Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Nagamatsu, Sanchez, Wang, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Sequoia Nagamatsu, David Sanchez, Weike Wang, 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.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How High We Go in the Dark: “Nagamatsu’s ambitious, mournful debut novel-in-stories (after the collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone) offers a mosaic portrait of the near future, detailing the genesis and fallout of an ancient alien plague reawakened from a Neanderthal corpse thanks to the melting permafrost in the Siberian tundra. Combining the literary and the science fictional, each subtly interconnected chapter examines a point of failure during the dying days of the great human experiment: in the social safety net, in marriages, in families, and in compassion for non-humanoid life-forms. As the flu-like pandemic intersects with increasing climate change and exposes society’s flaws, the characters bear witness to a massive extinction event happening to them in real time. Nagamatsu can clearly write, but this exploration of global trauma makes for particularly bleak reading: the novel offers no resolutions, or even much hope, just snapshots of grief and loss. (Those with weak stomachs, meanwhile, will want to skip the ‘Songs of Your Decay’ for its graphic descriptions of corpse decomposition.) Readers willing to speculate about a global crisis not too far off from reality will find plenty to think about in this deeply sad but well-rendered vision of an apocalyptic future.”

All Day Is a Long Time by David Sanchez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All Day Is a Long Time: “Sanchez’s shimmering debut uses rapid-fire prose and dark humor to sketch the hardscrabble coming-of-age of a boy on the Florida Gulf Coast. The troubled David tells of Xanax blackouts in high school classrooms, shooting up oxycodone and meth at home, running away at 14 to pursue a girl, and a series of stints in the Palm Beach County jail, before and after he turns 18. Flush with ‘energy, rage, and terrible longing,’ David burns through a series of behavioral therapists and rehab facilities and trades sex for meth. The school wrestling team becomes a temporary distraction before a full-on return to drug stupors and near-lethal blackouts. The frenetic scenes are saturated with panic, stress, and simmering desperation, and the narration can be overly gloomy; its saving grace arrives when David, already a casual reader of Descartes, takes a community college literature course, and new possibilities open up for him. Sanchez is a daring, clever writer: a passage on the particulars of smoking crack is as vivid as David’s sober awakening and his yearning to make amends with family. This gritty and engrossing account of a man traversing into and out of hopelessness will stay with readers.”

The Hard Sell by Evan Hughes

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hard Sell: “Journalist Hughes (Literary Brooklyn) takes a revelatory deep dive into the ignominious history of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Insys Therapeutics, the leadership of which was convicted in 2019 of federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. John Kapoor, the founder of the Arizona company, and others had bribed doctors to prescribe their fentanyl-based pain medication Subsys even when medically unnecessary. Insys also persuaded physicians to delegate seeking prior authorizations for insurance coverage to an Insys contractor, a practice that Hughes notes is tantamount to a kickback (‘If you write our product instead of the other one, we’ll pay for the grunt work’). Hughes does an excellent job of illuminating the inner workings of Big Pharma’s malicious practices; for example, it was routine practice for sales reps to document their pitches, and some of those notes referenced lies about the medications being pushed (such as OxyContin being less addictive than other opioids). To avoid legal jeopardy, several major drug manufacturers altered their record-keeping systems so as to eliminate the risk of an employee recording incriminating information. While the arc of this story won’t surprise readers familiar with the recent Purdue Pharma headlines, this is a powerful indictment of abhorrent industry practices. It’s a worthy complement to Gerald Posner’s Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America.”

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Joan Is Okay: “Wang’s profound latest (after Chemistry) portrays two generations of a grieving Asian American family. Joan, a 36-year-old self-possessed physician, works long hours at her Manhattan hospital’s ICU and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment despite the insistence of her well-to-do brother, Fang, that she move to Connecticut to be closer to him and his family. But when their father, who has lived in Shanghai with their mother ever since Joan went to college, dies after a stroke, Joan begins to feel unmoored. Their mother then returns to the U.S. after 18 years, only to be stranded in Connecticut due to the pandemic travel bans. Because of language barriers, her old age, and lack of a driver’s license, she depends on her children to get around and to communicate. Wang offers candid explorations of family dynamics (‘berating is love, and here I was at thirty-six, still being loved,’ Joan reflects after Fang shames her for not going with him and their mother on a fancy Colorado skiing trip), and Joan’s empathy for her ailing patients, as well as her disapproving brother and sister in law, are consistently refreshing. It adds up to a tender and enduring portrayal of the difficulties of forging one’s own path after spending a life between cultures.”

A Dream Life by Claire Messud

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Dream Life: “Messud (The Burning Girl) offers an intriguing if slight domestic drama. When Alice Armstrong’s husband, Teddy, gets a job in Sydney, Australia, she moves there with him and their two young children, Sadie and Martha, from New York City. Their imposing new house, dubbed Chateau Deeds after its owners, offers Alice ‘a hiatus from reality,’ but it also requires tremendous upkeep, which proves too much. The first two housekeepers Alice hires don’t work out, leading a friend to recommend getting live-in help. The choices presented by her applicants leave her feeling ‘assailed by the arbitrariness, the strange irrelevance, of her Australian existence.’ Alice hires Simone Funk, a choice that may be foolhardy—Simone tells wild, possibly tall tales about being a runway model as a teen. Simone also has an outburst that may be a red flag (‘Stuck-up cow. She doesn’t know the first thing about me,’ Simone says of a house guest). There is some chilliness between Alice and Simone, and things come to a head after it’s revealed that Simone has Alice’s daughters massage her. Messud keeps readers on tenterhooks waiting for a shoe to drop, and when it does, everything recalibrates. The story may be slim, but the writing is crisp—’Guilt swept across their features like a veil’—and so is Messud’s attention to detail. This is worth savoring.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Schulz, Attenberg, Yanagihara, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Kathryn Schultz, Jami Attenberg, Hanya Yanagihara, 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.
Lost & Found by Kathryn Schultz
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lost & Found: “‘Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,’ writes Pulitzer Prize winner Schulz (Being Wrong) in this stunning memoir. As Schulz recounts, she contended with the pain and ecstasy of both narratives colliding when she fell in love with her future wife, C., 18 months before Schulz’s father died. She explores the grief of loss and joy of finding through penetrating reflections on the life of her father, a deep thinker with an endless appetite for the world; an ‘intimate study of [her] beloved’ wife; and philosophical forays into literature, poetry, and art. She ruminates on the ‘intrinsic pleasure of discovery’ in quest narratives, is reminded how ‘the entire plan of the universe consists of losing’ when C. reads her Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and thinks of her father’s memorial service, one of the ‘greatest parties I ever attended,’ when remembering C. S. Lewis’s quote that ‘we all have… many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst.’ By the end of these exquisite existential wanderings, Schulz comes to a quiet truce with her finding that ‘life, too, goes by contraries… by turns crushing and restorative… comic and uplifting.’ Schulz’s canny observations are a treasure.”
I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Came All This Way to Meet You: “Novelist Attenberg (All Grown Up) meditates on the virtues and vices of an unscripted life in this sparkling memoir. In vivid essays, Attenberg recalls her couch-surfing years in her 20s, an assault she survived in college (‘That moment remains a burning hot coal in my chest’), and teaching fiction in Vilnius, Lithuania, as a ‘newly moderately successful writer’ in 2013. She writes of her decision to eschew tradition in pursuit of art and adventure, but how, at age 40, she began to envy her more grounded, married friends: ‘I did not want… the husband, the kids. But I did want that refrigerator full of food.’ The tension between rootedness and wanderlust makes for brisk descriptions of locale: from Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification, where she ‘had birthdays… and went broke several times,’ to New Orleans, where she wrote ‘religiously, daily,’ to a chapel made of bones in Portugal. Though her narrative flits around in time and space, her writing emerges as a bedrock from which to both grow and settle into. From the vantage point of 2020, she observes: ‘We are all homebound…. We can’t go back to the same way…. Everything is just sideways.’ Tilted or upright, Attenberg’s story shines with wit and empathy.”
The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Stars Are Not Yet Bells: “Assadi (Sonora) returns with a lyrical and melancholic tale of grief, love, and a marriage’s open secrets, narrated by a woman who has Alzheimer’s. In 1941, Elle Ranier and her jeweler husband, Simon, moved from New York City as young newlyweds to a remote island off the coast of Georgia in search of a variety of jewel akin to diamonds and known locally as the ‘blue legend.’ Many people have drowned while seeking the minerals, which are believed to lie at the bottom of the ocean, and Simon’s fruitless search eventually leaves his business in shambles. Now, in 1997, Elle remembers her previous lover, Gabriel, in Brooklyn, whom she arranged to work with Simon on the island after claiming he was her cousin, and who died shortly after they arrived. Then, in 1961, Simon grows close with a geologist hired to prospect for the jewels. Elle’s reminiscences become hazy as a result of her Alzheimer’s, though ‘for a while, life remained in [her] bright dreams,’ which evokes a sense of magic with images of mermaids and fairies. As the story of the trio’s arrival to the island and their subsequent misfortunes gradually unfolds, Elle circles around the secrets about her and Simon’s relationships with other men. The beauty of Assadi’s prose and the splendid depiction of a love that transcends death make for a singular rendition of an oft-told story. This will leave readers undone.”
Yonder by Jabari Asim
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Yonder: “Novelist and cultural critic Asim (We Can’t Breathe) delivers a searing and redemptive story of slavery and survival. Set in the antebellum South, it is narrated primarily by enslaved people who call themselves the ‘Stolen’ and white people ‘Thieves.’ To sustain themselves through the cruelties of their owner, Cannonball Greene, a philandering pseudo-intellectual planning a study of Africans in America, the Stolen rely on their rituals and bonds. Inspired by myths of the Buba Yalis, Zander, a teen, believes he will one day fly like his African ancestors. Cato eases the shattering grief of his lover’s death by adding her name to the seven words chosen by the elders for each Stolen at birth, in the belief that ‘words were mighty enough to change [their] condition.’ William doubts the power of all words, trusting action instead. When he stops Cupid, the plantation’s slave foreman, from bullying Zander one night, the two men fight. Cato steps in and kills Cupid, then helps William bury him in the woods. Faced with Greene’s rage, the others, heeding the promises of freedom offered by an itinerant Black preacher, consider a risky escape. Asim convincingly portrays what W.E.B. Du Bois would later term ‘double consciousness’ among the Stolen: ‘All of us have two tongues,’ an unnamed Stolen says, distinguishing between the ‘lament cloaked in deception’ used for their enslavers and the rich, transgressive language used among themselves. At once intimate and majestic, the prose marries a gripping narrative with an unforgettable exploration of the power of stories, language, and hope. With a bold vision, Asim demonstrates his remarkable gifts.”
Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shit Cassandra Saw: “Kirby’s excellent debut collection follows a series of women empowered by new circumstances, sometimes with fantastical results. In ‘A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,’ a man tells a woman to smile, and she responds by revealing a mouthful of fangs, which she uses to bite off the man’s hand, ‘crack[ing] the bones and spit[ting] them out.’ Another woman in the same story uses her ‘laser eyes’ to transform a man who gropes her into the exact change for her bus fare. In ‘The Best and Only Whore of Cwm Hyfryd, 1886,’ the women of a Welsh settlement in Patagonia are generally too tired to have sex with their husbands, leaving the job to a sex worker. That woman, meanwhile, writes letters home to her brother and pretends to be married. The prose is sharp and calibrated to suit each of Kirby’s temporally and geographically diverse settings. She is even able to wring pathos from a story written in the format of a Yelp review, narrated by one of the rare male voices in the book, in the very funny ‘Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star,’ in which reviewer Gary F.’s account of a miserable night at the Crab Shack slips into a chronicle of his crumbling marriage. It’s all accomplished through risk-taking and assured, well-developed craft. This is remarkable.”
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mouth to Mouth: “Wilson (Panorama City) explores the intertwined fates of two inscrutable men in the Los Angeles art world of the early 2000s in this shifty work of psychological suspense. The unnamed narrator, a novelist delayed at the airport on his way to Berlin, runs into an old college acquaintance, Jeff Cook. Jeff invites the narrator to the first class lounge, where he tells him a long story. Twenty years earlier, while strolling along the beach, Jeff resuscitated a drowning stranger, Francis Arsenault, a successful art dealer who showed no interest in his savior. Jeff, by contrast, attempted to learn everything about Francis, and ingratiated his way into Francis’s gilded life—insisting to the narrator that his motives, though obscure even to himself, were not necessarily mercenary. Francis is a prickly figure, a ‘master manipulator’ whose bullying and shady business practices caused the upright Jeff to belatedly question whether Francis was worth saving. Though the frame narrative can feel contrived, and Francis might not be as memorably monstrous as, say, Graham Greene’s Harry Lime, the extended scenes of self-fashioning and occluded vision make good use of Patricia Highsmith’s influence. There’s plenty of satisfaction in watching the characters navigate the blurred line between plausibility and truth.”
The Boy We Made by Taylor Harris
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Boy We Made: “Essayist Harris weaves a medical mystery, love story, parenting memoir, and tale of survival in her stunning debut. When Harris’s sweet-natured 22-month-old boy, Tophs, started showing a host of inexplicable symptoms—including hypoglycemia, developmental delays, and speech and language difficulties—she was forced to reckon with the ways in which his health issues stoked anxiety issues that she’d spent most of her life battling. In writing that is heartfelt and raw, she recounts her distress at the evasive explanations that she received from doctors as her son underwent test after test, while braiding in reflections on motherhood (‘Being a Black mother in a… country, built for whites was hard’), faith, and the idea of existing within liminal spaces: ‘Caught somewhere between ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet’…. It was getting harder to see what, if anything, was being formed in Tophs, in me, or in us as a family through this search for answers.’ Though medical professionals believed Tophs had ketotic hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood glucose levels drop unexpectedly, Harris and her husband never received a conclusive diagnosis. But out of that uncertainty grew a love and calmness that Harris couldn’t have foreseen, and a story of acceptance that mesmerizes with its vulnerability: ‘He had always been my son…. It was my job to let him be.’ This is astounding.”
High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about High-Risk Homosexual: “In this crackling debut, Gomez recounts his coming-of-age as a queer man, passionately exploring what it means to celebrate one’s identities and to make space for joy in the most unlikely places. ‘In a world desperate to erase us, queer Latinx men must find ways to hold on to pride for survival,’ he writes, ‘but excessive male pride is often what we are battling, both in ourselves and in others.’ In essays packed with dry wit and searing cultural insight, Gomez blows open this paradox as he contends with the difficulties and traumas of compulsory heterosexuality that were forced upon him growing up in his Nicaraguan family. He brings readers on an exhilarating trip through his teens in Central America, where bloody cockfights at his uncle’s bar pulsated with machismo; reflects on meeting a group of encouraging trans sex workers, whose simple freedom both terrified and enticed him as a young gay person; recounts his awkward attempts to navigate hookup culture in his early 20s in Florida; and reflects on how taking PrEP instantly labeled him medically as a ‘high-risk homosexual.’ The result transcends a simple coming-out story to instead offer a brilliant and provocative interrogation of sex, gender, race, and love.”
Wahala by Nikki May
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wahala: “In May’s breezy if overdramatic debut, the mutual friendship of three Anglo-Nigerian women is threatened by an interloper, a Russian Nigerian on a revenge trip. Isobel Adams holds a particular grudge against each of the successful and ambitious women who have been best friends for 17 years. There’s Boo, one of the numerous children Isobel’s father had with multiple women; Ronke Tinubu, the daughter of the man who had an affair with Isobel’s mother, and who now dates the man Isobel wants; and Simi, Isobel’s friend since they were five years old, who describes Isobel in a conversation with the others as ’embarrassingly rich,’ and whose father has been in a longtime feud with Isobel’s. May’s characters, despite all their accomplishments and intelligence—Ronke is a dentist, Boo has a PhD in bioinformatics, and Simi works as a brand executive for a fashion house—are easily taken in by Isobel, due to Isobel’s willingness to help open doors for them. After Isobel manipulates her way into the trio’s lives, someone in their orbit winds up violently killed. While some of Isobel’s destructive behavior is outlandishly implausible, May’s nuanced exploration of race and gender makes this refreshing. This will leave readers intrigued to see what May does next.”
Call Me Cassandra by Marcial Gala
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Call Me Cassandra: “In Cuban poet and novelist Gala’s lyrical and elegiac return (after The Black Cathedral), a young man grows up feeling stifled by life in Castro’s Cuba. At 10, Rauli Iriarte is effeminate and bookish, imperiled by the strict gender roles embodied by his violent brother, drunken father, and unsympathetic school board. He’s more comfortable in the company of his mother and his father’s Russian mistress, Svetlana. As it happens, Rauli is also Cassandra, the Greek prophetess of ancient myth, cursed with the knowledge that he will die as a young soldier in Angola, where he is dispatched as part of the Cuban Intervention. There, on ‘a continent full of ghosts, the ghosts of kings, dark ghosts of dark wizards,’ he is simultaneously swept up in the Trojan War and forced to relive The Iliad’s cycle of death and carnage. Lodged irrevocably between genders, historical periods, and legends, Rauli—who’d rather be acknowledged as Cassandra—must find meaning and purpose in a life he knows to be tragically foreshortened. It’s a fascinating premise, but not a whole lot happens. Still, Gala’s prose, elegantly translated by Kushner, perfectly conveys the protagonist’s dual realities (‘We are but shadows set on the canvas of this life, my Zeus,’ he thinks, while on the battlefield). In the end, the author offers a singular invocation of immortality.”
Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Øyehaug (translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Present Tense Machine: “The playful and poignant latest from Øyehaug (Wait, Blink) unfurls the alternate realities that separate a mother and daughter. In 1998, Anna misreads the word ‘trädgård’—Swedish for ‘garden’—as the nonsense word ‘tärdgård,’ and the slip-up sends her into a parallel universe. Her two-year-old daughter Laura has never existed, and she eventually gives birth to two new children, Peder and Elina. In the other universe, Laura grows up with no memory of Anna, and now an adult, she lives with her musician partner, Karl Peter, and is pregnant with her first child. Both women study literature, and they both sign up to take part in the same group piano concert of Satie’s ‘Vexations.’ Yet while they’re sure something is missing from their lives, they fail to recall their bond. Øyehaug employs a metafictional narrator who frequently addresses the reader, noting that she’s writing while riding a bus and feeling dislocated, or reflecting on a Youtube video about astrophysics. Some of the mundane details of Anna’s, Laura’s, and the narrator’s lives slow the story, but the ruminations on existence and purpose consistently captivate. Ultimately, Øyehaug steers this to a wholly satisfying conclusion.”
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about To Paradise: “Yanagihara’s ambitious if unwieldy latest (after National Book Award finalist A Little Life) spins a set of three stories in New York City’s Washington Square over 200 years. David Bingham lives in the utopian ‘Free States’ of 1893. He rejects a proposed arranged marriage with another wealthy, older man, opting to pursue a love match with a music teacher who lives a hardscrabble life. At a dinner party in 1993, the host’s oldest friend is dying from AIDS as the other guests consider the meaning of one’s legacy. One of them, also named David Bingham (this one a native Hawaiian paralegal), is cautiously optimistic about his relationship with his wealthy older boyfriend, Charles Griffith. A century later, a woman named Charlie Griffith deals with dystopian conditions such as a series of pandemics and a totalitarian society in which the press and homosexual relationships have been outlawed, and struggles to build a meaningful relationship with her husband. The stories are united by the characters’ desire for love as their freedom is diminished. The prose in the first section effectively conjures the style of Henry James, but there’s too much exposition and not enough character development in the final section, where the author spends too much time building out the future world. There’s a great deal of passion, but on the whole it’s a mixed bag.”

Letter from the Collapse

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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of monsters are born.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930)

“Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go… The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”—Bo Burnham, Inside (2021)

In our corner of Northern Virginia, we were fortunate to never see the dead birds. Yet throughout the Mid-Atlantic—a cardinal on the pebbly beaches of Delmarva or a sparrow on the Jersey Shore, a finch like an omen in front of Independence Hall or a bluebird as a threat on the steps of the Capitol—the creatures started to die by the thousands. With little sense of this new plague, experts recommended the removal of bird feeders. And so I dutifully took down the tall model where I examined mourning doves over morning coffee and listened to woodpeckers on the birches, watched the hawks who flew above, and the sleek, elegant crows speaking in their own impenetrable tongue. The Allegheny Front, an environmental show on Pittsburgh’s WYEP, posted a photograph of an afflicted robin found in Erie, Penn. Laid out in a cardboard box decorated with spruce leaves, it looked like the otherwise pristine creature was sleeping, the only sign of its illness the thick crust on her sealed eyes. An affect not unlike the wisps of cotton that escape from underneath the lids of taxidermied birds. “The phenomenon has since spread through 10 states,” writes Andy Kubis at The Allegheny Front, “including West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, and in 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties.” Observers noted neurological symptoms, birds unable to fly or crashing into the ground; the dead animals, found framed by the brittle, yellow grass of sweltering June, with the characteristic discharge from eyes and beaks.

Ornithologists proffered hypotheses, noting that the avian pandemic accompanied the cicada Brood X. Those creatures we couldn’t avoid seeing, skeletal eldritch horrors bursting from the earth and their own bodies: red-eyed grotesqueries whose incessant droning permeated the humid air for weeks, who dropped from branches and through car windows like something out of a horror film. Between the dead birds and the cicadas, the summer had a Pharaonic glean, intimations of Exodus. A surreal poetry to these chthonic beings, the existential crisis of their lives spent hibernating for 16 years, only to emerge and then die. “Happy the Cicadas live,” wrote Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Death, though quoting Xenarchus. Our dog took to biting them in half and pushing them between the slots of our deck’s wooden planks, casting them back to hell. By the time they disappeared, without even bothering to say goodbye, I’ll confess that we missed them. But in their brittle, green bodies there was an answer to the bird pandemic, for it seemed that people had attempted to poison the cicadas, and after ingesting their pesticide-corrupted corpses the birds were killed instead. The “sense of cosmic significance is mostly unique to the human relationship with birds,” writes Boria Sax in Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, but not apparently to those squeaked out by some bugs, the same people who undoubtedly water their lawn during a drought, or who buy the last 10 chickens during the coming food shortages.  Trillions of cicadas emerged; to avoid them was an impossibility, but you only had to bear them for a short while, and yet people unable to reason that there is no eliminating something of that magnitude and too impatient to wait decided that they knew better. Is there a more perfect encapsulation of the American mindset in these dwindling days?

I’d be amazed if you couldn’t sense it—the coming end of things. A woman sits by her grandmother in a St. Louis, Miss., ICU, the older woman about to be intubated because Covid has destroyed her lungs, but until a day before she insisted that the disease wasn’t real. In Kenosha, Wisc., a young man discovers that even after murdering two men a jury will say that homicide is justified, as long as it’s against those whose politics the judge doesn’t like. Similar young men take note. Somebody’s estranged father drives to Dallas, where he waits outside of Deeley Plaza alongside hundreds of others, expecting the emergence of JFK Jr. whom he believes is coming to crown the man who lost the last presidential election. Somewhere in a Menlo Park recording studio, a dead eyed programmer with a haircut that he thinks makes him look like Caesar Augustus stares unblinkingly into a camera and announces that his Internet services will be subsumed under one meta-platform, trying to convince an exhausted, anxious, and depressed public of the piquant joys of virtual sunshine and virtual wind. At an Atlanta supermarket, a cashier who made minimum wage, politely asks a customer to wear a mask per the store’s policy; the customer leaves and returns with a gun, shooting her. She later dies. The rural mail carrier who has driven down the winding, unnamed roads of a northwestern Oregon hamlet for over three decades notes to herself how the explosion of annoying insects on her windshield seemed entirely absent this summer. A trucker who lives in Ohio blows his airline break, and when trying to get a replacement finds that it’s on backorder indefinitely. Walking across Boston Common this October, and two men holding hands and heading toward the duck boats realize that they’re both sweating under their matching pea coats. It’s 83 degrees. On the first day of July, my family huddles in our basement; a tornado has formed in the District of Columbia, and is rapidly moving across the National Mall.     

Everyone’s favorite Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek snottily gurgled it a decade ago, writing in Living in the End Times that the “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point,” and identifying four horseman in the form of environmental collapse, biogenetics, systemic contradictions, and “explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.” Not everyone claims to see the gathering storm however, especially those who are most responsible, though if they do, they’re silent about it in their New Zealand compounds. Degenerated, chipper, faux-optimism is a grift during our epoch of dusk; Jeff Bezos expecting us to clap when he shoots Captain Kirk into space; Elon Musk mouth-breathing about cryptocurrency and terraforming the rusty soil of Mars, as if we haven’t already heated one planet too much; Peter Thiel promising us that there will be a digital heaven where all of the billionaires can download their consciousness unshackled from the material world, and we can serve alongside them as Egyptian slaves entombed with their masters, clicking on PayPal,and Amazon and Facebook for a silicon eternity. Such promises are the opposite of hope, they’re only grinning assurances of dystopia instead of apocalypse. Besides, such things are chimerical; ask not for whom the Antarctic ice shelf collapses, or for whom the ocean acidifies, or for whom the temperature rises at 3 degrees Celsius, it does all these things for Bezos, Musk, and Thiel as much as you and me. Ours is the age of Covid and QAnon, supply chain breakdown and surveillance capitalism, food shortages and armed militias, climate change and bio-collapse. We’re merely in a milquetoast interregnum as we wait for monsters to be born in a year, in three. If poets and prophets have traditionally been our Cassandras, then on some level everybody knows that a rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem right now, though despite that one sees perilously little grace, kindness, and empathy. Even the insanity of those who believe whatever conspiracy theory happens to give them scant meaning intuit that the insects are disappearing, the waters are rising, and the absence of 700,000 lives means that something is askance.

“The world sinks into ruin,” wrote St. Jerome in 413, some six decades and change before the final sack of Rome that marks the Western empire’s fall. “The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire,” he noted of the Visigoth Alaric’s siege. Hard not to imagine that some didn’t realize that the end was coming, shortages of pungent garrum made in Mauretania, a scarcity of Cappadocian lettuce and Pontic fish. In 410, the Emperor Honorius recalled all legions from Britannia to defend the eternal city from the Visigoths who would soon traipse through its burning streets. Envision that horde, ascending the marble steps of the Senate, in furs and horned helmets, brandishing their red standard and crowding through the halls of that once august and solemn space. Can you even countenance it? The Romanized Celts requested from the emperor the return of defensive legions, and in his rescript Honorius “wrote letters to the cities in Britain urging them to be on their [own] guard.” The United States Postal Service will be late in delivering packages, because of supply chain shortages there is no chicken available at the Stop & Shop, the power grid will be down this winter in Texas. You’re on your own. As civil society crumbled, Romans turned to all variety of superstitions and occultisms, cults and conspiracies. As Edward Gibbon noted in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the “zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.” Stop the steal! Lock her up! Make America GREAT again! Living on a heating planet filled with dying animals and governed by either the inept or the insane, and it’s hard not to feel a bit strange going to work, buying groceries, saving your salary, as if everything were normal. “We live as though we are going to die tomorrow,” wrote Jerome, “yet we build as though we are going to live always,” or, as David Byrne sang, “Why stay in college? Why go to night school?… I ain’t got time for that now.”

Whenever comparisons are made between Rome and America, there’s always somebody who denounces such language as not just histrionic, but clichéd. The latter is certainly fair; ever since the founders obsessed over republican virtue we’ve imagined that the Potomac is the Tiber, and we’ve parsed (arch-royalist) Gibbon’s history for clues about our falling. Copies of Plutarch and Livy were brought to the Continental Congress, and the most popular colonial American play was a turgid script by Joseph Addison about Cato (it would be performed at Valley Forge). The young Republic declared itself to be a “Novus ordo seclorum,” a “New Order of the Ages,” in conspicuous Latin borrowed from Virgil’’s Aeneid, while the Federalist Papers were written under pen-names like Caesar, Brutus, and Publius and John Adams attributed his worldview to Cicero. Roman symbolism was replete, as in the fasces that would adorn the Senate located on Capitol Hill. When George Washington deigned not to hold a third term, he was compared to the noble dictator Cincinnatus who dropped his sword for a plow, which was enough virtue that by 1840, four decades after the first president’s death, and the sculptor Horatio Greenough rendered the general as a muscular Jupiter in a toga. By the final year of the Civil War, and the first president was depicted underneath the Capitol dome as a purple robed Roman god in “The Apotheosis of Washington”. The Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, all of it neo-classical ridiculousness. Gore Vidal recalled in United States Essays: 1952-1992 that his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, remarked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the bloated buildings of Washington that “At least they will make wonderful ruins.”  

Vidal, that classical patrician, wrote that “Empires are dangerous possessions… Since I recall pre-imperial Washington, I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruption of the simpler, saner city of my youth.” Hardly a postbellum pose, for critics have feared that the Republic would slide into an Empire before the Constitution’s ink was dry. Naturally there is also fear of collapse, and long has there has been foreboding about the decline and fall of the American Empire. On the top floor of the austere New-York Historical Society, there is a pentad of paintings by the unjustly forgotten landscape artist Thomas Cole, a series known as “The Course of Empire.” Rendered between 1833 and 1836, Cole was disturbed by both the vulgarity of Jacksonian Democracy and the brutality of Manifest Destiny. A member of the Hudson Valley School who reveled in the sheer grandiosity of the nation’s natural spaces, Cole imagines in “The Course of Empire” a fantastical country from its primitive state of nature, through an idealized agrarian state, into a decadent imperium, an apocalyptic collapse, and finally desolation. Overlooking each painting is the same mountain peak, roughly the shape of Gibraltar’s rock, the one consistency as Cole’s civilization follows the course of its evolution, a reminder that nature was here before, and despite how we may degrade it, will still be here afterwards. The penultimate landscape, entitled simply “Destruction,” presents the denouement of this fantastic city, a skyline of columned, porticoed, and domed classical buildings in flames, bellowing smoke partially obscuring that reliable mountain; vandals flooding the streets, murdering and raping the city’s citizens, pushing them into the mighty river that bisects it. A triumphant monumental statue is now decapitated. With its wide marble buildings and its memorials, Cole’s city resembles nothing so much as Washington D.C., though when he lived the capital was more provincial backwater than the neoclassical stage set it would become. Cole made a note that “the decline of nations is generally more rapid than their rise,” concluding that “Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.”

Enthusiasm for such parallels, along with attendant breathless warnings (including the ones that I’m making) have hardly abated. In just the past decade, there have been articles entitled “8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire” by Steven Strauss in 2012 at Salon, Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry’s “America now looks like Rome before the fall of the Republic” from 2016 in The Week,  Tim Elliot’s 2020 piece at Politico entitled “America is Eerily Retracing Rome’s Steps to a Fall. Will It Turn Around Before It’s Too Late?,” Vox’s essay from that same year “What America Can Learn from the Fall of the Roman Republic” by Sean Illing, and Cullen Murphy’’s succinct “No, Really, are we Rome?” from The Atlantic of this year. Just to dissuade those who parse such things, Tom Holland wrote “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is” for The New York Review of Books in 2019. With an article that reprints Cole’s painting underneath the headline, a pull-quote reads “There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall.” Well, with all due respect, the second law of thermodynamics mandates that everything has to fall apart, but Holland’s point is taken that in a more immediate sense, comparisons of America to Rome tell us little about the latter and everything about the former. But for those who see the comparison as tortured beyond all reasonableness, the truth can be bluntly stated as follows: our current problems aren’t like the fall of Rome because they’re far, far worse. Would it only be that we faced the collapse of the U.S. government, or authoritarianism, or even civil war, because the rising average temperature per year, the PH of the oceans, and the biodome’s decreasing diversity are things unheard of on the Earth since the Permian-Triassic extinction of more than 250 million years ago, when 70 percent of life on land perished and almost 95 percent in the seas did.     

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Wallace-Wells describes the five previous mass extinctions that shaped evolution, explaining that four of these “involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.” Before the Permian-Triassic extinction, the land was occupied by the fin-reptile dimetrodon and the hog-shaped Lystrosaurus, the abundant atmospheric oxygen supported massive dragonflies and centipedes, and the oceans were plentiful with mollusks and trilobites. For some still unexplained reason the amount of carbon dioxide rapidly increased, which in turn triggered the release of methane, so that this feedback loop “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead,” as Wallace-Wells writes. “We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster,” he explains. If we didn’t know what caused that warming 250 million years ago, we know what’s doing it now—us. Should the worst case scenario of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change come to pass, then in the coming century the exponential increase in warming will result in an ice-free arctic, obliteration of the coastal cities where two-thirds of humans live (no more Venice and Amsterdam, New York and Miami), the mass destruction of farm land, continual massive wildfires for which we will look back fondly on the summer of 2021, never-ending hurricanes and tropical storms, heat waves, droughts, desertification, new pandemics, and at worse the acidification of the ocean and the resultant perishing of most things that live beneath the waves. Short of a social or political revolution to reorient the world away from the cannibalistic capitalism which has brought us to this moment, we’ll read Gibbon as halcyon (assuming anyone is around to read).

This summer I threw a little digital life buoy out into the whirlpool of Twitter, another one of those horseman of dystopia, and asked others what it felt like to be living during what could be the apocalypse. Mostly I discovered that my anxiety is common, but one gentleman reminded me that there were Medieval millenarians and Great Awakening Millerites awaiting their messiahs who never came, and that they were all mistaken. That is, if you’ll forgive me, exceedingly stupid. There have been times when I was sure that I was going to die—the shaky prop plane flying low to the ground between Philly and the Lehigh Valley and the erratic driver going 20 miles over the speed limit who almost side-swiped me on a stretch of I-95 in Massachusetts—but just because I survived shouldn’t lead me to conclude that I’m immortal. Armageddon isn’t any different. My critic, though, seems to be in the minority—most people have that sense of foreboding, picking up whatever cries are coming from the Earth that the summers feel hotter, the animals scarcer, the sky sometimes glazed an ungodly glow from the redness of western fires. “The piers are pummeled by the waves;/In a lonely field the fain/Lashes an abandoned train,” wrote W.H. Auden in his 1953 poem “The Fall of Rome,” perhaps about his own justified fears regarding nuclear conflagration. I imagine the poet placing his wrinkled, droopy, hang-dog face to the ground and picking up on those frequencies that are today a cacophony, the “Private rites of magic” that now mark the fascists of one of our only two parties, how “an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK” reminding me of the striking heroes who are leaving the degrading and barely remunerated labor of late capitalism, how the “Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss” in a warm arctic, and my beloved “Little birds with scarlet legs… Eye each flu-infected city.”

From the Greek, “apocalypse” means to “uncover” hidden knowledge, so for those of us anticipating what the future holds, it’s been the apocalypse for a while. What are you to do with this knowledge? Our politics operate on inertia and project onto individuals a responsibility that was always vested in the powerful themselves. Perhaps you should ditch your car, turn off your air conditioning, recycle, give up meat, and begin composting, but do that because those thing are good for your soul, not because you’re under any illusions that “Not The End of the World” is a consumer choice. Be neither a defeatist nor certainly an accelerationist, however, for avoiding the boiling of the oceans and the burning of the air must be what we put our shoulder to the door for. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Waiting for transformation like it’s the messiah isn’t preferable to collectively willing that transformation, but I know not what that will look like because I’m not a professional revolutionary. The signs that are appearing in the windows of McDonald’s and Subway, Starbucks and Chipotle, from workers tired of being mistreated and underpaid is the largest labor rebellion in a generation, the totally organic Great Resignation spoken of everywhere and reported on nowhere—it gives me hope. It gives me hope because that dark faith, the capitalism that has spoiled the planet, isn’t inviolate; a confirmation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s promise that “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings.” A corollary is the welcome mocking of fools like Bezos, Musk, and Thiel. Just the widespread awareness of our situation is promising, not because I valorize despair, but maybe if there are a billion little apocalypses it will somehow stave off the big Apocalypse. The whole of the law is treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t cross a picket line, the rest is all theory. Now, go, and study.   

Finally, I’m only a writer, and the most recondite type, an essayist. Could there by any role for something so insular at the end of the world? In The Guardian, novelist Ben Okri recommends “creative existentialism,” which he claims is the “creativity at the end of time.” He argues that every line we enjamb, every phrase we turn, every narrative we further “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.” I understand climate change as doing something similar to what Dr. Johnson said the hangman’s noose did for focusing the mind. It’s not words that I’m worried about wasting, but experiences. What’s needed is an aesthetic imperative that we somehow live in each moment as if it’s eternal and also as if it’s our last. Our ethical imperative is similar: to do everything as if it might save the world, even if it’s unlikely that it will. Tending one’s own garden need not be selfish, though if everyone does so, well, that’s something then, right? I’m counting the liturgy of small blessings, noting the cold breeze on a December morning, the crunch of brown and red and orange leaves under foot, the sound of rain hitting my office window, the laughter of my son and the chirping of those birds at the feeder who delight him. I’ve no strategy save for love. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a lyric that was introduced to me by a Nick Ripatrazone essay. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Harjo enumerates all of the quiet domestic beauties of life, how the “gifts of earth are brought and prepared” here, and “children are given instructions on what it means to be human” while sitting at this table, where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and/remorse. We give thanks./Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and/crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” That, finally, is the only ethic I know of as the oceans flood and the fires burn, to be aware of our existence at the kitchen table. When the cicadas come back in 17 years, I wonder what the world will be like for them? I hope that there will be bird song.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Percy, Ho, Chan, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Benjamin Percy, Jean Chen Ho, Jessamine Chan, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Unfamiliar Garden by Benjamin Percy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Unfamiliar Garden: “Percy’s masterful second Comet Cycle genre-bender (after The Ninth Metal) combines a missing-person case, romantic reconciliation, and a riveting sci-fi what-if imagining of a sentient fungi, spawned by debris from a passing comet, that symbiotically absorbs flora and fauna—including human beings. On the day the comet swept Earth with a dramatic meteor shower, ‘fun dad’ Jack, a mycologist, took his eight-year-old daughter, Mia, on a mushroom study trip through a dank forest outside Seattle—where she vanished. This devastating loss breaks up Jack’s marriage to Nora, a type A police detective. Now, five years later, Nora investigates a series of eerie, ritualistic Seattle homicides, while Jack boozily self-destructs his academic career. The pair gradually reconnect by probing into the ominous fungal invasion—a line of inquiry that may lead them to Mia. Meanwhile, a sinister governmental operation attempts to militarize the fungus, developing it into a mind control serum. The juxtaposition of malignant military-industrial machinations and well-delineated human tension works wonderfully, and sci-fi fans will appreciate Percy’s extraterrestrial biological lore. It’s a thoroughly satisfying near-future glimpse of both disaster and salvation.”

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fiona and Jane: “In Ho’s intimate debut collection, two childhood friends, Fiona and Jane, grow up, grow apart, and then back together. The first story, ‘The Night Market,’ begins with 18-year-old Jane’s visit to her father in Taiwan. On her last night there, her father reveals he’s in love with his male friend Lee and that he will not be returning to Jane and her mother in Los Angeles. Reeling after this revelation, Jane reflects on her parents’ relationship and her own budding romantic feelings toward her female piano teacher. From there, the stories follow more or less chronologically, with ‘Go Slow,’ flashing back to an eventful night drinking soju at a strip mall Korean bar when Fiona and Jane are 16, then forward to Fiona’s ambitious move to New York with her boyfriend, Jasper, after college in ‘The Inheritance,’ while Jane stays in California. ‘Cold Turkey’ finds Jane grieving over her father and breaking up with her girlfriend. In later stories, Fiona leaves both law school and a cheating Jasper, and the old friends reconnect. Ho excels at creating characters whose struggles feel deeply human. This packs in plenty of insights about love and friendship.”

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The School for Good Mothers: “Chan’s enthralling speculative debut opens with a woman having ‘one very bad day’ in Philadelphia. Frida Liu, Chinese American and recently divorced, has left her daughter, 18-month-old Harriet, alone at home in an ExerSaucer for two hours so she can work, a decision that results in Harriet’s removal to a crisis center. Frida is then sentenced by a family court judge to one year in a live-in rehab program for bad moms that will use constant instruction, training, and supervision to determine if she can make ‘sufficient progress’ as a mother or if her parental rights should be terminated. Guided by the mantra ‘I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good,’ Frida and the other 200 moms must prove their worth by raising surrogate children in order to earn their own children back. Chan raises the stakes as she explores Frida’s relationships with the other mothers, Harriet and Emmanuelle (her surrogate daughter), her ex-husband’s new family, and her romantic interests. Chan (a former PW reviews editor) also tightens the screws of the program itself as the leaders capriciously deny privileges, such as 10-minute Sunday phone calls home, and broaden the definitions for what’s considered an offense. Woven seamlessly throughout are societal assumptions and stereotypes about mothers, especially mothers of color, and their consequences. Chan’s imaginative flourishes render the mothers’ vulnerability to social pressures and governmental whims nightmarish and palpable. It’s a powerful story, made more so by its empathetic and complicated heroine.”

The Latinist by Mark Prins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Latinist: “Prins puts a contemporary spin on the Apollo and Daphne myth in his laudable debut, which revolves around the relationship of a classical philology student and her unscrupulous mentor. Tessa Templeton is just weeks away from receiving her doctorate from Oxford when she discovers that her trusted adviser, Christopher Eccles, professor of classics at Westfaling College, has effectively sabotaged her budding career with a misleading recommendation letter that he sent to the universities she’d applied to for teaching positions—leaving her only option to accept a faculty job at Westfaling, where she would be subject to Eccles’s continued scheming and enamored attention. As Tessa attempts to free herself from his obsessive manipulation, she uncovers groundbreaking revelations regarding a second-century female Roman poet with a penchant for limping iambs that could propel her career into the stratosphere. Prins’s riveting tale of love, power, and possession matches deep characterization with an intriguing plot involving ancient texts, necropolises, and archaeological sites. Fans of academic thrillers will dig this.”

Velorio by Xavier Navarro Aquino

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Velorio: “Navarro Aquino debuts with an elegiac and fervent ode to Puerto Rico that opens in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, as people grow increasingly desperate for food, water, and gasoline. In the absence of effective government, a magnetic young man named Urayoán sees an opportunity to take power, and—supported by his red-shirted minions—founds a self-sufficient society called Memoria. Urayoán limits Memoria’s inhabitants to young adults and teens, and the novel follows several of them, first as they follow signs in search of Memoria, rumored to be ‘the center of all things,’ and later as they contend with Memoria’s growing violence and instability. There’s tough, independent Bayfish; his happy-go-lucky friend Banto; and Camila, who wanders the island, trancelike, carrying the corpse of her older sister, who was killed by a mudslide. The ambitious, polyphonic first half takes a little while to build steam, but once the characters gather in Memoria, the narrative takes off as Memoria threatens to collapse. Graphic, unsettling scenes of animalistic violence orchestrated by Urayoán are studded with moments of emotional clarity and grace. Throughout, Aquino’s characters grapple with all they have lost and wrestle with the temptation to feed their nostalgia for a place and a past that never really existed. This lyrical and emotionally raw story will leave readers reflecting on the pain and promise of memory.”

Those Who Left Us: Literary Obits of 2021

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This highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished during the past year ranges from brand names to barely-knowns. Feel free to add your own names to the list in the comments section below. Joan Didion, anyone?
Scott Donaldson
While working as a newspaper reporter in Virginia in 1988, I got sent to the College of William & Mary to interview Scott Donaldson, a professor who had just published a biography of John Cheever. Donaldson spent a long afternoon telling me about how his one encounter with Cheever in the summer of 1976 blossomed into a critically acclaimed biography. The conversation wandered to other topics—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s drinking, the Cheever family’s protective attitude toward John, the impossibility of ever truly understanding another person’s life. As I wrote of Donaldson in my newspaper article: “It was his turn to do the talking, and he, like Cheever a dozen summers ago on Nantucket, had plenty to say.”
Donaldson, who died on Dec. 1, 2020 at 92 (the announcement came too late for last year’s wrap-up), also produced biographies and critical studies of Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Winfield Townley Scott, and Charles Fenton. Donaldson’s book about this last subject, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story, led me to interview him again in 2012 for The Millions. By then, Blake Bailey had come out with his own critically acclaimed—and much darker—biography of Cheever, and Donaldson had mellowed after some sharp skirmishing with Bailey and the Cheever family. During our second interview, Donaldson shared a passage from a work in progress that became his final book, The Impossible Craft, a study of the art of writing literary biography. The passage closed with Donaldson’s clear-eyed, nearly cold-blooded assessment of his Cheever biography: “Perhaps no life ends happily, but I depicted Cheever—as I had Fitzgerald, a man he resembled in many ways—as heroic for overcoming addiction and soldiering on. In doing so, I may well have traveled from unjustified fault-finding to unwarranted praise.”
See also: The Millions Interviews Scott Donaldson
Eric Jerome Dickey
Known for his complex Black female characters and scorching sex scenes, Eric Jerome Dickey was a perennial fixture on bestseller lists before his death on Jan. 3 at 59. After dabbling in software development and stand-up comedy, Dickey fell into novel writing almost by accident. Explaining the genesis of his 1996 debut, Sister, Sister, he told his hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “I thought I was writing a short story, and it kept going… You have these characters, and you say, ‘What if, what if, what if,’ and the thing starts to grow, and it grew to 300 pages, and I was sitting there looking at it thinking, ‘Man, this is a book.’”
Dubbed a “king of chick lit” by one headline writer, Dickey said he got inside the heads of his female characters by reading women’s magazines, from Cosmo to Essence, and by using one of the oldest tools in the novelist’s kit: he listened. Then he picked up not only on what was said but what was left unsaid. And it worked. He was selling half a million books a year when his life and thriving career were cut short by cancer.
Neil Sheehan
His role in getting the Pentagon Papers published in The New York Times may be his major legacy, but to me Neil Sheehan’s greatest achievement was his sweeping, devastating nonfiction book about America’s first failed war. Sixteen years in the making, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Sheehan, who died on Jan. 7 at 84. It’s the story of a charismatic American soldier turned adviser to South Vietnamese troops who became disillusioned with the war effort in the early 1960s and began leaking damaging truths to Sheehan and other American correspondents, truths that ran counter to the sunshine the U.S. military was peddling. That relationship with Vann was the seed for the book, which consumed Sheehan’s life as his discoveries grew darker and twistier. It turned out that Vann, who awakened Sheehan to the government’s lie about the war, was living a lie of his own. The overall effect is devastating. “It was a grim business,” Sheehan said about writing the book, before adding: “I hope it endures as a piece of history to be read again and again. All I can say in my later days, I’m deeply satisfied.”
Ved Mehta
The Indian writer Ved Mehta lost his eyesight as a child but didn’t let that deter him from writing more than two dozen volumes that included reportage (much of it published in The New Yorker), as well as forays into philosophy, theology, and linguistics, all of it capped by his 12-volume, million-word history of modern India in the form of a prolonged autobiography collectively known as Continents of Exile. Mehta, who died on Jan. 9 at 86, suffered a bout of cerebrospinal meningitis shortly before his fourth birthday, which left him blind. Yet through memory and imagination, he was able to produce vividly visual prose, which he dictated to an assistant, who then read it back to him over and over until he had polished it to a high shine. The loss of eyesight sharpened his other senses, and Mehta claimed he could tell the make of a passing car by the sound of its engine. He traveled widely, without benefit of guide dog or cane, and he said that his work was driven by a singular impulse: “To write as if I could see.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ed McClanahan, and Larry McMurtry

The graying ranks of the Beat generation and its psychedelicized spawn got a little thinner this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, owner of San Francisco’s beloved City Lights bookstore, and author of the foundational Beat poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, died on Feb. 22 at 101. He was working right to the end of his long life. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, Ferlinghetti published a cuddly little mongrel of a book called Little Boy, a fictionalized memoir about a character he called “an imaginary me.” It was a lovely valedictory to a life well-lived.
See also: Ferlinghetti at 100: An Appreciation

Ed McClanahan, a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who went on to become a renowned novelist, journalist, and teacher, died on Nov. 27 at 89. McClanahan met Kesey in 1962 in a creative writing workshop at Stanford, then happily joined the LSD-fueled happenings that became fodder for Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. McClanahan, known as “Captain Kentucky” by his fellow Pranksters, brought the writer Robert Stone into a fold that included a writer from Texas named Larry McMurtry, who died on March 25 at 84. McMurtry, author of more than 30 novels and as many screenplays, as well as books of essays, memoir, and history, said his mission was to dismantle “the myth of the cowboy.” He did so, brilliantly, in his sprawling masterpiece, Lonesome Dove, which became a hit TV series, and in his screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, for which he shared an Academy Award. Many of McMurtry’s fictions transitioned successfully to the screen, including Horseman, Pass By (which became Hud, starring Paul Newman), The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. McMurtry, like Ferlinghetti, also owned a bookstore—Booked Up, a collection of rare books in his native Archer City, Texas, that grew to some 400,000 volumes housed in six buildings. McMurtry’s personal library numbered about 30,000 volumes. He called it “an achievement equal to if not better than my writings themselves.”
Anne Beatts
Without getting too grand about it, Anne Beatts, who died on April 7 at 74, was a pioneer. At a time when comedy writing was dominated by men, she didn’t merely break barriers—she smashed them and then hoisted fellow female writers through the breach. Beatts got her start writing for the male-dominated The National Lampoon in the early 1970s, then got hired by Lorne Michaels in 1975 as one of the original writers for a new show called Saturday Night Live. Working in collaboration with Rosie Shuster, her most memorable creation was the geeky, lovable Nerds—Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray).
Beatts almost turned down the SNL gig because she was busy collaborating on a book with a fellow comedy writer, Deanne Stillman. That book, Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, was published in 1976 and led Beatts to bring Stillman along as a writer on her next project, the TV comedy series Square Pegs, about a group of high school misfits starring the then-unknown Sara Jessica Parker as Patty, a character based on Beatts’s own experience as one of the uncool kids at her Westchester County high school. As Stillman recalled for the L.A. Review of Books in 2019: “When Anne created Square Pegs, it was her policy to hire as many female writers as she could wrangle network approval for, and thus that show became the first television comedy to have mostly women writers in staff positions.” Beatts was known for writing that produced laughs wrapped around razor blades. Here, for instance, is how she described her five years at SNL: “It was a combination of summer camp and concentration camp.”
Janet Malcolm
It’s a safe bet that a few hundred thousand journalists have memorized the indelible opening sentence of Janet Malcolm’s masterpiece: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” From there The Journalist and the Murderer expanded into much more than a recounting of the duplicity of bestselling author Joe McGinniss as he put together his true-crime book Fatal Vision, the story of Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald’s conviction for murdering his pregnant wife and their two children at Fort Bragg, N.C. Specifically, Malcolm charged that McGinniss continued to profess his belief in MacDonald’s innocence long after he had become convinced of his guilt. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract, claiming the book was the opposite of what McGinniss had promised to write. (McGinniss wound up settling the case for $325,000.) The Journalist and the Murderer then became nothing less than a dissection of the journalist’s craft, with all of its subterfuge, slippery truths, moral equivocation, and ultimate ruthlessness. The book’s opening continues with this portrayal of the journalist at work: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Malcolm, who died on June 16 at 86, became famous for this merciless view of journalism, and in return there were journalists who were happy to be merciless toward her. After The New Yorker published The Journalist and the Murderer in two installments, these disgruntled writers pointed out that no mention had been made of the prolonged libel suit that grew out of Malcolm’s 1983 profile of the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, who claimed Malcolm had stitched together dozens of interviews and turned them into a single lunchtime monologue. Malcolm claimed that inaccurate reporting about the lawsuit turned her into “the fallen woman of journalism.” The jury concluded that Malcolm’s quotes, while flawed, were not written with reckless disregard for the truth and therefore were not libelous. But Malcolm surely would have admitted that they were laced with malice. In her book Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Malcolm had this to say about her chosen craft: “Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse.”
Eloise Greenfield and Leon Litwack
Two writers who mined the African American experience to great effect—one for popular children’s books, the other for provocative works of history—died on Aug. 5. Eloise Greenfield, 92, grew up in a Washington, D.C., housing project, where she studied piano and buried herself in the public library. She started writing books during lulls in her drudge job as a clerk in the patent office but endured years of rejection from mainstream—that is, white—publishers. She finally broke through with the 1972 picture book for children, Bubbles, which was published by Drum and Spear Press, an independent house founded by former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Greenfield was on her way. She wound up producing more than 40 picture books, novels, poetry collections, and biographies. Through it all, Greenfield said she was guided by a simple but profound desire: “I wanted my books to enable Black children to realize how beautiful and smart they are.” But she didn’t write feel-good write fluff. Her stories drew on neighborhood drug dealers, sibling rivalries, the Great Migration, African American midwives, orphan girls, and imaginary trips to ancestral homes in Africa, and her biographies captured the lives of such luminaries as Rosa Parks and Paul Robeson. Greenfield explained her attraction to historical figures and events this way: “It is necessary for Black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future.”
Leon Litwack, 91, also immersed himself in African American history—specifically the Black experience of Reconstruction and its aftermath. At a time when that history was told from a largely white perspective, Litwack, the blue-collar son of Russian Jewish immigrants, took the radical step of plundering obscure archives and telling the story through the voices of the Black people who lived it. His career was launched, spectacularly, with North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, which made the discomfiting point that racial segregation was birthed not in the post-Civil War South but in the antebellum North. His most notable book was 1979’s Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Equally powerful was his last major book, 1998’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. In granular detail it delves into the survival strategies that enabled Black southerners to survive and sometimes thrive under the crushing day-to-day strictures of a separate-and-unequal world. Yet Litwack was pilloried for the very sin he spent his career trying to rectify. Writing in The Nation, the historian Nell Irvin Painter contended that Trouble in Mind portrayed “Black southerners as victims rather than Black southerners as people.” She added that the book was “stale.” In his 2005 book The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow, Mark Schultz seconded Painter’s contention that Litwack painted the South as a region where “African Americans had for centuries been victims and rarely agents…the descendants of a long line of pawns and impotent victims, which evokes not fellow feeling but pity and condescension.” Despite such barbs, Litwack, a lover of blues music, will be remembered as a ground-breaking historian and a hugely popular professor at the University of California-Berkeley. When he gave his last lecture there in 2007, thousands of current and former students packed the hall as he strode onto the stage wearing his trademark leather jacket, the sound system blasting the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.”
Melvin Van Peebles
To call Melvin Van Peebles a writer doesn’t begin to get it. Yes, he published novels (in French as well as English) and short fiction, he wrote and produced two Broadway musicals, and he wrote and performed spoken-word albums that presaged rap. But he also worked as a portrait painter in Mexico City, a navigator of a B-47 Air Force bomber, a Paris street performer, a San Francisco cable-car driver, an options trader in New York, a visual artist, a postal worker, and a much-in-demand gigolo. Somehow he found time to raise the money, write the script and the music, direct and play the lead role in the 1971 movie that gave birth to Blaxploitation: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The movie pimp-slapped me the first time I saw it—a Black hero working in a sex show at a brothel beats up two racist white cops and flees to Mexico…lots of blood and sex and funk music…all of it driven by gleeful fury toward the white power structure. There had never been anything close to it, and Van Peebles, who died Sept. 22 at 89, dedicated it “to all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man.” Though it opened in just two theaters, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta, the word-of-mouth became a brush fire and the movie wound up taking in a staggering $15 million. The Black Panthers considered it “required viewing.” The NAACP loathed it. Van Peebles called it a “take-no-prisoners political manifesto,” and he was not pleased with all of its offspring, which, as he saw it, watered down the political message but kept the skin and the flash and the funk. Sweetback paved the way for generations of Black actors and directors ranging from Gordon Parks to Rudy Ray Moore, Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Dominique Morisseau, and many others. After Melvin Van Peebles, the long-overdue deluge.
Robert Bly
A friend of mine interviewed Robert Bly for a documentary in the early 1990s, when his manifesto, Iron John: A Book About Men, was on top of the bestseller lists and the “men’s movement” it helped spawn was in full flower. My friend came away from that interview with a two-word verdict on Bly: “Unbelievable gasbag.” She was not the only one who felt that way. Many people mocked the men who flocked to Bly’s sylvan retreats to form drum circles and study mythology and recite poetry in an attempt to get back in touch with their innate manliness, which, according to Bly, had been watered down by the Industrial Revolution. He declared at the time: “The primary experience of the American man is to be inadequate.” In a 2000 interview with The Paris Review, Bly defended his weekend seminars: “Men we saw took a deep interest in poetry and mythology. I thought it was beautiful. The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous.” He added that the news media missed the importance of poetry in the gatherings. “The media doesn’t want to know that,” he said. “The media has tried to paint things differently. The most powerful opponents of men’s openness are the corporate men. Three or four years ago there were hundreds of posters in New York saying, ‘You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.’ At the bottom: ‘Dewar’s Whiskey.’”
Say what you will about Iron John and the men’s movement, there’s no denying that Bly’s 50 books of poetry, nonfiction, anthologies, and translations—from the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Spanish—are fruits of a towering intelligence. His social engagement, most notably his loud and vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War, brought stinging rebukes from purists who believed poetry and politics are a poisonous pair. Bly was a co-founder of American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and when he won a National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection of poetry, The Light Around the Body, he donated the $1,000 prize to the draft resistance movement. When asked if he would spend so much time and energy protesting another Vietnam War, he replied, to his eternal credit, with one word: “Certainly.”


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Keegan, Riordan, and Hall

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Claire Keegan, Maurice Riordan, and Donald Hall—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.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Small Things Like These: “Irish story writer Keegan’s gorgeously textured second novella (after Foster) centers on a family man who wants to do the right thing. It’s almost Christmas in a small town south of Dublin, Ireland, in 1985. Bighearted coal dealer Bill Furlong makes deliveries at all hours, buys dinner for his men, plays Santa Claus for the local children, and cares for his five daughters along with his wife, Eileen. Meanwhile, rumors circulate about the ‘training school’ at a nearby convent, suggesting it’s a front for free labor by young unwed mothers to support a laundry service, but no one wants to rock the boat. When Bill is there on a delivery, a teenage girl begs him to take her with him, and he politely makes excuses. He also notices broken glass topping the walls. Eileen tells him to ‘stay on the right side of people,’ but he feels he should do something—not just because he imagines his own daughters imprisoned there, but because he was born to a 16-year-old unwed mother who could have suffered a similar fate. Keegan beautifully conveys Bill’s interior life as he returns to the house where he was raised (‘Wasn’t it sweet to be where you were and let it remind you of the past… despite the upset’). It all leads to a bittersweet culmination, a sort of anti–Christmas Carol, but to Bill it’s simply sweet. Readers will be touched.”

Also on shelves this week: Shoulder Tap by Maurice Riordan and Old Poets by Donald Hall.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

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If America’s most beloved blockhead taught us anything, it’s the power of perseverance. Who but Charlie Brown would try (and fail) to kick a football a few hundred times and still dust himself off to try again?

If Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang taught fans additional lessons, many of them came by way of the iconic 1965 holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Though early viewings appeared disastrous to CBS executives and sponsors, in its own Christmas miracle, the show’s premiere pulled in 15 million viewers (second only to Bonanza that week) and secured an Emmy, a Peabody, and a place in the hearts of generations of viewers.

As gentle and big-spirited as it is, for modern audiences, it’s also a little boring.  Where are the death-defying action sequences?  The celebrity voice actors?  Or at least a cameo from Santa.  Instead, audiences must settle for the story of a sad boy who fails to direct a Christmas play; selects the lowliest, sprig-sized tree on the lot; and finds himself at odds with a culture that prefers a more commercialized take on the holiday.

Insert a couple of Vince Guaraldi songs and that’s about it.

Though the plot falls short, the philosophy doesn’t. Re-watching it today feels like a masterclass in self-help.  If Charles Schulz and Brené Brown had a love child, they’d name their sage Charlie Brown.

Read on for three Charlie Brown-inspired life lessons that extend well beyond the holiday season.

1. Good Grief, Your Feelings Are Your Own.

Moments after the opening ice-skating sequence, a visibly troubled Charlie Brown laments, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus.  Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”  He tries clarifying his feelings: “I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.”  Rather than serve as a shoulder to lean on, Linus removes his thumb from his mouth just long enough to reply, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”  Linus’s emotional invalidation only deepens Charlie Brown’s troubles.  What a blow, and even more painful since it came from a supposed friend.

Linus’s dismissiveness serves as a lesson for the rest of us.  We needn’t understand, or empathize with, someone else’s emotions.  Simply acknowledging them is enough.

2. You Are Not the Disaster You Think You Are.

No sooner does Charlie Brown reveal his sprig-sized Christmas tree as the play’s centerpiece than his actors begin to revolt.  One look at the lowly tree confirms what many of the children already assumed to be true: their play’s director, a perennial loser, is incapable of finding a win.  “Boy are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” grumbles Violet.  “You’re hopeless,” Patty adds.  “You’ve been dumb before…” Lucy says, “But this time, you really did it.”  As the actors storm off the stage, Charlie Brown is left alone with Linus and his humble tree.  “Everything I do turns into a disaster,” he moans.

Not everything.  Were it not for Charlie Brown’s “Everything-I-do-turns-into-a-disaster” outburst, Linus would never have shared his minute-long recitation from the Book of Luke.  And if Linus hadn’t, then Charlie Brown would never have been inspired to bring his “tidings of great joy” in the form of his humble tree.  And if he hadn’t, then Charlie Brown and the gang would’ve never bestowed upon the tree the necessary TLC to transform it from a sprig to a full-bodied fir.

As Charlie Brown demonstrates, the road is long and winding.  And though our decisions can sometimes seem momentarily disastrous, that doesn’t mean that we are.

3. Be a Blockhead.

Following the sprig-sized Christmas tree’s extreme makeover, the Peanuts gang makes peace with Charlie Brown.  “Charlie Brown is a blockhead,” Lucy says, “but he did get a nice tree.”  Except, of course, that he didn’t.  Charlie Brown got a terrible tree, though in doing so, he set into motion the ideal conditions to reveal his true message.  “I won’t let all the commercialism ruin my Christmas,” Charlie Brown previously proclaimed to no one.  “I’ll take this little tree home and decorate it and I’ll show them it really will work in our play.”  And that’s exactly what he did.  And that’s exactly how it played out.  It was not the way he planned, of course, but the outcome remained the same.  In placing principle over popularity, he opted for the real tree rather than the artificial version—despite the haranguing he knew would soon come.

Charlie Brown, we salute you.  And we thank you for your lesson:

Sometimes, the head knows exactly what it wants; other times, we’re better off following our big, old blockheaded hearts.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lydia Davis, Preti Taneja, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Lydia Davis, Preti Taneja, 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.
Essays Two by Lydia Davis
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Essays Two: “In this riveting and erudite collection (after Essays One), Davis documents the adventures and challenges of her work as a translator, moving with ease between the technical challenges posed by a complex text and her personal relationship with literature. Several pieces describe her process of translating Proust’s Swann’s Way into English: ‘The Child as Writer’ provides critical and biographical insight as Davis diagrams the syntax of Proust’s ‘sophisticated and polished’ sentences, while in ‘Proust in His Bedroom,’ she reads his correspondence and pays a visit to his apartment in Paris. Sections are dedicated to her experience learning Spanish, Dutch, and Norwegian, often through context and logic: In ‘Learning Bokmal’ (an older form of Norwegian), Davis explains how she is exhilarated by ‘the fact of doing it by myself.’ In ‘Translating ‘Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir’,’ Davis describes her desire to keep a book from her childhood from being forgotten, and her project of modernizing the book’s language, while ‘Buzzing, Humming, or Droning’ considers the many Madame Bovary translations. Thorough, idiosyncratic, and inimitable, Davis is the kind of intelligent and attentive reader a book is lucky to find. Readers, in turn, are lucky to have this collection, a worthy addition to the Davis canon.”
 
Aftermath by Preti Taneja
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Aftermath: “Novelist Taneja (We That Are Young) explores colonialism, violence, and grief in this stunning experimental collection. Taneja taught creative writing for three years at a prison in Britain, until one of her students, Usman Kahn, went on to kill two people after his release. She digs into her subsequent grief and places it within the context of capitalism, white supremacy, and terrorism. ‘There is a hierarchy to grief,’ she suggests in ‘Disenfranchised grief,’ while in an essay titled ‘An event happens and,’ she writes ‘In moments of deep loss we become as children, trained to seek comfort in the old fairy tales: the fundamental good versus the fundamental evil.’ In ‘Violence as trauma as form,’ meanwhile, she wishes for ‘a different map… other words.’ Taneja writes with clarity, depth, and specificity about the role of writing as a source of survival and power, while remaining blunt and clear-eyed about the moments when words fail. She also turns a critical lens toward the way language shapes violence, suggesting in the epilogue that “Power tells a story to sustain itself, it has no empathy for those it harms.” This poetic, urgent, and self-reflective work will delight fans of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Ted Goossen)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about People from My Neighborhood: “Kawakami’s magical and engaging collection (after Strange Weather in Tokyo) pulls the reader into a small Japanese community via stories told by unnamed narrators. In ‘The Secret,’ the narrator’s life changes upon meeting a child who never ages despite the two spending 30 years together. ‘Grandma’ follows a neighbor who plays cards with a child narrator and asks the child for money, until something causes their dynamic to change. ‘The Office’ features a gazebo where a man waits for ‘customers.’ The narrator brings a friend named Kanae to the gazebo, who is rude to the man, though they later discover the man has a surprising talent. In ‘Brains,’ Kanae encourages the narrator to tickle her older sister, a form of torture, because her sister’s nearly blue eyes make her look like a stranger, despite her Japanese features. In ‘The Hachirō Lottery,’ a group of families take turns caring for a neighborhood child who has 14 siblings. Everyone fortifies themselves against an alarming gravity-defying event in ‘Weightlessness,’ though Kanae convinces the narrator to sneak out of school to experience the phenomenon. Throughout, Kawakami effectively anchors the stories’ uncanny moments with everyday details. This thought-provoking, offbeat collection is worth a look.”
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Small Things Like These: ‘Irish story writer Keegan’s gorgeously textured second novella (after Foster) centers on a family man who wants to do the right thing. It’s almost Christmas in a small town south of Dublin, Ireland, in 1985. Bighearted coal dealer Bill Furlong makes deliveries at all hours, buys dinner for his men, plays Santa Claus for the local children, and cares for his five daughters along with his wife, Eileen. Meanwhile, rumors circulate about the ‘training school’ at a nearby convent, suggesting it’s a front for free labor by young unwed mothers to support a laundry service, but no one wants to rock the boat. When Bill is there on a delivery, a teenage girl begs him to take her with him, and he politely makes excuses. He also notices broken glass topping the walls. Eileen tells him to ‘stay on the right side of people,’ but he feels he should do something—not just because he imagines his own daughters imprisoned there, but because he was born to a 16-year-old unwed mother who could have suffered a similar fate. Keegan beautifully conveys Bill’s interior life as he returns to the house where he was raised (‘Wasn’t it sweet to be where you were and let it remind you of the past… despite the upset’). It all leads to a bittersweet culmination, a sort of anti–Christmas Carol, but to Bill it’s simply sweet. Readers will be touched.”
Also on shelves this week: Rifqa by Mohammed El-Kurd and In Transit by Nicholas Pierce.
 

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Patchett, Byatt, and Llosa

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Ann Patchett, A.S. Byatt, and Mario Vargas Llosa—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.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about These Precious Days: “In this eloquent collection, novelist Patchett (The Dutch House) meditates poignantly—and often with wry humor—on ‘what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take.’ In ‘How to Practice,’ Patchett writes of her ‘journey of digging out’ and the feeling of lightness she begins to notice as she gets rid of possessions. In the title essay, she shares the story of Sooki, Tom Hanks’s publicist, whom Patchett invited into her home and offered solace and comfort as Sooki underwent pancreatic cancer treatments: ‘What Sooki gave me was a sense of order, a sense of God, the God of Sister Nena, the God of my childhood, a belief that I had gone into my study one night and picked up the right book from the hundred books that were there because I was meant to.’ Other essays cover the lessons Patchett learned on her first Thanksgiving away from home, insights from a year in which she didn’t go shopping, and what she’s picked up from Snoopy. The elegance of Patchett’s prose is seductive and inviting: with Patchett as a guide, readers will really get to grips with the power of struggles, failures, and triumphs alike. The result is a moving collection not easily forgotten.”

Medusa’s Ankles by A.S. Byatt

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Medusa’s Ankles: “These stories by Booker winner Byatt (Possession), three of which are previously uncollected, offer a scintillating look at three decades of the author’s work. Her stories transcend genre and stylistic limits, traversing through landscapes fantastical and real, as they bewitch, unnerve, and comfort the reader. ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ blends the natural and supernatural worlds when a scholar falls in love with a djinn she released from a mysterious bottle from an Istanbul bazaar. ‘Dolls’ Eyes’ oscillates between the real and unreal too, as it follows a schoolteacher with a large collection of dolls, some of which are alive. In a similar vein, ‘The Lucid Dreamer’ presents a man for whom real life and dreams begin to mesh as he struggles to regain his ability to dream while processing the loss of his beloved. Grief resurfaces as a theme in ‘A Stone Woman,’ which blends fantasy and Scandinavian myth with the story of a woman who turns to stone after her mother’s death. ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’ is equally effective in the realist mode, detailing the power dynamics between a student and the vulturine headmistress at an all-girls’ boarding school. Each story showcases Byatt’s exquisite prose and her wide-ranging mastery of the short story form. For the uninitiated, this makes for a perfect entry point.”

Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Adrian Nathan West)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harsh Times: “Peruvian Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa (The Neighborhood) spins a complex and mostly propulsive tale of deception, centered on Guatemala’s political strife during the 1950s and ’60s. The Eisenhower administration latches onto a lie about communism taking root in the country via president Jacobo Árbenz, propagated by juggernaut banana importer United Fruit, which faces taxes for the first time under Árbenz’s regime. As part of its containment policy, and hoping to appease the company, the U.S. backs Lt. Col. Carlos Castillo Armas’s successful coup d’état. Once in power, the married Armas takes a lover, Marta Borrero Parra, who advises him and acts as conduit to his ear. Meanwhile, Dominican Johnny Abbes García is sent to Guatemala by his own country’s political leaders, who feel jilted by Armas, to orchestrate Armas’s assassination. Johnny takes a shine to Marta and befriends Armas’s director of security, Enrique Trinidad Oliva, with whom he plans the president’s murder. Vargas Llosa follows this trio up to and beyond Armas’s demise, as Johnny and Marta abscond to the Dominican Republic while Enrique is thrown in prison, and he employs a lovely Rashomon-style narration of Armas’s death through multiple perspectives. The fragmented storytelling leads to unnecessary murkiness at some points, but once the action kicks in, everything falls into place. Vargas Llosa writes with confidence and authority, and overall this hits the mark.”

Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: On Tom Roston’s ‘The Writer’s Crusade’

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1. A couple of months ago, when I was feeling stuck in a revision of the novel I’ve been working on for too long, I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five. My reasons for rereading were a writer’s reasons. I was having trouble balancing speculative and realistic elements in my novel and I wanted to see how Vonnegut did it. Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers in my teen years, someone I read and re-read, but at some point in my 20s, I stopped reading him. When I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, my memories of the book were vague. I knew Vonnegut would use the device of time travel to tell the story of his experiences in World War II; he was taken as a prisoner of war and survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany. I also knew, from Charles Shields’s biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, that it was a difficult novel for Vonnegut to write, one he approached from many different angles over two decades. And so, pencil in hand, I opened the book in an analytic spirit, hoping to learn a thing or two from a great writer.

If you’ve read the book recently, you may guess what happened: I pretty much dropped the pencil after a couple of pages. Everything about the book surprised me; it was almost as if I’d never encountered it before. I had completely forgotten that the first chapter is told from the point of view of Vonnegut, the writer, and reads like a memoir. It’s all about how hard it is to write an autobiographical novel, and the misgivings Vonnegut has about turning his war experiences into an entertaining narrative. He claims to have written and discarded thousands of pages, and it feels true; he comes off as genuinely anxious and tired in a way that it surprisingly raw. But the thing that really startled me was Vonnegut’s depiction of Billy Pilgrim’s time travels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five, I will quote from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing—and will eventually get to, I promise—Tom Roston’s The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Vonnegut writes the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five as if it’s nonfiction, but then the next nine chapters are about a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, who travels in time and is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and whose war experiences loosely parallel Vonnegut’s, all of which makes it metafiction, meaning it upends the conventional fictional narrative by blurring the line between the author and the story being told.

Pilgrim’s time travel, combined with the metafictional aspects, are what give Slaughterhouse-Five its extraordinary power. On a storytelling level, the time travel element allows Vonnegut the writer to escape the bonds of linear narrative. I believe he needed to do that for this particular book because he could not bring himself to write a story about a massacre of human life that followed the laws of cause and effect. Instead of building momentum around the question of Pilgrim’s survival, Vonnegut shapes the novel around Pilgrim’s traumatic memory of the bombing of Dresden, inching closer and closer to it until the final chapter, when we get the full picture of what happened to Pilgrim during the war, and why he was never the same afterward.

As a teenager, I took the time travel elements in Slaughterhouse-Five literally and enjoyed them as funny sci-fi elements. Reading it as an adult, Billy’s time traveling immediately struck me as tragic, a symptom of deep trauma. I felt I was in the company of a man so haunted by terrifying memories that he was unable to settle into the present. It’s possible that I’m still taking Vonnegut too literally, reading his characterization of Billy as early reporting on what we now call PTSD. But the parallels are quite eerie.

Here’s Vonnegut, describing Billy’s state of mind, in an opening chapter:

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

And here’s a passage from Bessel van der Kolk’s bestselling study of trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:
Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived.

And here’s Roston, again, describing how Vonnegut uses time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five:

By splintering reality, time, memory, and Pilgrim’s identity, Vonnegut aestheticized one of the primary effects of trauma, dissociation, in which there is a disconnection or lack of continuity between one’s thoughts.

One of the most remarkable things about Slaughterhouse-Five is its ending. The war is over, but there are anonymous, brutal deaths right up to the very end. Then, a bird tweets in Billy’s direction and the book ends. There’s no emotional catharsis for Billy, and no feeling of victory for the reader. This was as Vonnegut intended. In a preface to a special edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, (included in the Library of America’s collected Vonnegut, Novels & Stories, 1963-1973), Vonnegut rejects the idea that he gained any knowledge from his war experience. In witnessing the firebombing of Dresden he says he “learned only that people become so enraged in war that they will burn great cities to the ground and slay the inhabitants thereof.”

2.
When I finished Slaughterhouse-Five, I found myself wondering if Billy Pilgrim could be understood as having PTSD, and to what extent Vonnegut might have suffered from it. That’s how I happened upon journalist Tom Roston’s new book about Slaughterhouse-Five, one in a series of “books about books” published by Abrams Press. In The Writer’s Crusade, Roston argues that Slaughterhouse-Five was ahead of its time, and that “our views of its central themes—war, trauma, and the delicate act of telling war stories—have finally caught up with Vonnegut’s accomplishment, allowing us to see it, and the author, more clearly.” Roston structures his analysis of Vonnegut’s novel around the question of “whether or not Slaughterhouse-Five can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” Although Roston poses the question sincerely to people who knew Vonnegut, it’s also a useful rhetorical device, and one that leads him down different research paths as he delves into Vonnegut’s notes and early drafts and talks with Vonnegut scholars, trauma experts, psychologists, and veterans who have personal experience with PTSD.

In structuring his book, which is a mixture of literary criticism, biography, and a cultural history of PTSD, Roston borrows from Slaughterhouse-Five, with an opening chapter that reflects on the process of writing and researching The Writer’s Crusade, and his ambitions for it. Roston recounts a reporting lead that he chased for some time, hoping to uncover a secret side of Vonnegut. But it’s hard to break news on a writer whose novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, have been combed over by two generations of critics and hundreds of thousands of readers. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five through the lens of psychological trauma is also not a new angle. Roston notes that as early as 1974, the literary critic Arnold Edelstein describe Pilgrim’s time travel as a “neurotic fantasy” to help cope with the trauma of war.

No writer wants to be diagnosed through his work, and perhaps the best thing that Roston does in his book is to give context to the question of whether Slaughterhouse-Five is an autobiographical portrait of Vonnegut’s own war trauma. Roston writes in depth about the novel itself and how it came to be written, including the nitty-gritty of Vonnegut’s literary career before he became famous for Slaughterhouse-Five. (One of my favorite details from this section was just how lucrative the short story market used to be; Vonnegut supported his family on short stories, and even bought a house in Cape Cod.) Roston also provides a history of war trauma and how our understanding of it has evolved over the years. Although the negative psychological effects of war have been observed since ancient times, the symptoms of PTSD were not defined until the late 1970s, when it became apparent that many Vietnam veterans were having difficult adapting to civilian life. In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III, and has now become so well-known that that people refer to it in casual conversation to describe any number of symptoms in the wake of traumatic events. Roston calls it as “the signature mental disorder of our age” and tries to untangle its popular definition from its clinical one. He also brings in the expertise of veteran-writers, such as Tim O’Brien, as well as veterans with an affinity for Vonnegut’s work. He wants to hear how they interpret Slaughterhouse-Five, given their experiences with war and trauma.

It’s with the help of a veteran that Roston finally attempts to diagnose Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut, using a Veterans Affairs-issued PTSD screener. He brings many voices into the discussion, including Vonnegut’s children, literary critics, psychiatrists, and Vonnegut himself. Billy, being a fictional character, is elusive. Vonnegut, even more so. Those who knew him personally have varying opinions as to the extent of his war trauma and whether it falls under the diagnostic rubric of PTSD. Certainly, Vonnegut could be diagnosed with the loose, popular definition of the term. Speaking for himself, Vonnegut did not regard himself as someone with PTSD, and did not see Billy Pilgrim as an alter ego. In interviews later in life, Vonnegut revealed that Billy was loosely based on a private he knew in war, who died of malnutrition a few weeks before the war ended because—it seemed to Vonnegut—he had lost the will to live after witnessing so much senseless violence. Nor did Vonnegut conceive of the time travel element as a way of representing the symptoms of PTSD. Instead, he saw it as a comic device to lighten the heavy mood of the book. (So, my adolescent reading wasn’t totally stupid.) Roston doesn’t argue with Vonnegut’s analysis, but he does observe that at least some of Vonnegut’s reluctance to dwell on the past is generational. Vonnegut may have gotten in touch with war buddies and made his share of desperate late-night phone calls—as detailed in the opening chapter in of Slaughterhouse-Five—but he wasn’t visiting the VA for help. “To the best of my knowledge,” Roston writes, “Vonnegut never sat in a room with a VA-organized group of veterans to process his feelings.”

Vonnegut also avoided overly autobiographical interpretations of Slaughterhouse-Five because he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer traumatized by war, or as someone whose impulse to write was related to his war trauma—and anyone who looks at his life and work can see that this isn’t the case. But Slaughterhouse-Five is a special book. To say that it is Vonnegut’s most personal doesn’t seem quite right, in part because I don’t know Vonnegut personally. (If I had to guess, I’d pick Cat’s Cradle as the book closest to his heart.) After re-reading it, and reading Roston’s book, I think it’s actually the novel that has the least to do with Vonnegut. In the strange way of great works of art, it escapes the confines of Vonnegut’s autobiography as well as the PTSD diagnosis. Maybe it even eludes war and instead speaks to a feeling of bewildered pain that is universal to all human beings when confronted with violence. The flights to Tralfalmadore feel like a way to get some distance from the psychic mess we’re all in on this planet. Roston concludes as much in his final analysis: “As much as I’ve tried to pull out the threads on Slaughterhouse-Five to determine its relationship to war trauma, a book can never be just one thing.”