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

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

Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent

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

Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos

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

The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

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

Alice Knott by Blake Butler

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

Want by Lynn Steger Strong

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

After the Body by Cleopatra Mathis

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

Cool for America by Andrew Martin

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

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

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

Self Care by Leigh Stein

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

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

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

A More Perfect Reunion by Calvin Baker

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

Also on shelves: Destination Wedding by Diksha Basu.

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

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

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

Love by Roddy Doyle

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

Empty by Susan Burton

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

Barcelona Days by Daniel Riley

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

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

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

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

Please! Hold Off on That Novel Coronavirus Novel!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: health.mil.

Bonus Link:
On Pandemic and Literature

By Myself but Keeping Company with Lauren Bacall

1.
You could say that pandemic quarantine has compressed our lives from three dimensions into two: we hear voices but don’t see faces; we see faces, but without bodies; we see bodies, but in rectangular frames and on a flat screen, absent the feel or smell or vibrations of them. We scroll through videos, but of course even the most impromptu “reality” iPhone shoots are composed—timed and captured for specific purpose, to tell a particular story. For those of us already at odds with social media—its brevity and pacing, its bent for surface more than depth—human interaction during lockdown can feel like a lot of performance and exhibition: like driving through quarantine country, looking out the passenger window, and every so often murmuring, Isn’t that lovely. Isn’t that awful. Are we there yet?

On the other hand, if you are fortunate to have at-home stability, and a measure of solitude, there is also a lot of time—for peeling back surfaces and investigating depths, making new discoveries.

Who ever knows why or how we fall down certain rabbit holes. Often it starts with a basic need or instinct—in my case, escape into romanticism. Late at night, after full telework-and-family days, I started watching old movies, golden age stuff of the ‘30s and ‘40s—Hitchcock, Stevens, Mankiewicz; Curtiz, Hawks, Huston. It started with Bogie, whose appeal I used to scoff at (in favor of pretty faces like Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper) but now suddenly “got.” I’d seen some greatest hits—The Maltese Falcon, Sabrina, Casablanca—but watched for the first time The Petrified Forest, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, High Sierra. Once I got to To Have and Have Not, I had to pivot to Bogie & Bacall: four films together in five years, that undeniable, intriguing chemistry. (That one off year, 1945, was the year Bogie sorted out his messy, unhappy marriage to Mayo Methot, and Bogie & Bacall got hitched.) I rewatched The Big Sleep, then on to Key Largo and Dark Passage in one sitting.

Finally, it was all about Lauren Bacall.

I sunk in deeply, hours and hours with her lesser known filmography: she appeared in nearly 60 films (you’re welcome, Amazon Prime). Then I began digging into her life, the woman behind the glam and romance, behind that feline allure and femme-fatale voice. With a film, stage, and TV career that spanned nearly 70 active years; three memoirs (the first of which won the National Book Award); and a rich personal and family life, only 12 of which involved Bogie; there was much to discover. My lockdown has been at times lonely, but notably less so with Bacall’s company.

Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep

2.
Born Betty Perske in 1924 in the Bronx, you could paint Bacall’s life as charmed and destined from the get-go—no late bloomer when it came to ambition. But the thing about a rapid early rise: what goes up must come down. The road following early success is inevitably a rocky one, if for no other reason than—if you are blessed with good health and many years, as Bacall was—it’s a long one.

As a teen, Betty and a friend would skip school and go to the movies, where Betty fell hard for her first love, the other Bette (Davis). Those mesmerizing afternoons in movie houses made clear to her that she needed to be an actor. Bacall’s mother Natalie (née Natalie Weinstein Bacal) was both pragmatic—a Jewish immigrant from Romania and single mother by the time her daughter was six—and a vicarious dreamer. Thus she fully supported her only child’s ambitions. At 16, Betty enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she immersed herself in the craft of stage acting. “They stressed self-discovery—studying life, as that was what acting was all about,” Bacall wrote in By Myself and then Some. “How to use one’s body to project emotions…My days were full and near perfect that year.” There also she met Kirk Douglass, a few years ahead of her, who became a short-lived beau, then later a colleague and lifelong friend.

At 17, when money for acting school ran out, Betty starting working as a model for agencies in the garment district. She also started selling Actors’ Cue magazine outside Sardi’s, where she met (accosted) influential Broadway folk, including producer Max Gordon, who liked her pluck and kept an open-door policy for her, and actor Paul Lukas, who became a mentor. She then started working as a theater usher on Broadway—anything to be in/near the world of acting, and to have days free to pound the pavement for auditions. By the time she had her first walk-on Broadway role, she had taken her mother’s second name and added an extra “l.” Her first substantial role in the theater (thanks to Max Gordon, who brought her in for an audition) was in George S. Kaufman’s Franklin Street. The play opened in Wilmington to mixed reviews and never made it to Broadway. Betty was still just 17, disappointed but unfazed. “Funny how you get the feeling that once you have a part in a play the work will never stop,” she wrote. “Was that ever a wrong feeling, as I would spend the next 30 years discovering.”

The next year, she went with her mother and her Aunt Rosalie to see Casablanca. Her aunt loved Bogie, thought him sexy and charismatic, but Betty didn’t see it; he was no Leslie Howard, she thought.

At 18, Bacall met an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who in turn set up a meeting for her with Diana Vreeland. Vreeland asked her to come in for a shoot; she saw something in Betty, a glamor that Betty herself did not see. She appeared in Harper’s several times that year, and in 1943 made the cover. Inquiries came pouring in—David O. Selznick, Columbia Pictures, Howard Hughes—but the most appealing offer came from director Howard Hawks, whose tough-talking wife, Slim, had seen the Harper’s cover and encouraged Hawks to track her down. Bacall’s Uncle Jack, a lawyer for Look magazine, advised and encouraged her move to California for the screen test—six to eight weeks in L.A., with the potential for a personal contract with Hawks, who by then had made Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, and other well-known films. And so she went, across the country alone, at age 19—still starry-eyed, and very much a naïve kid.

From there it was a whirlwind, then a rocket-ship launch to both stardom and one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories: playing an assertive and sexy drifter in the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not—a character fashioned after Slim Hawkes and nicknamed Slim by Bogart’s character—Betty Bacall, stage-named Lauren now, dropped her chin, raised her eyes (all this in fact to control the nervous tremble of her head), and suggested to Bogart’s character that he put your lips together and blow. The rest, as they say, is history.

3.
Fast forward now, through the years familiar to most of us: love, marriage, two Bogart children; those three films together after To Have and Have Not; a fabulous Hollywood life, friendships with the likes of Sinatra and John Huston, Katie Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Dick Powell and June Allyson, novelist Louis Bromfield, the Gershwins; and lots of time sailing on Bogie’s beloved boat Santana. During that decade, Bogie made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen (for which he won the Oscar), The Caine Mutiny (nominated for the Oscar), and The Barefoot Contessa, among many other films.

Meanwhile Bacall garnered a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult (i.e., she spoke her mind, then was deemed a bitch for it, even suspended from contracts), as she turned down what she felt were bad scripts or bad fits. She’d become gun shy after her first film following To Have and Have Not, Confidential Agent, bombed—sending her Hollywood stock plummeting in an instant. Still she managed to make Young Man with a Horn (with old friend Kirk Douglass), How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, and Designing Woman—dramas and comedies alike. Millionaire and Designing Woman were especially well received, though I myself recommend the less-lauded Young Man with a Horn—in which Bacall plays a lesbian, scripted evasively (the only option in Hollywood in 1950) as a woman who is “sick” in her romantic relationships, “a strange girl” and “complicated.”

Bacall devoted herself during this time to the roles of wife and mother. By her own account, her marriage to Bogie did and did not affect her career: he made her promise to put family before work, which she did willingly. Apart from this commitment to priorities, he neither intervened (she was already contending with being “Mrs. Bogart”) nor interfered with her professional choices. The work-family balance and traditional gender roles fulfilled them both: Bacall was, after all, just 20—still a virgin in fact—when she married Bogie; he was 46, experienced in life, love, and the actor’s vocation: “[F]or twelve and a half years he was, among many other things, my teacher,” she wrote. “He taught me his philosophy of life. He taught me the rules of the Hollywood game…He taught me about standards and the price one must pay to keep those standards high. He taught me about the value of work and the importance of truth and character.”

They had, for the most part, a beautiful life together. They were surrounded by talented, interesting people. “What a good time of life that was,” Bacall wrote, about both work and friendships. “The best people at their best.” In the early 1950s, Bacall also explored a different side of herself by becoming involved in politics—as a member of the anti-HUAC Committee for the First Amendment, and also as an ardent supporter and friend of Adlai Stevenson.

A good time of life. And yet: what goes up must come down. In 1956, it all came to a screeching halt. Bogie was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 1957, at age 58. Bacall, age 33, was alone, bereft, mother of two. Her career was middling, stalled to some degree. The fifth Bogie & Bacall film, Melville Goodwin, USA, was never to be.

Bacall and Bogart in To Have and Have Not

4.
This is where Bacall becomes most interesting to me. I love the love story, don’t get me wrong—I came looking for escapist romance after all. But, what did Lauren Bacall do when everything came tumbling down? When the sepia dream came to an end, and she awoke to a harsh new reality?

Well, she made mistakes. Two relationships we know of, the first with Frank Sinatra—a dodged bullet, as she tells it. He was an old friend whom she leaned on for solace and then nearly married (he backed out, in response to unleashed press attention, for which he unjustly blamed her). The second, with then-stage actor Jason Robards, sent up all the red flags—alcoholism, all-night carousing, plus he was married—but she was determined to “save” him from the unhappiness she decided was the source of his drinking. “Having lived through a few relationships, I do know now that I’ve endowed the men in my life with the qualities I wished them to have, rejecting whatever qualities they actually possessed that interfered with my romantic notions…once I found Jason and made up my mind that this was what I had to have, I would not give up. Utter tenacity.” They married in 1961, and quickly had a son, Sam (now an actor). Robards did not change. The relationship remained rocky, though they stayed married eight years.

Professionally, though, Bacall finally began tending to and following her gut ambitions. She’d wandered Europe while recovering from Bogie’s death, and took a good role in J. Lee Thompson’s Flame Over India, which brought her to London and Rajasthan. When that was done, she had decisions to make about the next phase of her life and reconnected with her love for the stage. She got an offer to do George Axelrod’s comedy Goodbye, Charlie on Broadway (basically a bomb, but she herself was well reviewed), and with that moved back to New York, where she lived—solo, after her divorce from Robards—for the rest of her life.

Bacall did two movies during that time—a comedic role in Sex and the Single Girl, opposite Henry Fonda, and a dramatic one in Harper, with Paul Newman. But with the move back to New York, the theater became her new, old flame. Her life was beginning anew, though not exactly with the freshness of her youth: on the heels of separation from Robards, followed by her beloved mother’s serious decline in health, came the opportunity to play Margo Channing—Bette Davis’s star role in All About Eve—in the Broadway musical version of the film, Applause. Bacall was 45 years old.

“I’d always been musical. One of my great frustrations had been my inability to sing…could I do it?” She decided she had to find out. “What the hell. With everything else in my life shaken up, might as well go all the way.” Voice lessons, personal training, dance training—she took it all on, building physical stamina, and terrified; but also with less to lose than she’d ever had. And yet, soon came more loss: her divorce was finalized, her beloved mother died, and her son got married. She was alone now, middle aged, and running out of money.

But what then did she do? How did she respond to loss and instability? She threw herself into work, into becoming a star, like she never had: “It would be the first time distractions would be at a minimum…From the time I fell in love with Bogie I had never been able to forget my personal life and zero in on my career. Now I would do it with a vengeance.” And she did. In March 1970, Applause opened on Broadway, to unanimously rave reviews. She won the Tony that year for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

The magic of the theater is the live performance that cannot be reproduced. But I was able to catch grainy bits of recordings of Applause on YouTube, from 1972, when Bacall was 47—my age now. She bursts with life, and also with the gravitas of life experience. Her opening song takes place in a gay bar, where she’s playing hooky from the opening night party after her character’s own stage triumph. Bacall shimmies, kicks, and gyrates, exuberantly but also humorously—she is “too old” for this, and that’s the joy of it.
I feel groggy and weary and tragic
Punchy and bleary and fresh out of magic
But alive, but alive, but alive!

I feel twitchy and bitchy and manic
Calm and collected and choking with panic
But alive, but alive, but alive!

I’m a thousand different people
Every single one is real
I’ve a million different feelings
OK, but at least I feel!
Clearly—as both character and actor (and woman)—she is having the time of her life.

Bacall and Bogart in Dark Passage

5.
In her 50s, Bacall appeared in a few movies—Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express; The Shootist, John Wayne’s last film; and Robert Altman’s political satire HealtH, in which she plays an absurdly youthful 83-year-old narcoleptic virgin (hilarious and worth seeing). At 54 she published By Myself, which won the National Book Award.

In 1981, at age 57, Bacall returned to Broadway, to star in the musical version of Woman of the Year. Her friend Katherine Hepburn had originated the role of reporter Tess Harding in 1942, at age 35, while Bacall’s Tess was an older, successful broadcast journalist fashioned after Barbara Walters. A decade after Applause, Bacall shone just as brightly. “This star’s elegance is no charade,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times, “no mere matter of beautiful looks and gorgeous gowns…As hard and well as Miss Bacall works in ‘Woman of the Year,’ she never lets us see any sweat. That’s why this actress is a natural musical-comedy star.” Watching (again, on YouTube) Bacall’s performance at that year’s Tony’s—she won again for Best Actress in a Musical—is indeed to see an actress at ease. She seems to me more comfortable in her body, more relaxed than we’ve ever seen her, on screen or on stage. No more trembling; she holds her head, and her heart, up high.

6.
If you’re still reading, you won’t be daunted by yet another chapter in Bacall’s life. She just. Kept. Working. In her 60s she performed in a Harold Pinter play, Sweet Bird of Youth, and in a British mini-series, A Foreign Field, with Alec Guinness. In her 70s, she reunited with Robert Altman for Prêt-à-Porter (playing another “Slim”), was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Barbara Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, made one more film with Kirk Douglass (Diamonds), and worked with Lars Von Trier in Dogville as well as its sequel, Manderlay. She also made a bad French film called Day and Night with Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau, directed by Bernard Henri-Levi, and performed on stage at the Chichester Festival in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, which was not a particularly positive experience. At age 83, she played a political wife in Paul Schrader’s critically praised The Walker, which featured a formidable ensemble cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, and Willem Defoe. In these later years, Bacall said yes to working with talented people and always counted these rich and valuable experiences, whether they were hits or flops or somewhere in between.

Herein lies Bacall’s “secret” to a full and meaningful life; to aging well—something I think about often, as a woman in my own “third act.” She was always in it for the love, the experience, the richness; the aliveness of the here and now, the people who animate the work. The dedication for her second book, Now, reads: “To friendship, the relationship I value above all others” (by this time she’d been living alone for more than 30 years). She wanted to do the work she loved, to learn from wonderful and talented people, more than she wanted fame or the glamorous life.

It can’t be denied that Betty Perske was extraordinarily lucky. But what is luck, other than a discipline of openness, willingness, alertness to one’s desires, gifts, and limitations. Things can, and do, fall into all of our laps; but we aren’t always paying attention or ready for these miracles. Neither young Betty Perske nor the mature Lauren Bacall took anything for granted—money, her looks, friendships, jobs, support from influential people. When opportunities came her way, she stepped forward, sometimes off a ledge. She worked hard, pushed herself. In her later years, with so much life and success behind her, she still approached her work with humility—deferring to younger actresses like Barbara Streisand and Nicole Kidman, throwing herself into comedic roles where she could easily have made a fool of herself, submitting herself to the risky artistry of directors like Lars von Trier (twice), playing minor roles in all-star ensemble casts.

Bacall and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire

7.
Was Lauren Bacall a little polyannish? Did she acknowledge only the good stuff and either conceal or deny the messier realities? Some believe that Bogie carried on an affair with his hairdresser, Verita Bouvaire-Thompson, throughout their marriage; some claim Bacall had started her romantic relationship with Frank Sinatra while Bogie was still alive. And what about her old friend Kirk Douglass’s womanizing and alleged rape of Natalie Wood? Did Bacall not care about other people’s bad behavior? Did she keep her nose clean by turning the other way?

I have no idea. Maybe. It makes a difference, but not a big one. People—even celebrities—are entitled to their private failures and inner conflicts. It seems to me undeniable that she and Bogie had a great love. If extramarital relationships were part of that, so be it. People are complicated. Our lovers, friends, family. Bacall ultimately lived many lives and surely was no exception to these human complexities.  She seemed only and always to speak positively in public about people she loved and worked closely with, even those we know behaved badly. Maybe she should have denounced the rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia she surely experienced or witnessed in Hollywood. But she chose to keep things close, the most private things private. In her time and place, she would have understood this as both classy and shrewd.

During this strange, upending time, I’ve enjoyed getting to know this elegant, tough, passionate, and vulnerable woman; it’s helped me get to know myself. In the end—or the middle-end, at 60, 70, 80—I hope am able to claim what Bacall wrote in the final words of By Myself:
I have learned that I am a valuable person. I’ve made mistakes, so many mistakes. And will make more, big ones. But I pay. They’re my own…I remain as vulnerable, romantic, and idealistic as I was at 15…I’m not ashamed of what I am, of how I’ve passed through this life. What I am has given me strength to do it…I have a contribution to make. I am not just taking up space in this life. I can add something to the lives I touch. I don’t like everything I know about myself, and I’ll never be satisfied, but nobody’s perfect. I have no idea where the next years will take me, what they will hold, but I’m open to suggestions.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, Needpix.

On Verisimilitude

My father-in-law died unexpectedly on the last day of the decade. He was a quiet, gentle man who had affected my husband’s and my lives more and more the older we became. We were devastated, and I felt guilty.

In 2008, after a trip to Kenya with my parents-in-law, I had begun a novel loosely based on the migration story of their family, in which each of the last three generations grew up on a different continent. My husband’s grandparents were from Gujarat, India, and immigrated to Nairobi—another corner of the British Empire—as teenagers. My Nairobi-born parents-in-law moved to the United States as a newly married couple. My husband was born in Wichita and grew up in Minneapolis. In my own Jewish-European family, I have to go back five generations to find someone born outside of the U.S., so I was fascinated by the dramatic movements and decisions of the family I’d married into.

In fiction, you build characters around a few important traits and pieces of biographical data. Personalities are expressed and tensions ratcheted through events large and small, lined up like mile markers on the highway. I knew I could not love my characters too much. If I were too easy on them, if I spared them from hard decisions and tragedies, the novel would be dull and lifeless. And so, after I made up a husband and wife from the Indian enclave of Nairobi who immigrate to the United States to further the husband’s career as an infectious disease doctor, I inserted a tragic accident that spurs a move from the U.S. back to Nairobi. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my in-laws announced in 2013, a couple of years after I finished the first draft of my book, that they would do the same. Kenya was warm, affordable, and near a network of relatives who would help take care of them as they aged, my mother-in-law told us. I understood this explanation because my characters had made a similar calculation.

It’s a long story, but my in-laws’ life in Nairobi didn’t last long. They landed, eventually, in Florida. My husband and I were relieved. Tampa is a direct flight, and, more than anything, I was grateful that the fatal scene I had imagined on the streets of Nairobi for the father character in my novel had not played itself out in real life. My in-laws move to Kenya had spooked me, made me feel my novel prophesized their lives.

As publication day drew near, and the advanced reader copies arrived, I panicked. What if, despite years of observation, research, and triple-checking my facts, I had gotten some aspect of Indian life wrong? What if my in-laws were offended and enraged? In the early years of writing, I had shared with them interesting facts I’d found in my reading and asked questions about their experiences. Occasionally they’d assisted my research: my mother-in-law recommended a book she’d read about the horrific mass imprisonment of Kenyans under British rule during the Mau Mau Revolution; another time, my in-laws introduced me to a Ugandan Indian friend who had narrowly escaped Idi Amin in the trunk of a car. Snippets from both these sources made it into my novel. But my in-laws had never read a draft, and I had never told them the plot.

When the early reviews rolled in, including those by Indian and Indian-American writers, and they were positive, heralding the research and true-to-life dialogue, I began to sleep better at night. And now that my in-laws had moved back to America from Nairobi, they wouldn’t think I had simply written down their life story as it occurred. Gradually, I realized that the release of my book had hardly registered. Despite my husband writing his mother to share publication news and to suggest that they send me a congratulatory email, they never once mentioned my book.

The father character in my novel, Premchand, is a reserved man who values his freedom and always wanted to live and practice medicine in America. This independent loner who loves his son intensely, who draws from his well of kindness when he speaks, who fights hard to maintain an optimistic view of life, is in many ways a portrait of my physician father-in-law, Popatlal Hirji Shah. In the novel, Premchand develops a special relationship with his new daughter-in-law, a Jewish-American woman who works in public health; they bond over corny doctor jokes and their love for Premchand’s son. When the book was published, I heard from readers how much they relished this unusual relationship. In one scene, Premchand tells his daughter-in-law that the song lyric from the Bollywood movie Taj Mahal, roughly translated as “the substance of you is missing from your picture,” could apply to her own emotionally reserved presence. Instead of protesting, she argues that the words are also an apt description of him. I didn’t realize until the book came out that the intimacy these characters share is an idealization of life. I never had that closeness with my father-in-law, but I sometimes thought it might be possible.

For most of his life, my father-in-law suffered severely from clinical depression, undiagnosed and untreated until he was in his 50s. He was psychologically well for much of the time I knew him, and this, plus his son’s security from a good job and stable relationship, had allowed for a new sense of understanding and respect to flow between father and son. But it occurred only in flickers, as if hesitant to heat up to a full burn. Largely unconsciously, I redirected and amplified this development in my novel, in Premchand’s emotional journey from being a supportive but mostly absentee father during his son’s childhood to developing a renewed interest in his grown child’s life. And then, because a novel needs drama, I abruptly ended this incipient closeness. The rightness of this decision, from a plot point of view, was confirmed by the devastated reactions of readers. One writer friend told me, “I loved the character Premchand and the interactions he had with Amy. I wanted so much more of that, but YOU KILLED HIM!” I did. As my friend reluctantly agreed, the story demanded it. But it did not feel good, on a personal level, to have killed an avatar of my father-in-law.

And it would come to feel worse.

On Christmas Eve, we Skyped with my in-laws. It was a tense and worrisome conversation. My father-in-law had fallen in the middle of the night a week before, and after seeing the x-ray he believed he had fractured his ilium, the curved broad bone forming the upper part of the pelvis. But he had not received the report from the doctor to confirm what he had seen. The connection was bad, and we had to turn off the video. We had grown used to seeing their faces when we talked, and there was something bare and wrong with looking at a black screen. Additionally, we could only hear their voices when one of them was positioned directly in front of the screen. We made sure the person we could hear the best was my father-in-law, the physician turned patient. We asked if he thought surgery would be recommended; “No no,” he said, “just rest.” “But what about physical therapy?,” I asked. “How will you be able to keep moving, and prevent muscle atrophy, if you can’t walk?” I was also worried about blood clots, but I didn’t say so. My father-in-law, in his ever-patient, gentle way, reassured me he would be plenty active and I should not worry about atrophy. “Do you need handrails in the bathroom?” “No no,” he said, “There is no issue there.” In my mind, I began to hire a physical therapist to work with him at home, as soon as he got the doctor’s report.

Then at the end of the conversation, he said something about my mother that came out of left field: “Your mother must be very proud.” I was confused, we had not been talking about my mother. But yes, my mother was a good person (and it was from her I had learned to ask the probing medical questions), and I imagined she did take pride in doing things for other people, so I simply agreed and said, “Yes, I think she is.”

That was the last time we spoke. He died on New Year’s Eve from pulmonary thrombosis, a blood clot in the lungs.

Bereft in his absence, my husband and I try to talk about his father often, to keep his memory alive. Together we wrote an obituary that ran in his old newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and shared it as widely as we could. The loss of a parent is no easier for being universal; it makes one face the abyss.

My husband’s father is also a conversation topic via his influence on my novel. In the months since his death, friends have noted both the eeriness of Premchand’s fate and the warmth with which the character was written. My husband tells me he feels reassured by the way the book preserves the memory of his dad. I never intended my novel to carry this weight, but I am glad for it now. I spent many years imagining what someone like my father-in-law would think in a given situation, what he would say if he were asked about why he became a doctor. How he would address conflict in his own family; how he would face death. In fiction, I could have the answers that were in life an enigma. In many cases, my speculations veered close to home.

It has in fact become hard to separate in my mind the things I imagined from the things that transpired. Did my father-in-law really tell me that childhood story about the rough characters who threatened the poor settlement where he grew up with six siblings, or did I make it up based on some slivery detail? And had he seen himself in my novel? A month before he died, he’d surprised us by saying suddenly during one of our video chats that he was reading my book. He had checked it out from the library. So far, he said, it was very interesting.

What did he think of Premchand, who so clearly loves his son but struggles to express it? What went through his mind during the character’s final helpless fall onto the street in the city of his birth? He couldn’t have thought I, the author of the act, wished him dead, could he? This is perhaps what haunts me the most.

There is solace in the fact that some of the last words my father-in-law spoke to us were to me. My husband had to point it out: that when my father-in-law said that my mother should be proud, he meant she should be proud of me. Because I was asking questions about his care. Because I cared about him. Though he brushed my concern aside, I have to believe he knew it was sincere.

As for what he thought of my novel, or even if he finished reading it, I will never know. He never mentioned it again, and I didn’t want to press him.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Spencer, Phillips, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of  Scott Spencer, Lucie Britsch, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, and more—that are publishing this week.

An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about An Ocean Without a Shore: “Spencer returns to the characters from River Under the Road in this unsatisfying sequel about unrequited love and betrayal. Kip Woods, a supporting character in River, provides a first-person confession as he awaits sentencing for a criminal conviction. His criminal actions, which are revealed at the end, are motivated by his long-secret love for the now broke but once famous screenwriter Thaddeus Kaufman. Whenever Thaddeus needs Kip to do something for him—buy his land to avoid foreclosure, care for his daughter Emma, or provide Thaddeus with insider stock tips—Kip is eager to help. Spencer makes Kip’s codependent devotion to Thaddeus as palpable as Kip’s struggles with his romantic feelings (‘If love is a sinking ship, you do want to go down with it’). The men’s bromantic chats are engaging highlights, especially when Thaddeus toys with Kip by suggesting they hike the Appalachain Trail together (‘Just to be two creatures in the great outdoors. I think that would be amazing’), and they show how Kip endures Thaddeus despite his increasingly odious behavior. While the narrative gets disjointed when Spencer shifts away from Kip, such as a depiction of Thaddeus in crisis when his father dies, the climax between the two friends is heartbreaking and explosive. Still, Spencer boxes Kip into a corner that feels disappointingly contrived.”

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sad Janet: “In Britsch’s darkly comic debut, a deadpan, abrasive narrator muses on her depression. ‘There’s no word in the English language that properly describes this feeling I have, the one that makes other people uncomfortable,’ Janet thinks. After getting a degree in postmodern feminist science fiction, Janet takes a job at a dog shelter out in the woods with an equally depressed boss and a slightly sunnier co-worker. Everyone she knows, including her parents and boyfriend, is on one antidepressant or another, and they’re all attempting to get Janet, who clings to what she calls her ‘manageable melancholia,’ to do the same. What plot there is revolves around whether Janet will take a newly invented pill designed to increase one’s appreciation of Christmas—181 days away at the start of the novel, yet heavy on Janet’s mind—and if she does, if it will work. Meanwhile, she spends her time napping, drinking, and curling up on dog beds pretending to be a dog. Preternaturally self-aware, Janet has a gift for homing in on her own emotional state and everyone else’s, which Britsch renders in rueful, knowing prose that may land or miss, depending on if the reader can relate to pronouncements such as ‘the cool kids call it melancholia, because of that Lars von Trier movie.’ Still, Britsch’s monologue about the experience of unhappiness is undeniably infectious.”

Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sleepovers: “In Phillips’s blunt, life-affirming debut collection, characters in rural, hardscrabble North Carolina grapple for hope while being sustained by a soundtrack of Today’s Country Hits on FM radio and a diet of Duck Thru hot dogs. In ‘Shania,’ the unnamed seven-year-old protagonist is awed by her friend, named after the country music star, and the girls are united in their desire to become blood sisters. Their friendship is cut short after domestic violence erupts in Shania’s decrepit house. ‘The Locket’ is about the unlikely bond between Shirley, a 60-year-old pool custodian with a simple mind who often relfects on her painful childhood, and Krystal, a teenage babysitter with an impressive dive. Before meeting Krystal, Shirley’s sole companion is the spirit of her long-dead horse, Norma. After Krystal coaxes Shirley into lending her a prized locket, the consequences are devastating. The title story shifts between describing fourth-grade Nicki and her friends’ sleepovers and the tribulations of Nicki’s father. After he loses his leg in an accident, the community raises money for an artificial leg, but it doesn’t quite fit. Phillips demonstrates an impressive ease at depicting transition, trauma, and loss, brilliantly evoking a close-knit world held together by the strength of friendship. This collection stands out in the field of current Southern fiction.”

The Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Taste of Sugar: “Vera (If I Bring You Roses) follows the shifting fortunes of a Puerto Rican family after U.S. occupation in this intense, emotional saga. In 1889, 17-year-old Valentina Sanchez, head full of fantasies of Paris trips and grand romance, marries handsome coffee farmer Vicente Vega despite her family’s objections. She returns with him to his unwelcoming family in Utuado, where the vagaries of the coffee harvest delay their move from the isolated mountains. After three years, they move into a crudely built home, where happy times are overshadowed by the accidental death of their young daughter. When Vicente loses his farm in 1900 due to economic hardships following American occupation, the family leaves for Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. A series of tragedies and indignities ensues—the couple’s son drowns at sea on the way to the islands, and they’re greeted in Hawaii by squalid living conditions—before Vera ends the book on a slightly hopeful, if unresolved note, as the family bonds with other Puerto Rican families in Hawaii. Vera pieces together the epic tale with acute moments of crushing pain and disillusion overcome by the strong characters’ implacable resilience. The novel’s deeply felt mixture of the characters’ sorrow and joy offers a vibrant glimpse of the history of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii.”

Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery by Rosalie Knecht

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery: “Knecht’s excellent sequel to Who Is Vera Kelly? picks up with ex-CIA agent Vera in 1967 New York City, as she tries to solve a mystery in an era when only men are expected to do the job. Vera’s poetry professor girlfriend, Jane, announces she’s had enough of not feeling wanted, and leaves. Then Vera loses her editing job at a TV station after her boss finds out she’d been dating a woman. She decides to fall back on her old skills and becomes a private detective. When the Ibarra family asks Vera to find their nephew’s child, Félix, who was sent to New York from the Dominican Republic amid political unrest, Vera takes on the case. Meanwhile, Vera balances the emotional consequences of her breakup with a new love interest: the bartender at her favorite, oft-raided, bar. When Vera realizes the Ibarras aren’t who they say they are, her mission becomes a different one: find Félix and his real parents, reunite them, and throw the fake Ibarras off the scent. This leads her to the Dominican Republic, where the police mistake her for a spy. Knecht brilliantly captures Vera’s emotions, and shines with keen observations of the varied settings. This winning literary page-turner gives a strong sense of a smart, queer, and complex person navigating an unfriendly world.”

Animal Spirit by Francesca Marciano

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Animal Spirit: “Marciano’s sharp-eyed and effortlessly graceful collection (after Rules of the Wild), set largely in the author’s native Italy, explores the ways people’s animalistic instincts drive relationships. In ‘Terrible Things Could Happen to Us,’ wealthy family man Sandro falls in love with his yoga teacher, and Marciano’s lack of sentimentality keeps things taut until a devastating denouement, which leaves Sandro speechless, ‘like an actor who has forgotten his lines.’ In ‘The Girl,’ a middle-aged Hungarian tries to convince a young Italian woman to join the circus and help in his snake-charming act. The title story follows two couples sharing an island vacation house as their varying degrees of uncertainty about their futures coalesce around a midnight encounter with a sheep—or is it a poodle?—that may or may not need to be rescued. In ‘There Might Be Blood,’ Diana decamps to Rome to write her long-deferred novel. Rather than writing, she obsesses over seagulls, which plague the city and prevent her from enjoying her terrace near Piazza Navona. Diana decides to enlist Ivo, a falconer, whose birds, Queen and Darko, can hunt the gulls. In this story, and throughout the collection, Marciano skillfully uses her characters’ relationships with animals as metaphors to explore their humanity. Polished and compulsively readable, this is a real treat.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lansky, Oates, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Sam Lansky, Joyce Carol Oates, and more—that are publishing this week.

Broken People by Sam Lansky

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Broken People: “Lansky follows his addiction memoir The Gilded Razor with a riveting novel about an L.A. writer named Sam who recently published a memoir about his drug and alcohol addiction. Sam, 28, and a friend plan to visit a shaman in Portland, Ore., on the strength of a testimonial that the shaman ‘fixes everything wrong with you in three days.’ With humor, verve, and cut-to-the-bone revelations, Lansky takes readers on an enthralling adventure as Sam reckons with his anxiety and discomfort with his body. Over three days in Portland, thanks to the shaman’s perspicacious insight, drumbeating, chanting, and careful administration of ayahuasca, Sam enters a mode of deep self-reflection. Lansky’s mesmerizing descriptions are unflinchingly raw as Sam examines his life choices, his self-obsession, and his mistreatment of men in his life, particularly Charles, his first real love. Lansky also offers a canny snapshot of modern gay life, with the specter of HIV hovering over intimate relationships. While Sam’s whining about his body occasionally grates, the author keeps the reader on his side with an endless supply of wit. Lansky’s tale of self-acceptance offers surprising depth.”

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pizza Girl: “In Frazier’s playful and unflinching debut, a pregnant 18-year-old pizza delivery driver dreams of a new life. The unnamed narrator, overwhelmed by anxiety about her pregnancy and her family, wants out of the house she grew up in, where she lives with her mother and her boyfriend, Billy, in suburban L.A. Enter Jenny Hauser, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother who orders a large with pepperoni and pickles for her fussy son. From the moment Jenny opens her door, the narrator nurses a dream of escaping with her (‘I wanted to take her hand and invite her to come with me whenever I ran away’). The narrator comes to befriend Jenny and learns she is unhappy in her marriage; thinking of how her dead father abused her mother, she assumes Jenny is abused as well. At home, the narrator turns cold toward Billy and her mother, and embraces her isolation the way her deceased abusive father once did, by turning to alcohol. Her frequent intoxication colors her view of her relationship with Jenny, whom she manages to kiss once and makes a valiant but dangerous and unnecessary effort to rescue. Frazier’s characters are raw and her dialogue startlingly observant (‘The environment can suck a dick—I’m driving my F-150 to work again,’ one regular tells her). This infectious evocation of a young woman’s slackerdom will appeal to fans of Halle Butler and Ottessa Moshfegh, and will make it difficult not to root for the troubled and spirited pizza girl.”

Outside the Lines by Ameera Patel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Outside the Lines: “Set in contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa, playwright and actor Patel’s exceptional debut is told by five narrators of different races and religions, whose paths cross in unexpected ways. Cathleen Joseph, the sly, drug-addled teenage daughter of a once well-to-do family, enters the terrifying world of addiction; meanwhile, her ineffectual father, Frank, sinks deeper into depression. Flora, the Josephs’ maid, is attracted to handsome, silent housepainter Runyararo, and begins to reexamine the part she has played in the lives of her employers. Runyararo, who recently arrived from Zimbabwe and whose goal is to send money back home to his family, is on the lowest societal rung and an easy target for exploitation. Farhana, who’s the girlfriend of Flora’s son, Zee, and has ‘dimples deep enough to hide secrets,’ must find a way to reconcile her Muslim beliefs with a future made uncertain by her being pregnant with Zee’s child. One lie alters the lives of all of them, leading to a brutal, impulsive act of rage. Patel displays an exceptional ability to plumb the depths of her characters, each of whose points of view throws light on the realities of the other narrators. Rays of hope and gentle overtures to love lift this vibrant novel.”

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.: “Oates’s quintessential examination of grief (after Pursuit) draws on the closing lines of Walt Whitman’s ‘A Clear Midnight,’ which reverberate and reappear throughout this weighty chronicle of a family’s reckoning with the death of a father and husband. John Earle ‘Whitey’ McClaren, the 67-year-old ‘lynchpin’ of a Hudson, N.Y., family, and longtime mayor of a nearby town, is tased, beaten, and suffers a stroke after he intervenes during an incident of police brutality against Azim Murthy, a stranger to Whitey whom he registers as a ‘dark-skinned young man.’ Oates’s dispassionate description of the scene peels back the layers of fear and assumption that led the police to treat Azim and Whitey so brutally, retelling the events from Azim’s point of view. After Whitey dies, Jessalyn, his 61-year old widow, and their five squabbling children struggle to pick up the pieces. While Jessalyn casts about in semi-coherence—’stumbling through the illogic of a primitive philosopher just discovering quasi-paradoxes of being, existence, nothingness and the (limited) capacity of language to express these’—her children fear she is approaching a nervous breakdown. More concerning to them is the presence of Hugo Martinez, a mustachioed 59-year-old poet and their mother’s new suitor, who recites the Whitman poem during an awkward Thanksgiving dinner, and whom they fear will jeopardize their inheritance even as his presence has a life-affirming affect on their mother. With precise, authoritative prose that reads like an inquest written by a poet (‘death makes of all that is familiar, unfamiliar’), Oates keep the reader engaged throughout the sprawling narrative. This is a significant and admirable entry in the Oates canon.”

Also on shelves: The Clearing by Allison Adair.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Bennett, Bertino, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Brit Bennett, Wayétu Moore, Alexandra Petri, Marie-Helene Bertino, David Mitchell, and more—that are publishing this week.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vanishing Half: “Bennett (The Mothers) explores a Louisiana family’s navigation of race, from the Jim Crow era through the 1980s, in this impressive work. The Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, were born and raised in Mallard, La., the slave-born founder of which imagined a town with ‘each generation lighter than the one before.’ In the early 1940s, when the twins are little, they witness their father’s lynching, and as they come of age, they harbor ambitions to get out. Desiree, the more headstrong sister, leads Stella to New Orleans when they are 16, and after a few months, the quiet, studious Stella, who once dreamt of enrolling in an HBCU, disappears one night. In 1968, 14 years later, still with no word from Stella, Desiree is back in Mallard with her eight-year-old daughter, Jude, having left her abusive ex-husband. When Jude is older, she makes her own escape from Mallard to attend college in Los Angeles. At a party, Jude glimpses a woman who looks exactly like Desiree—except she couldn’t be, because this woman is white. Eventually, the Vignes twins reunite, reckoning with the decisions that have shaped their lives. Effortlessly switching between the voices of Desiree, Stella, and their daughters, Bennett renders her characters and their struggles with great compassion, and explores the complicated state of mind that Stella finds herself in while passing as white. This prodigious follow-up surpasses Bennett’s formidable debut.”

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Parakeet: “Bertino (2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas) impresses with this dreamlike, sardonic novel about a woman questioning her impending marriage while processing the trauma of a terrorist attack. Holed up in a Long Island inn during the week leading up to her wedding, a 36-year-old woman, known only as the bride, is visited by her dead grandmother, a first-generation American, in the form of a parakeet. The bird commands her to find her estranged sibling, Tom, a successful and reclusive playwright. The bride attends Tom’s play, titled Parakeet, which depicts a fictionalized version of an anti-immigrant attack on a coffee shop she worked in when she was 18 (the bride describes herself as appearing ‘ethnically ambiguous’; she is of Basque and Romany descent). Later, the bride is startled to see her mother in the mirror, and continues to be unsettled by her pending transition into the role of ‘wife’ (‘I get the sense that the number of people who are married is not equal to the number of people that give the institution much thought’). These thoughts lead to an affecting description of the bride’s memory of being wounded in the coffee shop rampage. The bride’s conflicted emotions come to a head as the novel builds to a satisfying end. Fans of Rivka Galchen will delight in Bertino’s subtly fantastical tale.”

Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why by Alexandra Petri

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why: “Washington Post columnist Petri (A Field Guide to Awkward Silences) takes on the Trump presidency and related issues with this superb and stinging collection of new and previously published pieces. She skewers triumphal accounts of Trump’s inauguration (sarcastically writing that ‘Bono, and Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John, and the Rolling Stones, and Beyoncé, and all the top artists were there’), mocks conspiracy theories by recasting the ‘deep state’ as a regional college (‘Does Deep State have a football team? No, but it controls the outcomes of all football games’), and analyzes the Mueller Report with a pitch-perfect parody of a middle-school book report (‘One way in which this book did not succeed was its lack of female characters’). Also included is Petri’s Post column ‘Trump’s Budget Makes Perfect Sense and Will Fix America, and I Will Tell You Why,’ which the White House, mistaking it for sincere praise, publicized in its ‘1600 Daily’ e-newsletter in 2017. But the best essays are those in which she is dead serious, including 2018 pieces on families separated at the Mexican border and Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to reveal her past with now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Acidic and spot-on, Petri’s work captures the surreal quality of Trump’s tenure as perhaps no other book has.”

The Dragons, the Giant, the Women by Wayétu Moore

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: “In this beautiful memoir of dislocation, a young girl flees war-torn Liberia with her family to America. Moore (She Would Be King) begins with herself as a five-year-old living with her sisters, grandparents, and father in Monrovia. When the 1990 civil war erupts with terrifying massacres by rebels overthrowing president Samuel Doe (who Moore imagines as ‘the Hawa Undu dragon, the monster in my dreams, the sum of stories I was too young to hear’), the family heads for Sierra Leone, hoping to get to America. Moore describes this desperate trek in the lyrical voice of her younger self, a dreamy girl who filters the danger through a folktale lens. The middle section tracks her childhood after her family resettles in Texas, then her trauma-plagued young adulthood in Brooklyn (‘nightmares were old friends’), and racially fraught romances (‘I never feared my blackness, until the men,’ referring to the black men she first dated in college). The book’s final section holds a mirror to the first, describing in her mother’s voice her mother’s journey from New York back to Africa to rescue her lost family. Building to a thrumming crescendo, the pages almost fly past. Readers will be both enraptured and heartbroken by Moore’s intimate yet epic story of love for family and home.”

The Lightness by Emily Temple

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lightness: “Temple’s engrossing debut, by turns smart thriller and nuanced coming-of-age story, is set in a high-altitude spiritual retreat known as the Levitation Center, rumored to occupy the only American land where levitation is possible. Olivia Ellis is 15 when her long-unreliable Buddhist father, John, who separated from her mother several years before, disappears from her life after attending a Center retreat. The following summer, Olivia signs up for the retreat’s residential program for teenage girls, hoping to find some clues as to John’s whereabouts. When the enigmatic resident Serena, whose friends Janet and Laurel sneak out nightly to visit her private tent on the mountainside, invites Olivia to join their group and announces that they will learn to levitate, Olivia is eager to belong and to master her father’s religion. Serena plies the girls with alcohol and coaxes guidance from Luke, the Center’s seductive young gardener, who she says has levitated before. By the time Olivia begins doubting Serena’s motives for encouraging dangerous methods, such as fasting and choking, events are spiraling beyond her control. While the frequent asides on fairy tales, etymology, and various intellectual concepts can feel distracting and distancing, the lush, intelligent prose perfectly captures the narrator’s adolescent yearning. Temple’s exploration of the power young women have over each other will appeal to fans of Susan Choi and Emma Cline.”

Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ornamental: “A powerfully intoxicating drug is at the center of Cárdenas’s atmospheric, nightmarish English-language debut. Somewhere in Colombia, on an estate near a major city, a doctor observes the drug’s effects on four women ‘from the inferior classes.’ In the process, he grows fascinated with a woman known as number 4, who is unique in her response to the drug—while numbers 1, 2, and 3 sleep or become sexually aroused, 4 speaks in ‘fantastically deformed discourses,’ including an apparent memory of her mother, disfigured by plastic surgery, and a political speech involving ‘the Ministry of Destitution.’ Meanwhile, the doctor’s relationship with his wife, a cocaine-addicted artist, stagnates while she prepares for a new show of her work. In spare and economical prose, Cárdenas sketches a highly stratified world, where drugs link high society and neighborhoods that are ‘a single crush of old houses and ruins.’ Cárdenas is less interested in plot than juxtaposing the contradictory philosophies of the wealthy, elitist doctor; his artist wife, who believes in ‘the mysticism of grace’; and the intelligent and damaged Number 4, who insists on ‘the authentic grace of people like me, who outfit themselves in everyone else’s debris.’ Still, the overall effect offers both thrills and chills.”

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Exciting Times: “In Dolan’s wry, tender debut, a young Dubliner navigates her love life and sexuality. Ava, 22, has a murky friendship with London-born and Oxford-educated banker Julian, in his late 20s, whom she’d met at a bar during her first month in Hong Kong, where she teaches English. They treat each other with ironic regard, speaking mostly in quips about his privilege and their mutual maybe-attraction. Ava moves into his flat, and they soon start sleeping together. The novel picks up speed after Julian travels to London for work and Ava meets Edith Zhang, who is both different from Julian in many ways—stylish, female, a Hong Kong local—and similar—boarding school, Cambridge, a well-off family. On Ava’s 23rd birthday, Edith kisses her, and they fall headlong into an earnest, garrulous, and secret love, as Edith isn’t out to her family. When Julian writes to say he will be returning in a month, Ava, who hasn’t disclosed the true nature of her and Julian’s relationship to Edith, must decide what she really wants. Dolan starts slowly, but gradually the ironic distancing of Ava’s narration is pierced by questions from Ava’s students and her transformative relationship with Edith. Dolan’s smart, brisk debut works as charming comedy of manners, though it packs less of a punch when it comes to class consciousness.”

The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Fallen: “Four members of a Havana family tell the story of its collapse a generation after the Cuban Revolution in Álvarez’s elegant debut. The revolving cast of narrators includes Diego, a young man with violent tendencies serving compulsory military duty; Mariana, his bewildered epileptic mother; Maria, Mariana’s secretive daughter; and Armando, the father of the family. As the family receives harassing phone calls (‘Your husband is a communist informant… Your daughter is a pervert’), the fabric of their lives and their minds begins to fray. Armando, authoritarian and rigidly adherent to the communist party, is plagued by nightmares and alcoholism. (While drunk, he is a mournful prophet: ‘The future came and went, war never came, and no one noticed.’) The family remembers the starvation and terror during ‘the difficult years’ of the revolution in a series of fable-like anecdotes—these fragments are especially potent displays of Álvarez’s eye for detail. Occasionally, verbal slippage occurs between Álvarez’s poetic vantage and the voices of the characters, though Wynne’s translation gracefully honors the four voices of the family in startling and sharp language. Álvarez’s fittingly surreal gloss of insight on her characters’ generational divide gives the book real power.”

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Burning: “In Majumdar’s audacious debut, a politically conscious English tutor who works with an aspiring film actor is wrongfully accused of terrorism. After an ill-advised Facebook post criticizing the police’s response to a train bombing in Bengal, Jivan, a Muslim, is charged with the attack. Jivan has an alibi; she was on her way to tutor Lovely, whose testimony might be able to save Jivan from execution. A right-wing party luminary, hoping to gain political mileage from the case, bribes one of Jivan’s former teachers from grammar school in exchange for his false testimony about Jivan, and his lies in court lead to Jivan being jailed. A large portion of the chapters devoted to Jivan, told in the first person, come in the form of expository monologues to Purnendu, a reporter. Lovely’s dialect-heavy passages speak to her difficult life as a hijra (a third gender in India), and her desire to become a star despite being marginalized. Majumdar expertly weaves the book’s various points of view and plotlines in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable. This is a memorable, impactful work.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Coetzee, Masad, Jollett, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Ilana Masad, Mikel Jollett, and more—that are publishing this week.
Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Death of Jesus: “The thoughtful, clear-eyed final installment of Nobel laureate Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy picks up three years after The Schooldays of Jesus. David, now age 10, remains an enigmatic prodigy, skilled at soccer, dance, and arcane mathematics, and living under the watchful eye of his ruminative adopted father, Simon—who again narrates—and Ines, his protective adoptive mother. The family, living in a Spanish-speaking town called Estrella in an unnamed country, is disrupted when Dr. Julio Fabricante, the director of a local orphanage, challenges David and his friends to play soccer against the orphans’ team. Almost immediately, David is enchanted by the orphans, and runs away to live with them. After David comes down with a mysterious neurological disorder that makes him prone to sudden falls, he returns home to Simon and Ines. Simon notices changes in David; he is aloof with Simon and Ines and unsettled by questions about the afterlife. David has also attracted a band of followers who treat him with messianic devotion as he recites stories from Don Quixote. Like in previous volumes, Coetzee’s simple, clean prose is guided by philosophical questions, and Simon’s humanistic reflections provide a thrilling contrast to David’s bumpy journey of faith and acceptance of his mortality. This is an ambitious and satisfying conclusion.”
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All My Mother’s Lovers: “A tragic accident leads to soul-searching in Masad’s smart, heartfelt debut. Maggie Krause is enjoying an intimate moment with her girlfriend when her younger brother, Ariel, calls to say that their mother, Iris, has died in a car accident. Scrambling to get home to her brother and her dad, Maggie reflects on her complicated relationship with her mother, who was never comfortable with Maggie’s sexuality. After Maggie flies home to California, she finds college-age Ariel struggling to deal with their father, Peter, who is almost catatonic with grief. Because no one else will do it, Maggie makes arrangements for Iris’s funeral and shivah. Then Maggie finds Iris’s will, and with it, a small stack of letters Iris wanted to be mailed in the event of her death. But Maggie doesn’t recognize any of the men the letters are addressed to—and is upset and insulted that her mom would have written letters to strange men but not to her children. Maggie decides to deliver the letters by hand, and as she meets the recipients, she learns that Iris’s life was nothing like what Maggie thought it was. This remarkable portrait of a daughter’s opaque relationship with her mother reflects the strangeness and beauty of coming to see one’s parent fully as a human being.”
Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hollywood Park: “In this arresting debut memoir, Jollett, frontman of the indie band Airborne Toxic Event, writes of escaping a California cult named Synanon—where he lived in the 1970s until age five—with his mentally unstable mother and older brother. He recalls his impoverished, lonely youth; his family’s struggles with addiction; his challenging relationship with his parents; and the ways music and therapy saved him. Synanon started out as a commune and a drug and alcohol treatment facility (Jollett’s father was treated there for heroin addiction) but became a cult when the facility’s leader became more domineering and began forcing parents and their children to live in separate locations. While there, Jollett and his brother were left in the care of various cult members and rarely saw their parents. Jollett engagingly narrates his story, which includes living, after leaving Synanon, in Oregon with his mother, a needy narcissist who brainwashed him into believing that kids take care of their moms, not the other way around; loving his father while hoping to never be like him; and dealing with his addict brother. Jollett also talks about turning pain into music, getting help for abandonment issues, and finding love and starting a family. All this results in a shocking but contemplative memoir about the aftermath of an unhealthy upbringing.”
The First Actress by C.W. Gortner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The First Actress: “Gortner (The Romanov Empress) captures the drama and pathos of legendary actor Sarah Bernhardt’s life in this enchanting work. The illegitimate child of a Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt is raised in Brittany until her wet nurse can no longer house her. In 1852, Sarah’s mother, Julie, sends her unloved, eight-year-old daughter to boarding school in Versailles. After Sarah’s theatrical gifts shine in a school play, one of her mother’s longtime patrons helps arrange acting training for her as well as a contract with the august Comédie-Française. The school’s rigid adherence to tradition clashes with Sarah’s questioning approach, and she leaves the Comédie in the first of many stormy changes from one theatrical company to the next. Becoming pregnant by Comte Émile de Kératry, an aristocratic paying lover, she decides to keep the baby—her only child, Maurice—despite the social taboo and the comte’s rejection. After Bernhardt does heroic work as a volunteer nurse and infirmary manager during the Franco-Prussian War, she becomes one of the most acclaimed actors of her age through a mix of talent, hard work, and savvy self-promotion. Skillful first-person narration evokes Bernhardt’s fierce energy and tempestuous liaisons, the vulnerability borne of her wounding childhood, and her struggles against misogyny and anti-Semitism. Gortner does justice to this trailblazing celebrity and her fascinating era.”
Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red Dress in Black and White: “In Ackerman’s wry if convoluted latest (after Waiting for Eden), the story of an unhappy marriage is suffused with pointed commentary on Turkey in the months following the 2013 Gezi revolt. Catherine, an American, lives in Istanbul with her Turkish husband, Murat, a real estate developer, and their adopted seven-year-old son, William. Catherine and Murat each sacrificed early artistic ambition, she for the marriage and he for his career, and she finds comfort in an affair with Peter, a freewheeling American photojournalist on a Cultural Affairs grant for a loosely defined art project. After Catherine hatches a plan to flee to the United States with Peter and William, Murat intervenes with the help of an American diplomat. Much of the book’s action takes place on the day Catherine tries to leave in November 2013, interspersed with flashbacks to pivotal moments in the characters’ lives—Peter’s coverage of the protests to contest the development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, Murat’s complicated dependence on Istanbul’s ‘reliably corrupt’ government for business, and the shocking disclosure of William’s birth mother’s identity—that add weight to the story of a marriage and a city embroiled in conflict. Still, the big reveal arrives too late and doesn’t quite offer enough payoff to justify such dense plotting. This falls short of Ackerman’s best work.”