered while students at Oxford. Schmidt and the narrator have since made their careers as art critics based on their insights on the painting and its creator, Count Hugo Beckenbauer. The pair had a devastating falling out after the narrator said something unforgivable, which Schmidt now refers to as ‘that horrible thing,’ and in the years since, the two have resorted to petty vendettas as their work turned away from the painting that they both revere and toward disproving each other’s theories. Schmidt—heavily mustached, chronically ill, and a staunch holder of harsh beliefs—is a difficult friend but memorable character. Haber intelligently explores how his leads’ small-mindedness gets in the way of their higher pursuits, as the narrative zeroes in on an inevitable and surprising conclusion. With this dark comedy of obsession, Haber keeps the Bernhard flame burning.”

Also out this week: Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick and Jameela Green Ruins Everything by Zarqa Nawaz.

Prayer Consists of Attention: On Reading as a Spiritual Practice

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I first read Simone Weil’s 1950 book Waiting for God six years ago. It was a cloudy Monday in March, and I was sitting on the porch of a 100-year-old Victorian home—former officer’s quarters for a decommissioned military outpost off the coast of Washington state—where I could see the grey water of the Puget Sound and grey sky beyond the shoreline. I’d spent the last several years wondering how I might inhabit my life and my faith in a more contemplative way—and on that day, on that porch, Weil proposed a definition of prayer that resonated with me more than any evangelical prescription.
“Prayer consists of attention,” Weil writes in Waiting for God. “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of prayer.” A prayer, then, could be any moment of mindfulness, reverence, concentration. It could be whatever I wanted it to be.
Most people probably picture the act of prayer as a person talking to God. And because we might often think of prayer as a last resort in the midst of difficult circumstances, we likely hold in our minds the image of a supplicant like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey from A Wonderful Life—alone, desperate, seeking divine intervention. In the film’s climactic prayer scene, Bailey, on the brink of bankruptcy and possible imprisonment, sits in a bar by himself, tears in his eyes. His clasps his hands together to beseech a God he’s not even sure is listening: “Dear Father in heaven,” he says despairingly, “I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”
I’ve uttered hundreds of prayers like George Bailey’s, and I’ve prayed countless times in this most traditional sense, as a “person talking to God.” But I’ve since learned that prayer can take many forms. To describe the multiplicity of my own prayers, I borrow from the language of clouds: my stratus prayers are flat and smooth, originating from the mundane things of life; my cumulus prayers billow with a fullness of faith, or doubt, or a mixture of both; my cirrus clouds are soaring and wispy with room for mystery; my alto prayers are steady and observant; and my nimbus prayers hold my tears, my grief. But the same current of profound attention, as Weil proposes, animates all these prayers—I listen, watch, and wait while paying careful attention to the divine and whatever shape it takes in my life and the world around me.
If prayer is attention, perhaps the inverse is true. Can attention to an everyday activity, like reading or writing, also be prayer? The thought first entered my mind as I read the last chapter of the 2021 novel Hell of a Book, in which Jason Mott writes about anger in a way that reads like a psalm of lament. Reflecting on the pain, loss, and oppression intrinsic to Black life in the United States, the book’s protagonist, a writer who is struggling to tell the story of his life, muses:

You’ll be angry and not know why. And the anger won’t ever go away, not really. It’ll hang in the back of your mind. It’ll hang in the back of your world, haunting you, guiding all of your decisions. And when you get tired of being angry, it still won’t go away. It’ll just change into something even worse. You’ll take that anger and turn it on yourself and it’ll call itself depression. And, just like anger, it’ll take over your life. It’ll live with you every day.

This passage evoked for me the same raw anguish of Psalm 88—“O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” Suddenly I could not see much difference between opening my Bible to pray Psalm 88 and reading Hell of a Book, or any work of literature that, like this novel, honestly approaches the realities of suffering. I realized that all words, even those contained in secular literature, have the potential to become prayers.
There is much disagreement among Christians, and among people of all faith traditions, as to what qualifies as acceptable forms of prayer. Some Christians are uncomfortable with contemplative spiritual practices like mine and argue that proper prayer must adhere to four principles: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Some Buddhists strive for a prayer practice that requires one to achieve sufficient stillness and silence of mind. Some Hindus believe prayer consists of repeating mantras and the names of certain deities. But most people of faith believe and agree that the divine can show up anywhere—during a brief conversation with a neighbor, while folding a load of laundry, alongside a sunrise or sunset. In his 1960 book Encounters with Silence, Jesuit priest and theologian Karl Rahner writes of God’s omnipresence: “If You have given me no single place to which I can flee and be sure of finding You, if anything I do can mean the loss of You, then I must be able to find You in every place, in each and every thing I do…. Thus, I must seek You in all things.” I, too, need to believe it’s possible to find God in every place, in each and every thing I do, and reading is one way I can detect and connect with the divine.
Over the past few years, practicing spiritual direction with writers has given me many opportunities to think about how writing can also be prayer. During a spiritual direction session, my clients and I set apart one hour to be curious about the divine. When I listen to my clients tell me about their writing lives and creative processes, I often hear them talk about how they notice God, how they give their attention to God, and how God feels present or absent in their work. One client tells me how a word or phrase will come to her mind from outside herself, a gift from God, while she’s writing an essay. Another shares how his writing practice flourished after he left his fundamentalist church, a decision that liberated his creative sensibilities as well as his mind and spirit.

I recently read Lydia Davis’s Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles, in which she describes her early-morning routine of reading and writing—a routine that neatly parallels my own predawn ritual of contemplative prayer. She describes her practice one morning, as she translates short stories by A. L. Snijders: “I may attempt a translation of it even before getting my first cup of coffee. This is partly a result of inertia: I am still tired or half asleep, and I don’t want to move from my chair. If I do have my cup of coffee by me, I’m likely to sit even longer.”
Her description of her process of literary translation struck me as very similar to lectio divina, a form of contemplative prayer that involves slowly reading a passage of scripture several times:

I begin by trying to read the story. I read the first line. More than once, it has contained the word bosrand, “edge of the woods”—something Snijders sees from his kitchen window and a place I like to be, or imagine. Or it has contained something about the author’s problematic chickens, or his dogs. One begins with a woman (vrouw) in the distance (distance is verte, which, confusing me for a moment, is identical to the French for green, but whose root is ver, sharing a past with the English far). Still half dreaming, I am transported to the Dutch countryside, among the chickens and buzzards, foxes, shepherds, swans, and the occasional cyclist or hiker coming along the pad (cognate of path) in front of the author’s house…

What Davis describes isn’t much different from what I tell my spiritual direction clients who want to know more about how to practice lectio divina. I mention the mindfulness required while listening to the scripture multiple times, the role of the imagination, how certain words will demand one’s attention, and the sense of being transported to the place where the scripture’s events initially unfolded. I imagine Davis inhabiting a posture similar as she translates. Davis, my clients, and I all come to the text hoping for a meaningful encounter, then we let the spirit, the magic, the mystery do its work.
While recently reading Victoria Chang’s 2021 epistolary prose book Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, I found myself assuming the same prayerful posture of listening and watching as I do when I’m with my clients. I’m not praying for Chang, but I am giving her what Weil would call my “unmixed attention.” In a chapter addressed to one of her writing teachers, Chang reinforces the connections I feel between reading, writing, God, and prayer. “I now think words are light,” she writes. “How they illuminate the small beak of a lark isn’t up to the writer. It’s up to the lark and the light. A writer is just a guest, the birder.”
Reading these words, I consider how language and literature have illuminated my life, both supplementing and complementing my spiritual practice. And how the lark and the light could represent divine mystery, and how my bearing witness to the sliver of humanity lit up by literature helps me understand that mystery a little bit more. How, like a birder, the writer, or the reader, can seek out answers, but also must be patient in waiting for what they seek.
Later in Waiting for God, Weil explores how the act of waiting intersects with the act of prayer. “Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it,” she writes. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” Now, when I read or write, I feel as though I too am waiting for God, for a flash of insight, or for that wholeness of soul that makes me feel more connected to myself, others, the divine, and the world. I’m no longer surprised when I look up from my book or my computer and see that I’m surrounded by a swirl of clouds.

Mephistopheles in the Anthropocene

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The Fitchburg Railroad ran a little under 50 miles between its origin in Boston and its terminus. A bit before the half-way point at the Concord station and the train glided along the western shore of Walden Pond. By the time the celebrated Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had gone to the “woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” making his home in that small cabin in 1845 on the opposite side of the pond from the tracks, and the Fitchburg Railroad had already been operating for a year, built by underpaid, exploited Irish immigrant labor. Making its daily devotionals every day of the year, the Fitchburg thundered past the glacial kettle pond during chill New England winter with its frost tipped pines and the pleasant cool summer days with oaks’ greenness, past spring’s blooming lilac and dogwood and the autumnal maples’ red, orange, and brown. Having conditioned himself to listen to the black-capped chickadee and the song sparrow, of rain lashing against his cedar timber roof or of wind squalls in winter Nor’easters, Thoreau’s reveries were interrupted twice a day by the bestial whistle of the Luciferian locomotive as it made its way west and east. He did not like it. “We do not ride the railroad,” Thoreau wrote in his 1854 Walden; or, Life in the Woods, “it rides upon us.” Examining industrial capitalism’s effect on the globe in the 17 decades hence, and Thoreau didn’t know the half of it.

Remembering Walden as only the account of this eccentric, solitary quasi-hermit living on the edge of a Massachusetts bean fields in the woods outside of Concord belies the fact that so much of Thoreau’s book isn’t just about nature, but about the transformation of nature. Massive changes were underway on this continent that, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, had been valorized as Edenic since the first European saw land that didn’t belong to them; steam-boat and train, telegraph and factory all refashioned a very different landscape. Men like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson alternated between despairing and triumphant, and as Leo Marx claimed in his classic study The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, a studied ambivalence marked the intelligentsia on these subjects, noting that the “nothing quite like the event announced by the train in the woods had occurred before.” Regarding that metal shriek outside of Concord, and Marx catalogues numerous other instances as recorded by men like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson, with the train representing how the “great world is invading the land, transforming the sensory texture of rural life… and threatening, in fact, to impose a new and more complete dominion over it,” as Marx writes. Were this an interruption only of the countryside’s quietude that would be one thing, but the train—or at very least what it represents—signaled the beginning of our current Anthropocene, when humanity’s rapacious consumption of the earth for material gain altered the very geology, ecology, and biology of the planet.

It’s estimated that because of the mass burning of coal for industry and transportation—a train’s engine is powered by coal after all—that the average temperature throughout the world rose a single degree Celsius during the 19th century, starting from when steam locomotives became common about three decades before the Fitchburg Railroad rumbled through Massachusetts: the beginnings of the Anthropocene and climate change. (The average temperature rose almost another degree in the last century.) Victorian scientists were aware of this connection; physicist Joseph Fourier writing in an 1837 edition of The American Journal of Science and Arts hypothesized that industrial exhaust “must produce variations in the mean temperature for such places,” while in 1856—two years after Walden’s printing—and Eunice Newton Foote wrote in The American Journal of Science that “An atmosphere of… [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature.” Steamrolling towards a distant apocalypse, and Emerson, on whose land Thoreau resided, writes in his journal about how he hears the “whistle of the locomotive in the woods… it is prophetic.” More than they could have realized, for such progress over the past century-and-a-half now threatens to push the world towards an irrevocable climate catastrophe. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2021 report, we are at “code red for humanity,” with one of the coauthors, atmospheric scientist Kim Cobb, telling the American Association for the Advancement of Science that there’s “really one key message that emerges from this report: We are out of time.” Rather than merely the punctured idyl of a Concord evening, the Anthropocene’s dark promise is ever-rising temperatures and disappearing shore-lines, massive raging wild fires and blighted crops, vicious new pandemics and billions of refugees, ocean acidification and the earth’s sixth great extinction. More than just a whistle in the dark, the more potent image of what the train might represent was expressed by Thoreau and Emerson’s contemporary Connecticut Sen. James H. Lanman, who in his survey Railroads of the United States called locomotives “iron monsters… dragons of mightier power, with iron muscles… breathing smoke and flame through their blackened lungs,” these demons which leap “forward like some black monster, upon its iron path, by the light of the fire and smoke which it promises forth.” Lanman understood the attraction, however, for despite their sulphury breath, locomotives are “triumphs of our own age, the laurels of mechanical philosophy, of untrammeled mind, and a liberal commerce!”

That is the great paradox of the Anthropocene: the knowledge that industry and technology are killing us and our world but the fact that we’re forever hobbled by our addict’s inability to do anything about it. Such irrationality can’t be explained away by recourse to simple economic analysis, to the materialist’s fantasy that reason, logic, and utility explicate the ways of humanity. What it requires is the theological imagination, the poetic imagination, the vocabulary of avarice, greed, and vaingloriousness. If there is any myth that has spoken to modernity, especially regarding this ecological precipice, then it’s that master poem of the Romantic period (to which Transcendentalism was only one small branch), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part closet drama Faust, the whole work begun in 1790 and completed in 1831, the decade before Thoreau moved into his little cabin. “If Henry Thoreau was impressed by Faust, he has unfortunately left no record of his enthusiasm,” writes Joel Porte in The New England Quarterly, and yet his landlord was abundantly aware of Goethe’s opus, if conflicted on its merits, Emerson noting in his 1863 Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England that “the great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of Faust.” Goethe had innumerable antecedents to draw upon in his drama, from the Faustbuch of the 16th-century Christopher Marlowe’s famed Elizabethan stage play of 1592. All took as their subject the notorious historical necromancer, magician, and alchemist who sold his soul to Satan’s emissary, the demon Mephistopheles, in exchange for a limited period of power, ecstasy, and knowledge. Yet writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene, with his Faust in part a critique of the rationalist Enlightenment instrumentalism that would literally fuel the coming industrial revolution, and Goethe’s work speaks to this moment of rising temperatures and sea-levels. Even more than during Emerson’s century, Faust is the operative myth for today.

“Like Faust, torn between his earthly lusts and his spiritual strivings, they were dualists; yet they yearned for unity,” explained Porte in his consideration of the spiritual conflict at the heart of the 19th-century, and if true while Emerson and Thoreau were alive, how much more accurate today? Faust is our operative myth because it’s only this narrative about a man willing to sell his very soul for power—which feels infinite, but is disturbingly finite—that is fully fit to express the madness of a culture collectively endeavoring to bring about the apocalypse all for the piddling convenience that a fossil fuel economy provides. Through his infernal contract, Faust is given certain abilities—he can transport himself anywhere in the world instantly, he has access to all knowledge, he can spy on people unseen—but of course the cost is his soul. What use would he have of Mephistopheles in our century, when Faust could effectively have the same abilities imparted through his smart phone, social media, and the 24-hour convenience of Amazon shipping? “Him will I drag through life’s wild waste, /Through scenes of vapid dullness,” Mephistopheles says, and it might as well describe the experience of endlessly perusing Twitter, anesthetizing yourself from calamity to calamity as you doom scroll. “Ah, what a sense of your own greatness must/You have,” Faust’s servant Wagner says to him, an apt description of our own ever narcissistic, ever insular perspectives that retreat into microscopic granularity, even while the world burns (though that does provide opportunity for a great Instagram background). Unless Mephistopheles simply remains the animating spirit of modernity as it had emerged in the 19th-century, his goal the promulgation of a utilitarian doctrine that sees both nature and other people as tools in the furthering of the individual’s own desires. “Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint!” the demon tells Faust: “I am the spirit of perpetual negation.”        

Faustian spiritual malaise and our on-going tragedy of the Anthropocene are not distinct, they are mutually reinforcing. A reduction of the earth’s resources into something that provides mere convenience for us and unimaginable wealth for a corrupt few requires a jaded worldview, a denial of the blessedness of the earth (and of those who inhabit it). Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato si’: Care for Our Common Home that “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to… the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let along the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.” Few adjectives, I would suggest, more clearly describe such a situation as much as “Faustian,” since as the magician foolishly gives away something of infinite worth for the transient and illusory pleasures offered by Mephistopheles, so too does industrial capitalism sacrifice the environment for idols of wealth and myths of progress. What makes Faust such a potent myth—and certainly not just in Goethe’s iteration but in the deep archetypal sense with which people have been drawn to the story of the doomed magician for centuries—is that his human desires for power, meaning, significance, and intimacy, no matter how jaundiced what he actually received may have been, are immaculately understandable. He is not without sympathy.  However, the necromancer’s individual negotiation yielded him the appearance of omniscient powers for a time, and the price was damnation; we’ve been collectively offered oil, gas, and coal, and the cost is nothing less than apocalypse.

I’m under no illusions that relabeling the Anthropocene as a Faustian Epoch will suddenly improve our environmental and economic situation, that merely identifying something so enormous with a term from cultural mythology will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and transition the global economy to something more humane and sustainable. Yet if there is any central proposition to demonology, it’s that even if you can’t control them completely, there is still a power in knowing the names of those creatures that bedevil you, whether Mammon, Moloch, or Mephistopheles. One need not literally believe in such entities—I don’t, and besides, I’m not even sure what “literally” would mean—but mythopoesis does allow you to measure the enormity of that which we’re up against. Even more importantly, to understand the Anthropocene’s negotiations as Faustian is an important reminder that much like the good doctor, we shouldn’t take those partisans of supply-side orthodoxy at their word that this system is “rational.” Anything that proposes unsustainable and dangerous growth to the detriment of the very biosphere is the exact opposite of rational, courting apocalypse for the benefit of imaginary numbers on a computer screen just like Faust falling in love with chimerical illusions conjured by Satan. What the designation of “Faustian” does is identify libertarianism, neo-liberalism, and all manner of capitalistic enthusiasms as what they are—not economics, but religion.

The relationship between free markets and faith has been noted since Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and he was abundantly aware of the irrationality at the core of a system where economic “striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself—to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational.” Weber’s thesis concerned the connections between religion and economics, but Eugene McCarraher argues something even more radical and certainly more reflective of the dire state of the world during the Anthropocene in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, arguing that “Under capitalism, money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted.” According to McCarraher, the only way to understand the irrationalities of capitalism, especially at this point in our history, is that it’s the dominant religion of our world and age, where the Lord is the Invisible Hand, its priests are those titans of industry, the liturgy is commercialism, and the rites are sacrificial, with the offering of such dark rituals nothing less than the entirety of the biosphere. Capitalism is now no longer simply a means of organizing labor and money, distributing commodities and assigning them monetary value, but rather a dark faith unto itself. The goal is unlimited growth and ever more capital for a smaller and smaller group of people, even while all of our futures are endangered. Moloch, the Lord of utilitarian reductions and blood sacrifices, has been slowly wakening over the past five centuries. We see him in the thought-experiment of the 18th-century physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, a demon who is aware of the position, trajectory, and velocity of every single particle in the universe, and thus according to the mathematician can predict every aspect of a predestined future with perfect accuracy, all of consciousness, intentionality, and freedom now mere numbers on a ledger. We see Moloch in the grim scholasticisms of John Calvin, who prayed to a God that existed purely for Himself, every bit the same fatalistic tyrant as Laplace’s demon. And now Moloch reaches his apotheosis with Adam Smith’s invisible hand around all of our necks. Such men, puritans and positivists alike, valorized the word “rationalism” as a kind of shibboleth that masked something malignant at the core, envisioning economics, the universe, and God as a type of hyper-efficient and carefully assembled steam engine, but now the boiler is overheating and the entire thing threatens to explode.

“Storms, earthquakes, fire and flood assail the land” says Mephistopheles, though he sounds like somebody reading their newsfeed. Should the Anthropocene reach its terminus when, despite its name, it becomes impossible for the planet to sustain human life, then capitalism will have revealed itself as the most disastrous ideology in history. Or, perhaps more accurately, not capitalism or technology per se, but those powerful individuals that view both of those things as an end unto themselves rather than a means unto an end. Right now we’re at an impasse—there is a new, global, political, and spiritual reawakening from the movement Extinction Rebellion to Laudato si’ that attempts to imagine a more equitable future—but there’s also the enthusiasms of the Lords of Capital, none more so than the confidence men of Silicon Valley who, like Jeff Bezos, shoot octogenarian actors into space or, like Elon Musk, tinker with monkey brains, praying to Moloch’s final incarnation in the form of the technoutopian Singularity, their creed being nothing less than Faust’s injunction “Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!”—”Am I a god? Light fills my mind.” Few political movements have been more effectively tarred than the Luddites, who agitated among the textile mills of England a generation before Thoreau, men who understood that mechanization signaled their economic obsolescence, and thus under capitalism their extinction. Far from being antiquated bumpkins, they were radicals attacking the instrumentalism of unfettered technology. It’s not technology that’s the problem—it’s the doctrine that it’s something more than a tool, that in fact we’re tools for it. When Thoreau heard the locomotive’s whistle, his fear was that rather than riding the train, the train was actually riding upon us. The central economic, political, ethical, and spiritual question of the remainder of this century—no matter how much time we actually might have left—is how to stall that engine so that we’re able to get off of the tracks.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Punctuation of Life: On Chloe Caldwell’s ‘The Red Zone’

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I was 15, sitting with friends in the schoolyard, having lunch and trading stories—as teenage girls do—about our periods. We griped, we commiserated: Swimming with a tampon in? So annoying! Getting your pubes stuck to a pad’s adhesive? The absolute worst! And what really ground my gears, I said, joining the chorus, was the immobilizing pain, shooting down your legs, radiating up your back, ripping through your abdomen, and then you become a receptacle for all that pain, and no thoughts could form because everything was pain. The other girls fell silent. Finally one spoke: “I don’t think I’ve ever had that.” The rest shook their heads. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound super normal,” another said.

Early in The Red Zone: A Love Story, author Chloe Caldwell has a similar experience. She is 31 and on a beach trip when she gets her period and is beset by severe cramps and diarrhea (both of which, I learned as a 12-year-old, are caused by the hormone prostaglandin’s indiscriminate approach to muscle contraction). “Back at the picnic table, I burst into tears telling my friends how sick I was,” she recalls. “They softened. I asked them if they got this sick on their periods. Not really, they said.” Four years later, her friends still remember the trip: “Something was really wrong,” one says. “I felt bad for you. You were really sick.”

The Red Zone is Caldwell’s attempt to grapple with her disruptive menstrual symptoms and find community through them. From debilitating cramps to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Caldwell’s existence is governed—often tyrannically—by her cycle. Early in the book, she learns she is nowhere near alone. In a series of interviews with loved ones and strangers, she creates a compendium of menstrual experiences. Her interview subjects often say “I wish I’d known” and “If only someone had told me.” “My periods had such pain I didn’t tell anyone about,” her own mother tells her. “I would cry in bed holding my stomach, trying not to let anyone know, even your dad. I thought it was normal ’cause no one talked about it.”

So Caldwell talks about it—all of it. The clotting, the shitting, the crying on the bathroom floor and meltdowns in public places. Asking friends, as a teen, to “check my butt” for blood stains. Taking photos of her blood in the toilet, diffused across the water in the shape of a lotus flower. The night her cramps were so bad that she, delirious, gave each one a name as it passed through her. The prayers to a period god that she “wasn’t sure existed to make it stop, to please make it stop.” The darkness, the dread, the helplessness.

As she reflects on her past, Caldwell also investigates her still-changing body. Her thirties brought with them more painful periods, as well as the onset of PMDD, the more severe form of PMS. As many as eight percent of those who menstruate experience PMDD, yet its symptoms—bouts of extreme irritability, depression, or anxiety in the week leading up to your period—are often characterized as run-of-the-mill mood swings that accompany PMS. After years of struggling to articulate the difference between the two conditions, she finally finds an explanatory image, “a photograph with a split screen: one side reads PMS with a photo of a woman pulling her hair out, and the other side reads PMDD with a woman on the edge of a rooftop.” Online, she discovers a vast community of women with PMDD, who live like she does, in perpetual fear of what they call their “werewolf week.”

She eventually attends a conference centered around PMDD and its treatment. Recommendations from conferencegoers include: yoga, acupuncture, a tryptophan-heavy diet, calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, vitamin B6 supplements, chasteberry supplements, aromatherapy lamps, light diffusers, weighted blankets, jumping jacks, and Prozac. She is conflicted about going on medication, having been “conditioned to think antidepressants were for weaker people.” She had felt “superior” for not having to take them and suspects even her mother “doesn’t want to have a daughter on Prozac.” But after many conversations—with her doctor, with writer and friend Sheila Heti—she starts taking Prozac and finds it an indispensable addition to the arsenal in her battle against PMDD. “I decided to think of it as a really good vitamin,” she writes.

When I finally sought medication to treat my periods, I felt like I’d failed, like I couldn’t handle one of the most basic aspects of womanhood. (Of menstrual pain, Caldwell’s mother-in-law recalls she simply “sucked it up and carried on.”) At the same time, I could see no way to live a full life while menstruating like I did, incapacitated seven days a month. When my doctor agreed that medication was the best shot at treating my symptoms, I was stunned. “Women are infamously ignored, degraded, and condescended to in doctors offices,” Caldwell writes, “so even when someone believes you, it is hard to believe they believe you.” How many others were experiencing the kind of pain I was but weren’t seeking help for fear they would be exposed as failures or be disbelieved entirely?

On the whole, The Red Zone is an uneven work that never quite lives up to its potential. Caldwell’s prose is unremarkable and often prosaic. Her inquiry into women’s menstrual lives fails to culminate in a meaningful way, as she compiles primary texts (interviews, online forums, advertisements, etc.) without performing any analysis. The book’s subtitular love story, between the author and a mystifyingly tolerant man named Tony, never feels fully integrated into the story. That said, the project of the book—to make literary the body horror and psychological turmoil that are part of so many women’s lives—is an exciting one that, in the hands of a more inquisitive writer, could be culture-shifting.

By the end of The Red Zone, Caldwell finds that Prozac combined with diet, exercise, supplements, and therapy largely “shrunk and healed” the symptoms of her PMDD. But she remains vigilant, constantly monitoring her cycle. Caldwell calls her period “the punctuation of my life” (pun intended?), an apt metaphor for a biological force that imposes temporal structure on our otherwise amorphous existence. It’s an idyllic thought— promulgated by tampon commercials and authors behind self-help books with titles like In the Flo, Period Power, and Beyond the Pill—that women can live in harmony with their periods, but Caldwell recognizes that many women struggle to simply to live with their periods, period.

The medication I went on to manage my menstrual pain had an unexpected side effect: It eliminated my period, and therefore my pain, altogether. I remember some of my friends saying getting rid of my period was unnatural, an affront to physiology; recall Caldwell’s mother bristled at the use of Prozac to manage moods that she saw as the natural product of hormones. “Over time,” Caldwell writes, “you realize you cannot control most of your life, so you do the things you can control.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s hospitable to life, and the natural functions—and dysfunctions—of our bodies are largely out of our control. 

The Red Zone tells a story about looking for and finally claiming some control, meager as it may be, over a part of women’s lives that has been historically obscured, devalued, and stigmatized. It’s is an entry in a contemporary canon of menstrual literature that I hope, in the future, will be shaped by more depth, style, and rigor. I am grateful for Caldwell’s book nonetheless.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Diaz, Cañas, Hart, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Hernan Diaz, Isabel Cañas, Michelle Hart, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Trust by Hernan Diaz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trust: “Diaz returns after his Pulitzer finalist In the Distance with a wondrous portrait in four texts of devious financier Andrew Bevel, who survives the Wall Street crash of 1929 and becomes one of New York City’s chief financial barons before dying a decade later at age 62. First there is Bonds, a novel by controversial writer Harold Vanner, which tells the story of Benjamin Rask, a character clearly based on Bevel. The novel, published shortly before Bevel’s death, infuriates the magnate, particularly for its depiction of Bevel’s deceased wife, Mildred, as a fragile madwoman. Bevel responds by undertaking a memoir, which only serves to highlight his own touchiness and lack of imagination. The third story-within-the-story is the most significant; in it, the reader meets Ida Partenza, daughter of an Italian anarchist in exile, who, in pursuit of her own writerly ambitions, suppresses both her own conscience and the suspicions of her suitor, Jack, to become Bevel’s secretary and coconspirator in ruining Harold Vanner, as Ida concocts a counternarrative of a saintly Mildred. The reader eventually hears from Mildred directly via her journal, discovered by Ida during her research and included as a coda. The result is a kaleidoscope of capitalism run amok in the early 20th century, which also manages to deliver a biography of its irascible antihero and the many lives he disfigures during his rise to the cream of the city’s crop. Grounded in history and formally ambitious, this succeeds on all fronts. Once again, Diaz makes the most of his formidable gifts.”

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hacienda: “Mexican Gothic meets Rebecca in Cañas’s stunning debut. After Beatriz’s mestizo father, General Hernandez, is betrayed and murdered in Mexico’s War of Independence, Beatriz marries mysterious widower Don Rodolfo Solórzano, as his estate, the Hacienda San Isidro, seems the perfect escape for Beatriz and her mother. Beatriz’s first sign that something’s off is the housekeeper, who refuses to work without burning copal incense and chalking glyphs on the kitchen door. Then Beatriz is plagued by bad dreams and mysterious, bloody visions. Her sister-in-law, Juana, who shares the estate, insists these are signs that Beatriz is going mad. Beatriz, however, comes to believe that her husband’s first wife was murdered and is haunting the house, and she finds an ally in Mestizo priest Padre Andrés, who’s torn between the folk beliefs of his childhood and his Catholic teachings. To exorcise the house, the pair digs into a past deliberately obscured by those who would kill them if the truth comes out. Cañas clearly knows the genre, alternately deploying and subverting haunted house tropes. The result is a brilliant contribution to the new wave of postcolonial Gothics. Readers won’t want to miss this.”

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Remarkably Bright Creatures: “A cross-species friendship helps solve a pair of decades-old mysteries in Pelt’s whimsical if far-fetched debut. After Tova Sullivan’s husband dies, she takes a night job as janitor at an aquarium, where she enjoys talking to the sea creatures. She’s particularly fond of Marcellus, a giant octopus who shies away from most human attention. But when Tova finds Marcellus out of his tank and helps him back to safety, he becomes fond of her. Meanwhile, Cameron Cassmore comes to town looking for his long-lost father and joins Tova on the night shift, disrupting her routine. However, the two soon realize that Cameron’s mother, who disappeared after leaving him with an aunt when he was nine, and Tova’s son, who died after falling off a boat decades earlier, might have known each other. Marcellus, who lived in the sea before his capture, is the only creature who knows for sure. Pelt imbues Tova, Cameron, and Marcellus with pathos, but her abrupt cycling between their perspectives can be disorienting, and her no-frills prose is ill-suited for the anthropomorphic conceit at the story’s core. While the premise intrigues, this fantastical take on human-animal connection requires a bit too much suspended disbelief.”

The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Premonitions Bureau: “A British psychiatrist’s inquiries into ‘the problem of precognition’ are recounted in New Yorker contributor Knight’s mesmerizing debut. In October 1966, one week after the collapse of an enormous coal waste pile killed 116 schoolchildren in Aberfan, Wales, John Barker, a psychiatrist with ‘a keen interest in unusual mental conditions,’ and Evening Standard science reporter Peter Fairley issued a call for people to report their premonitions of the disaster. The responses they received—including a letter from Kathleen Middleton, a London dance teacher who awoke the morning of the accident ‘choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in’—led Barker to speculate that precognition ‘might be as common as left-handedness.’ To test the theory, he and Fairley established a ‘premonitions bureau’ to ‘log premonitions as they occurred and see how many were borne out in reality.’ Within 15 months, they received more than 700 premonitions, 3% of which proved to be correct. One of the most accurate correspondents was Middleton, who also envisaged a train derailment, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Barker’s untimely death from a burst vessel in his brain. Amid the vivid profiles of Barker, Middleton, and others, Knight interweaves intriguing episodes of precognition from history and literature. The result is a captivating study of the uncanny. Photos.”

Six Days in Rome by Francesca Giacco

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Six Days in Rome: “In Giacco’s sensual and deliberately paced debut, an American artist in her early 30s takes a transformative trip to Rome. After getting out of a relationship with a married man, Emilia turns the Roman vacation they had planned together into a solo trip, wandering the city and reflecting on the breakup and her memories of growing up as the daughter of a famous rock singer. Emilia begins an affair with a charming American ex-pat, whose thoughtful conversation helps her to see the toll that her father’s passions and celebrity exacted on her family throughout her childhood. Giacco revels in her setting, providing rich descriptions of the streets, food, and people Emilia encounters (‘Butter-yellow buildings, with their faded blue windows…. Around a nondescript corner, a gorgeous slap in the face’), but much of the narrative takes place inside Emilia’s head as she forges an identity independent of her father and her ex. Indeed, the author’s discursive style and the inconclusive ending will frustrate readers looking for an immersive narrative. Though slow moving, this is sumptuously written.”

We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Do What We Do in the Dark: “Hart debuts with a transfixing queer coming-of-age novel about a woman’s affair with a much older professor. Mallory Green is in her first year at a college on Long Island shortly after her mother’s death from cancer in 2008. There, she becomes fixated on a never-named woman who teaches children’s literature. The professor, who is brusque but encouraging in their conversations, invites Mallory over for dinner. Her husband is away, and she makes plain her own attraction to Mallory. Despite feeling ’embarrassed, as if she’d written an intense journal entry that she now had to read aloud,’ Mallory plunges into an affair with her. The woman ends it when her professor husband returns at the end of the semester, leaving Mallory floundering as she attempts to date a male student and later drifts through postgraduation life in New York City. A flashback to Mallory’s youth traces her close friendship with a neighbor girl, saturated with frustrated desire. The professor’s reappearance four years after graduation, just as Mallory is settling into a new relationship, opens old wounds. Mallory’s intense interiority and self-consciousness will remind readers of Sally Rooney’s work, and Hart’s prose is delicate and piercing. This is auspicious and breathtaking.”

Also out this week: Patience is a Subtle Thief by Abi Ishola-Ayodeji.

The Profound Impacts of Decency: On ‘Hello, Bookstore’

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Hello, Bookstore premieres at Film Forum in NYC on Friday, April 29th.

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I’m old enough to remember when “decent” was middle-school slang for “excellent.” Over the years, the word has been downgraded to faint praise, and lately it feels like the concept has gone missing from the greater discourse altogether. There are a lot of conversations around its absence, I’ve noticed, but few solid examples to take heart in when—arguably—we need it most. These days make you want to resurrect decency as a high badge of excellence.

Fortunately for us all, then, filmmaker A.B. Zax’s debut documentary feature, Hello, Bookstore, is steeped in decency from start to finish. The film is as upbeat as its title, taken from The Bookstore owner Matthew Tannenbaum’s greeting when he answers his perpetually ringing phone. Yet the film is not sentimental, or trite, or even particularly old-fashioned. Hello, Bookstore is a small-scale tale of heartening sincerity, community, and the love of books.

Part of the goodness comes straight from The Bookstore itself, with its tall wooden shelves packed with backlist and new-release books, agreeable clutter, and a wine bar in the back called Get Lit. There is an old-fashioned cash register sporting a tiny rubber chicken, New Yorker cartoons on the walls, and an ancient model train set. But the heart and soul of The Bookstore is Tannenbaum—a soft-spoken, lanky raconteur who exudes an instant, generous camaraderie.

Tannenbaum bought the store, in the Berkshires town of Lenox, Mass., in 1976, days shy of his 30th birthday. He had done a stint as a bookseller in Manhattan’s late, beloved Gotham Book Mart, but had no experience running a business—and, as he’s quick to note, no real business sense either. He learned on his feet: how to juggle credit, how to hand-sell a book to almost anyone, and, most important, what kind of merchant—and citizen—he wanted to be: not just a seller of books, but a connector of people. “One day,” he told me, “somebody gave me tickets for Tanglewood. I gave them to a customer. And the next day, the customer came in and said, ‘I sat next to somebody who I went to high school with and hadn’t seen in 45 years. You did that.’”

2.
In 2019, Zax, a lifelong lover of bookstores, was grappling with his own feelings as he watched local concerns being squeezed out—“these little businesses that are such a life force for our community. Coming to The Bookstore and seeing Matt, and seeing the way he has created this literary oasis in this really magical place, I felt like I wanted to celebrate it.”

Tannenbaum agreed to being celebrated, and Zax began shooting that fall, when all was relatively right in the world. “It started off as a very different project,” Zax explains. “It was going to be a seasonal portrait of the bookstore, just capturing the soul and essence and atmosphere.”

So we get Tannenbaum in high form, bantering with everyone who passes through, waxing so sincerely enthusiastic—“It took me three days to read this book,” he tells one woman. “My bookmark never had a chance. I would close it and open it right back up again”—that the merchandise practically floats into customers’ hands. He is in turns gregarious and sympathetic, as good with a literary anecdote or quoted passage from a book he’s loved as he is with a dad joke, holding court from the wooden desk at the front of the store as the afternoon New England light slants through the tall windows. His rapport with shoppers and browsers and passersby, babies and seniors and slightly embarrassed teenagers, is genuine, and they respond in kind.

Those countless small connections and intimacies give us all the context we need to see how seriously Covid-19, when it arrives, will change all of that.

When it hits, Tannenbaum shuts The Bookstore’s front door, and with his usual kindness turns customer after customer away—surely a heartbreaker for this affable man. His commerce model is decidedly low-tech, instructing patrons to browse the store’s website and then place their orders over the phone or shout them—along with their credit card numbers—through the front window. Tannenbaum still searches out requests in the time it takes someone to drive around the block; he wraps each book in brown paper with exquisite care. But piling purchases on a stool in front of the store—“Back up!” he thoughtfully cautions eager buyers as he edges outside—can’t replace the simpatico face-to-face and book-to-hand exchange Tannenbaum built a business on. By July 2020, usually his busiest time, The Bookstore takes a week to bring in what it would have made in a day.

So, Tannenbaum sets up a Save The Bookstore GoFundMe campaign. His appeal to friends and customers to support “the large presence in your life that is this small shop” is worded as warmly as any of his front desk transactions: “Until we can safely open our doors again, and I just don’t know when that will be, I most humbly ask you to help me to get through. It’s yours as much as it is mine.”

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And it works; the community steps up. The Bookstore hits its goal within 23 hours, then exceeds it. Not only does the store survive the worst of the pandemic, but, “I’m out of debt,” Tannenbaum marvels. “I’ve never been out of debt in 45 years.”

This is not a spoiler. While it might have been tempting to build the arc of the film around the store’s peril and salvation, Zax treats it as part of the portrait, another season. The fiscal drama is not the point; Hello, Bookstore is neither a Covid movie nor a cliffhanger about The Bookstore’s fate. Tannenbaum may jokingly refer to himself as George Bailey, but this is not It’s a Wonderful Life, and although the store’s financial straits are mentioned at the beginning, that’s not the big story. The film is about doing what you love and loving the people you do it for. In other words, the profound impacts of decency.

What the Save The Bookstore campaign did, Zax says, “was bring all of these other ideas to the surface that were hovering in the subtext”—community bonds built over months and years, the way Tannenbaum takes time to listen to every person who walks in the door, and the generational links of parents buying books for their children, who in turn show up with their own children (“with fancier and fancier strollers,” Tannenbaum notes drily), who will eventually come in with kids of their own.

Zax makes sure that we, the audience, get it too. “When the store got rescued, you already knew—or you had some sense of—what the actual thing that was being rescued was,” adds Tannenbaum.

And unlike George Bailey, Tannenbaum doesn’t need to be convinced that he’s already living a good life.

4.
As pleasurable as the storyline is—getting to watch a good man with a much-loved business triumph—there is also a great joy in simply watching time pass in The Bookstore. The light shifts with the seasons; shoppers walk the aisles in winter coats and then t-shirts and shorts. Tannenbaum’s hair grows long during the height of the pandemic. Early on, his daughter Shawnee, newly pregnant, notes that her clothes don’t fit anymore; as the film winds down, it’s impossible not to beam with delight watching Tannenbaum on the floor with the new baby.

Tannenbaum was introduced to literature as a young man fresh out of the navy, and it opened up his eyes and his life to a new, wonder-filled way of being. “Fiction is the filter through which I see the world,” he says in the film—a way of engaging rather than escaping—and his pleasure is deeply contagious. Throughout Hello, Bookstore, he reads, or quotes from memory, beloved passages, everything from Maurice Sendak’s Higgledy Piggledy Pop! to Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. Part of the fun is surreptitiously browsing the store’s shelves as Zax follows Tannenbaum through the aisles, or writing down the titles Tannenbaum recommends in passing, being drawn in as thoroughly as the reporter who comes to write up the GoFundMe campaign and in the process learns about Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Crowley, hears the story of Get Lit’s origins, checks out an original Patti Smith broadside, and—one senses—falls a little in love with The Bookstore.

Hello, Bookstore is also, more quietly, a tale with a satisfying moral for the pandemic era—Tannenbaum kept his doors closed and his customers safe, and they offered their gratitude in return. Granted, the town of Lenox—solidly blue territory in the Berkshires—would not have been a hard sell, but The Bookstore was one of the last businesses in town to reopen, he notes, which suggests a commendable level of concern and sticking to his guns.

Toward the end of the film, Tannenbaum describes an encounter with a customer. The man steps up to the front desk and says—slightly accusingly, in Tannenbaum’s telling—“I see what you do. You sit in that chair all day long, surrounded by the things you love most in the world, and all you do all day long is talk to people about the things you love most in the world. And the only time you get interrupted is when someone wants to give you money.”

Tannenbaum hesitates a beat and then agrees: “That’s my life.”

It hasn’t been a perfect one, to be sure. Tannenbaum lost both his father and his wife too early, and raised two young daughters alone. But he has parlayed what he has been given—a deep love of books and people—into a small, generous world. Hello, Bookstore doesn’t suffer from its lack of hard edges.

“Everything is informed by kindness, patience, generosity,” Tannenbaum’s daughter Sophie says of her father. “He’s got time for it all. He’s got time for everyone. Truly.” Part of the satisfaction in Zax’s story is seeing that those are not only meaningful as abstract values, but return something tangible when Tannenbaum needs it most. Mostly, though, the many joys of Hello, Bookstore lie in the small moments.

Zax describes making the film as “a gift” during the hardest times of the pandemic—“to be able to come here and have this fun, beautiful thing to do.” At one point Tannenbaum stops, mid-conversation, and looks across the room. “Look at the smile on that guy’s face,” he says. “He found a book.” We never get to see the smile on the man’s face, but we see the one on Tannenbaum’s, and that’s a gift for the rest of us.

Don Winslow’s ‘City on Fire’: Good, Old-Fashioned American Pulp

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Don Winslow’s latest novel, City on Fire, set in the author’s native Rhode Island, is the first in a trilogy about a mob war between Irish and Italian crime families in 1980s Providence. It is not, to be frank, top-shelf Winslow. The plot is leisurely in ways his novels rarely are, and I felt the dearth of fully realized female characters more keenly than I had in his earlier books.

But to put it this way is unfair to City on Fire. Winslow has set the bar so high with books like Savages, his paean to homicidal SoCal stoner cool, and with his masterwork, the Cartel Trilogy— The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border—about Mexico’s bloody narco wars, that what for most writers would be a career-capping achievement is, for Winslow, just ho-hum, another solid crime tale fresh in from the Winslow assembly plant.

Still, City on Fire isn’t a bad place to start building your Winslow collection. Before he wrote novels, Winslow was a private investigator, and he brings to all his books a deep understanding of criminal organizations, both at a human level and as business enterprises.

This is especially true in City on Fire, which opens as two local crime families, the Murphys and the Morettis, gather for a big clam bake held every year to cement the peace between the families and keep the junior mobsters from killing each other. As the scene unfolds, we learn how the Providence mob works, the Irish Murphys running the longshoreman’s unions and the Italian Morettis the Teamsters. “How they had fought each other, these two immigrant tribes, for a place to put their feet,” Winslow writes. “The Irish in Dogtown, the Italians on Federal Hill, toeholds carved out of grudging New England granite.”

In the years since, the mob leaders have forged an uneasy peace, which is broken after the clam bake when a brash Murphy lieutenant makes a play for the girlfriend of one of the Moretti mobsters. She claims he assaulted her, and the Moretti men, in full chest-thumping fury, beat the offending Irishman nearly to death with baseball bats, setting in motion the mob war at the center of the book.

The press materials for City of Fire attempt to coat all this with a frosting of Greek mythology, likening the novel’s hero, a young Irish dockworker named Danny Ryan, to Aeneas, and Pam, the girlfriend whose accusation sets off the mob war, to a modern-day Helen of Troy. Maybe. The novel’s more obvious antecedents would seem to be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the mobster films of Martin Scorsese. City on Fire is good, old-fashioned American pulp fiction—intelligent, well-written pulp, even—but pulp nonetheless.

In the 1980s, when the novel is set, the port of Providence is slowly dying, and the local mob outfits, always in the shadow of the big-city Mafia outfits, risk being swallowed up by New York’s Five Families. This leaves local mobsters to make Lincoln-esque tactical calculations aimed at maximizing their fighting strength without sacrificing their criminal enterprises or the goodwill of local politicians and police, who look the other way so long as they stay away from drug dealing and don’t leave too many dead bodies on the streets.

For Danny Ryan, who gradually gains control of the badly outgunned Irish mob as other family members are killed off or prove unworthy, the calculus is brutal. His Italian rivals can call on hired assassins from the
New York Mafia families and own the city’s mayor and a sizeable portion of the local police force, while he’s stuck with a handful of local men and a lone Northern Irish separatist, who quickly gets himself shot.

The financial mismatch is even more lopsided: “the Irish have the longshoreman’s union, the docks, and some small gambling and loan-sharking; the Morettis have the Teamsters, the construction unions, the vending machines, cigarettes and alcohol, major gambling, major money on the street, strip clubs and prostitution.”

“That’s the problem with a war,” Danny reflects, “you have the challenge of trying to stay alive and at the same time make a living. Hard, when you’re being hunted, to go out and make your collections, or make a score, or even get back and forth from work.”

Of course, this being a gangster novel, Danny makes up for what he lacks in men and materiel with brains and pluck, and he survives, battered but unbowed, to take what surely will be a starring role in the next two installments of the trilogy.

And of course, Danny being a man, he gets to use his brains and pluck. For the most part, the women in City on Fire are relegated to the role of worried wife, or, in the case of Pam, the novel’s would-be Helen of Troy, the face that launches a thousand mob hits.

The lone exception is Danny’s estranged mother, Madeline (an Aphrodite stand-in, according to City on Fire’s press materials scorecard), who has traded on her beauty to escape her trailer-park beginnings and become first a Vegas showgirl and then one half of a marriage of convenience to a spectacularly rich, and spectacularly ugly, manufacturer of women’s undergarments.

This is a common figure in Winslow novels, the calculating woman who uses her beauty to buy power and influence over men. But here, perhaps because Madeline’s Vegas milieu isn’t drawn with Winslow’s usual exacting verisimilitude or else because Madeline doesn’t have a lot to do in the novel other than be fiercely maternal toward Danny and his family, her character feels flat and not a little contrived.

This strikes me as a problem male crime writers need to solve. Crime is, almost by definition, a male-dominated world, but Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Tana French, who writes the Dublin Murder Squad novels, have found ways to make women central to their plots without resorting to clichés. And because women read many more novels than men do, their books have been runaway bestsellers.

One senses Winslow puzzling out how to pull off this same trick, but even in his best novels, a woman’s principal power resides in her beauty —that is, in how men see her and how she’s able to use that to get what she wants. That was never really how the world worked, but in books written and talked about exclusively by men, it could plausibly seem that way. But those days are gone and men with protean storytelling talents like Don Winslow need to adapt to the times.

Proper Poetical Education

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“The metaphor whose manage we are best taught in poetry––that is all there is of thinking.”  —Robert Frost,  “Education by Poetry:  A Meditative Monologue” 
From the backseat, my three-year-old asks, “What does ‘Take a sad song and make it better’ mean?” We’d been listening to The Beatles, and it seems this line had lodged itself inside him. He does this often––chews on something a few days before asking about it.    
When I brought this up to a colleague, he took my son’s question quite literally.  “Well, one way is to put it in a major key,” he said, “like that cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from a few years ago.” I see on YouTube there’s a cottage industry of musicians redoing songs in major keys: R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” receives the treatment, as does The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These),” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” too. (And even though my son didn’t ask what it means to take a better song and make it sadder, there are even songs in a major key redone to a minor. Particularly jarring: The Village People’s “YMCA” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”) 
My son’s question suggests he knows “Take a sad song and make it better” doesn’t quite mean what it says. He seems to understand “make it better” doesn’t mean “play it more proficiently” or even “make it better at being sad.” His is a question of metaphor and––taking a step back––how someone comes to know metaphor.     
I think immediately of Robert Frost’s “Education by Poetry,” originally a speech to the Amherst College Alumni Council in November 1930. Frost laments how poetry has been pushed out of the curriculum at a number of colleges, with the consequence that graduates are not “educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature.” Frost continues, with a bit of a kids-these-days tone:  

They don’t know what they may safely like in libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign. They don’t know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable. 

And, I would add, they don’t know how to judge a piece of classic rock. At the root of the problem is reading, and at the root of that, Frost says, is figurative language, “and metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about.” Frost puts it in its starkest terms: “Education by poetry is education by metaphor.” I find it interesting that to make it in the world––to make sense of editorials, of campaigns, of politics––one must understand figurative language. These arenas Frost lists are not ones most people would think belong to the domain of poetry but metaphor, nonetheless, governs them.  
So, we need more poetry, we need more metaphor. Poetry, Frost says, “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have.” There’s a progression, from the banal to the extra-ordinary, poetry able to cover both and everything in between. “Poetry provides the one possible way of saying one thing and meaning another,” Frost says. This is the genesis of my son’s question, and, it seems to me, the foundation of his play. When he takes a spoon and pretends it’s a race-car, I see metaphor. When he knocks over his train set, pretending his hand is a storm, I see metaphor.    
Like Frost says, metaphor begins in the trivial. My son will soon come to know how to use figurative language, and this knowledge comes, in part, from imaginative play, one thing standing in for another. This play mirrors how language works: letters act as metaphors themselves, these marks on a page standing in for sounds produced by our tongues, those sounds standing in for ideas. Everything in language acts as a proxy for something else, or, as Frost says, metaphor is “the whole of thinking.”  And the whole of play.    
Frost then provides a list of everyday metaphors, or, as he calls them, metaphors “to live by.” I won’t go through them––we can each generate a list of our own; it’s easy enough to do so. From my own essay here, I’ve referred to the root of a problem or, two paragraphs prior, the foundation of my son’s play.  Metaphor is impossible to escape. It’s this inability to get away from metaphor that prompts Frost to say the following. (And here I will quote him at length.) The key words for me in this passage are at home, safe, and at ease, these, too, metaphors:  

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.  

Frost had said metaphor is something “to live by,” and the Frost of my epigraph says metaphor is “all there is of thinking.” But metaphor isn’t something we just come into on our own. We aren’t at home in it without guidance or assistance. Metaphor doesn’t come easily. We need, as Frost says above, a “proper poetical education in the metaphor.” A proper poetical education. This is why my son must ask what “take a sad song and make it better” means. He’s searching for that education.  
Frost calls this kind education one wherein the student “comes close to poetry.” (There’s another metaphor, coming close.) It can happen two ways. Students can write poetry––but Frost doesn’t force this on anyone; only those who want should write poetry, he says. The other way to come close to poetry, which he does encourage everyone to do, is to read it.    
(How many college writing courses are built around a book of poetry? What might that open up for students in terms of lessons on reading? What might it teach them about language and its uses? How might it prepare them to judge an editorial when they see one, or judge a political campaign? How might it help them know when they are being fooled by metaphor, by analogy, by parable, by rhetoric?) 
The challenge in teaching poetry, according to Frost, is knowing whether a student has come close to the poet. “The closeness––everything depends on the closeness with which you come” Frost declares. And then, in what I read as a vulnerable moment, he speaks candidly of his own teaching: “It is hard for me to know,” Frost says. He explains: “I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they have come near what it was all about.” (What a metaphor here, living over some of the poets. Not reading them but living over them.)    
What teacher hasn’t second guessed their work of the previous year, of a career, wondering, hoping, that the students, even just a single student, came close to the subjects at hand? Sometimes, if he is fortunate enough, Frost hears one remark from one of his students––just one remark, that’s all he has to show for a year of teaching––that will show him the student has come close to poetry. That one remark “was all I got that told me what I wanted to know.”     
As it is with my son. At Christmas, after reading St. Luke’s account of the nativity, I asked him what it means that “Mary treasured up all these things in her heart.” “Oh papa,” he said, dismissing my question, “That’s what I do with you.” 
Image Credit: Wikipedia

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Patel, Brown, Williams, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Vaishnavi Patel, Janelle Brown, Lara Williams, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Kaikeyi: “Patel’s mesmerizing debut shines a brilliant light on the vilified queen from the Ramayana. As the only girl of eight royal siblings, Kaikeyi grows up knowing her value as a person is determined by her eventual marriage. When her mother is banished, Kaikeyi is forced to take up her duties in the royal court. In between all her new work, she turns to the palace’s scrolls on magic and learns how to enter the Binding Plane, where she can exert a magical influence over others using the invisible strings that connect her to them. Then Kaikeyi is unwillingly married off to the Raja of Kosala, where her lack of friends and allies means the bonds of the Binding Plane operate differently. Still, Kaikeyi earns her place at her husband’s side, wins the love of her subjects, and raises a son, Rama. Throughout her life, Kaikeyi often recalls a story her mother told of a woman who could not avoid the punishment of man, even when the fault of her actions fell upon a god himself—but the tale’s true message is lost on her until it’s too late. Readers familiar with the source text will be wowed by Patel’s reimagining, while those new to the story will be won over by its powerful, multilayered heroine and epic scope. This easily earns its place on shelves alongside Madeline Miller’s Circe.”

I’ll Be You by Janelle Brown

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I’ll Be You: “Bestseller Brown (Pretty Things) infuses this twist-packed mystery with an intense story of creating one’s identity, rife with deep family trauma and a low-key, creepy depiction of the dark side of twin intimacy. Samantha Logan’s dream-worthy stint as a child TV star depended highly on her identical twin Elli’s initially grudging participation, which eventually created deep bonds between them. In adulthood, Sam’s alcohol addiction and Elli’s traditional lifestyle in Santa Barbara, Calif., has left the two women estranged. So when Elli disappears after going to a mysterious spa in Ojai, with her husband having left her and their parents calling Sam in to help with the toddler Elli has recently adopted without informing her family, Sam feels sure that something is profoundly wrong in her sister’s life. Brown seamlessly uses Sam’s retrospection into the twins’ childhood experiences impersonating and protecting each other both as character development and plot device, letting the latter flow naturally while never feeling cheesy. The perfectly paced emotional reveals of the twins’ shared history pull the reader toward fierce investment in Elli’s safety and the sisters’ reconnection. Brown has upped her game with this one.”

Search by Michelle Huneven

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Search: “Huneven frames her bloated latest (following Off Course) as the second edition of restaurant critic and food writer Dana Potowski’s latest book, also titled Search, which documents a Southern California Unitarian Universalist church’s search for a new minister. The search committee is a motley crew of eight, ranging in age from 20-something Jennie Kanematsu-Ross, a feisty former goth girl; to long time member and former church president Belinda Bauer, 82. There’s also 50-something Dana, who joins in order to write the book, sensing an opportunity to describe the meals that take place during the meetings. Along the way, she chronicles her own spiritual development, which involved her enrollment in a seminary two decades earlier. Huneven’s descriptions of the committee’s machinations are engaging, as are the group’s internecine struggles—the younger members favoring showmanship and originality in a minister, while the older set values more traditional qualities. Huneven injects humor and tension, but the endless cataloging of minutiae (meetings, ‘packets,’ surveys, more meetings called ‘cottage groups’) wears thin, and the denouement may leave some cold. Readers will need to be patient and generous to get the most out of the insights buried in this slow-going affair.”

The Odyssey by Lara Williams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Odyssey: “A young British woman employed on a surreal cruise ship is at the center of Williams’s stylish if cold latest (after Supper Club). The protagonist, Ingrid, is devoted to her work aboard the WA, a gargantuan vessel with a ‘surf simulator, ice-skating rink, outdoor zip line,’ and floating restaurant, helmed by the mysterious Keith, a guru-like figure preoccupied by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. Ingrid shuffles through many onboard jobs, from working in a gift shop to the ship’s nail salon, and, in the book’s final third, to lifeguarding (ironic, since she can’t swim). Early on she is inducted into a shadowy inner circle called ‘the program’ in which she meets periodically with Keith to discuss wabi-sabi and recall traumatic memories from her past. Soon, she is promoted to a managerial role, a development that alienates her two closest friends. The prose is generally excellent and occasionally razor-sharp (describing Ingrid’s pre-WA void, ‘The getting never really felt as good as the wanting, but the not-getting felt fucking catastrophic’); unfortunately, the plot is meagre and overly self-conscious. Ingrid belongs to a particular breed of disaffected, Moshfeghian narrator, but here there’s more affect than substance. In the end, this feels eccentric for eccentricity’s sake.”

Also on shelves this week: Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller and When We Fell Apart by Soon Wiley.