Eight Essential Books Set in the Middle of Nowhere

Every tale ever told depends in some way on isolation. No matter whether a novel is set in a hectic city or a pastoral village or a single claustrophobic room, that book’s author has to build a narrative container for its characters so we readers understand where our focus should be: We pay attention to these people, this conflict, and not all that other potentially interesting stuff out there. After all, one book can’t fit every person and place in the world. The solar system. The universe. Beyond! No, writers must limit themselves, choose what to include and what to leave out, in order to tell their stories.
Of course, that container can take any shape. A novelist might set their book in as tight a space as one person’s mind. She might place her story within a marriage, as Lauren Groff does in the split narrative of Fates and Furies, or a family line, as Yaa Gyasi does in her multigenerational epic Homegoing. Writers sometimes build a physical structure around their characters: a mansion in The Haunting of Hill House, a train in Murder on the Orient Express, a reform school, a whaling ship, an asylum, a gulag. Or writers choose the limits of geography.
Settings with natural boundaries—islands surrounded by ocean, peninsulas cut off by mountains, oases in the desert—have shaped some of the most exciting books in print today. This list brings you eight novels perfectly limited by geographic barriers. The stories below are set in places remote to most of their readers, yet the skill of their authors, the bold lines of their containers and the sharp focus on what happens within, make them compelling to us all.

1. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The island novel against which all others are measured. In this 1954 classic, a group of British schoolboys is marooned after a plane crash in the Pacific. Stranded far from the world they know, the boys establish their own miniature civilization, which soon turns toward violence. Golding’s novel shows exactly why stories in remote settings fascinate us: Stripped of outside influence, kept alone together, these characters reveal themselves for the eager, cruel, conflicted creatures they—and we—really are.

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

García Márquez’s flawless novel follows the rise and fall of the town of Macondo, established beside a river in Colombia. To José Arcadio Buendía, the town’s founder, Macondo seems idyllic, a pristine spot protected by water on all sides. That vision is shattered as generations of the Buendía family see their home transformed by the national railroad, new government, and foreign companies. Over the years, Macondo’s population is corrupted by forces external (an army massacre of striking workers) and internal (genetic mutations caused by incest). The novel describes a paradise lost—and convinces us that paradise never would have lasted anyway.

3. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

After an island in the Pacific and an isolated settlement in South America, this entry on the list takes us someplace stranger, more surreal. Abe’s dreamlike novel strands us in a town sunk in sand. The impossible terrain rules the story: All the people in the town pass their days shoveling back the dunes, and Abe’s main character is conscripted for the task. He has to clear the sand or he’ll be killed. Using the twin pressures of nature and community, the book pushes its characters to their haunting, unforgettable ends.

4. The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Lin’s debut novel is set on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Containing nearly half the state’s population, Anchorage has robust infrastructure, plenty of industry, and strong ties to the rest of the world—it’s no village in the dunes—but those connections soon fray outside the city, where Alaska’s subarctic climate and wildlife rule. This book shows just how bleak life in such a distant, threatening place can be, as a family struggles to move forward after the death of a child.

5. Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen

Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, is home to fewer than 18,000 people. It’s the cultural and economic center of a country that is sparsely populated, difficult to reach, and almost entirely covered by ice. Korneliussen takes us there through this daring novel, which weaves together the lives of five young people. She cracks open our frozen imaginations to show us Greenland in all its queer, loving, heartbreaking beauty.

6. Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda

Lush and grotesque, this novel places us in a nameless village perched on rocks over a river. Its inhabitants cling to the perceived moral excellence of their remoteness, their bloody customs, and their oppressive conformity. They don’t wish to know anyone or anything else. Rodoreda, one of the most important figures in Catalan literature, worked on this book for 20 years, until her death. Geographically, politically, socially, the village’s cruel isolation is an expression of what Rodoreda herself faced under Franco’s dictatorship, when she was exiled from Spain.

7. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

This award-winning novel takes place in the fictional Desperance, a town in the desert bordering Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Wright digs deep into the red ground where her story is set to explore fights between local families, mining operations on sacred ground, and colonization of Aboriginal earth. Her story fixes itself in place as her characters move in and out of Dreamtime, through the past, present, and future, to show the full scope of what this land means to its inhabitants.

8. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

In this fictional history of Earth’s settlement of Mars, Bradbury’s characters attempt to transpose onto another planet all the conveniences of home. They end up bringing their diseases, weapons, and fears instead. As Bradbury puts it, “Men are men, unfortunately.” Along with the other novels on this list, The Martian Chronicles leverages a raw, remote setting to expose our common humanity. Stories set in such environments let us see what is resonant, what is fundamental, what is shared. Separated from other people and stressed by geographic extremes, characters and societies reveal their weaknesses (greed, selfishness, the violent desire for power) and cultivate new strengths (curiosity, fortitude, a drive toward genuine connection). Turns out, no matter what remote place we wind up in the Milky Way, we can’t escape ourselves. Like the authors of our favorite books, we are working within limitations—yet inside those boundaries there is so much room to explore.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Pablo García Saldaña.

‘Celestial Bodies’ Wins the Man Booker International Prize

Celestial Bodies, written by Jokha Alharthi and translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. The prize awards £50,000 to the best works of translated fiction from around the world, with prize money split evenly between translator and author. Alkharthi is the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, and the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the Man Booker International. Bettany Hughes, who chaired the panel of five judges, said of the novel, “Its delicate artistry draws us into a richly imagined community—opening out to tackle profound questions of time and mortality and disturbing aspects of our shared history. The style is a metaphor for the subject, subtly resisting clichés of race, slavery and gender. The translation is precise and lyrical, weaving in the cadences of both poetry and everyday speech.Celestial Bodies evokes the forces that constrain us and those that set us free.”

Observers, Bystanders, and Hangers On: Ten Novels with Unlikely Narrators

Many—maybe even most—of my favorite books are novels narrated by an observer who does not consider themselves the main actor in the story. Think Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s sort-of friend, the perfect mournfully sardonic narrator for one of American literature’s most enduring novels. I love stories told by the supposedly innocent bystander; the less charismatic best friend; the hapless fan or scholar whose own life recedes in the shadow of their subject of adoration.

I especially love books like this because they are honest in two ways other narrative forms are often not. First, a non-protagonist narrator acknowledges the fact that storytelling is always, always about perspective. In the same way history is dictated by the victors, stories are dictated by the people with the ability and inclination to write them down, and the meta-fiction created by a self-aware narrator telling someone else’s story can be beautifully tense, disarmingly frank, and entertainingly specious. Second, the non-protagonist narrator acknowledges obsession—an obsession with another person that inspired the character to take the time to set down this story in writing at all. They seethe with charisma, jealousy, and longing of one form or another. This is why I chose this narrative form for my own novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.

I’m not the only one who loves to read this mode of storytelling; many of the traditional candidates for Great American Novel follow the format: besides The Great Gatsby, there is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in which reporter Jack Burden tells the story of politician Willie Stark; or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, in which jealous introvert prep schooler Gene obsesses over his outgoing and talented roommate, Phineas. But the list of relevant masterpieces is long and absolutely need not adhere to the reading we did in high school back before “the canon” was including much besides white men. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Let’s go ahead and go all the way back to the beginning, to what is argued to be the first-ever novel, composed around the year 1010 AD. The story is related by an unnamed female speaking to a social superior, as is evident in the form of verb conjugation used. It describes the love affairs and misadventures of Genji, a minor son of the Emperor. The identity of the narrator is never revealed, but some believe the text hints that she might be one of Genji’s (rather many) lovers.

2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Detective fiction has a long tradition of an average Joe narrator who relates the adventures of a whimsical genius investigator—a tradition that goes all the way back to the mystery genre’s inception with Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Name of the Rose (1980), Eco offers a hyper-intellectual pastiche of that archetype with a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian convent in which a bumbling Benedictine novice, Adso, describes the crime-solving antics of his master, a monk named William of Baskerville.

3. Passing by Nella Larsen

This 1929 novel is narrated by Irene Redfield, a light-skinned black woman who learns a friend from her Chicago childhood, Clare Kendry, has been living as a white woman, married to a virulently racist white man and completely cut off from her roots. Irene’s obsession with Clare’s choice—and the light it sheds on her own choices—cause her to spin back into the woman’s orbit no matter how much she tells herself she’s done with Clare.

4. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

The narrator of this 1945 novel is Fanny, an upper-class English girl who is abandoned by her parents to live with wealthy relatives. Fanny is relating the life and exploits of Linda Radlett, her cousin and best friend, whose love affairs and impetuous adventures wholly distract the reader from Fanny’s absence in her own story.

5. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

This 1994 novel is the story of Sophie Caco, who is 12 years old when she emigrates from Haiti to join her mother in New York, but really it is the story of Sophie’s enigmatic mother, Martine, whose traumatic history inflicts itself not only on her relationship with Sophie but also, viscerally, on Sophie herself.

6. The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Set in the New York City Orthodox Jewish community at the end of World War II, this 1967 novel is narrated by Reuven, a Modern Orthodox boy from a Zionist family, who is deeply committed to and fascinated by his sometimes controversial friendship with Danny, the genius son of a Hassidic rabbi.

7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Another favorite of mine that highlights the emotional intensity of a platonic friendship. In this 2012 novel, Elena, the narrator, builds her life around and in relief against her unpredictable and addictive best friend, Lila, a thwarted and moody genius who causes steadfast Elena to underestimate herself.

8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Quentin Compson, the troubled Harvard student we saw commit suicide in The Sound and the Fury, narrates the life story of Thomas Sutpen, a larger-than-life slave-holding plantation owner from Quentin’s native Mississippi in this 1936 novel. The narrative framework, a conversation between Quentin and his roommate, incorporates historical fact and conjecture and highly personalized interpretation—one of my favorite allegories for the way it shows how history is preserved.

9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

This 2005 novel hits heavy on one of my favorite themes: remorse. Its 80-year-old narrator, Lily, reveals how the story of her own long life has been framed by that of her long-lost best friend, Snow Flower, and how she let her obsession with their friendship ruin both their lives.

10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

A bit of a cheat selection, because the narrator of this 1961 novel is a third person omniscient, but it connects the reader to a group of six Scottish school girls who are all equally obsessed with their vivacious, unconventional, and fascist teacher, Miss Brodie, whom they adore, obey, and betray.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Design Ecologist.

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Finalists

The Best Translated Books Awards today named its 2019 finalists for fiction and poetry. The award, founded by Three Percent at the University of Rochester, comes with $10,000 in prizes from the Amazon Literary Partnership.

In the past seven years, the ALP has contributed more than $150,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

This year’s BTBA finalists are as follows—and be sure to check out this year’s fiction and poetry longlists, which we announced last month.

Fiction Finalists

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Poetry Finalists

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tanella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi(Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

The winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 29 as part of the New York Rights Fair.

Aida Edemariam Wins 2019 RSL Ondaatje Prize

The Royal Society of Literature today named Aida Edemariam the winner of the 2019 RSL Ondaatje Prize for The Wife’s Tale, a work that blends memoir, fiction, and poetry and is based on the life of her nonagenarian grandmother. The annual prize, now in its 15th year, awards £10,000 to a work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry for “evoking the spirit of a place.”

Judge Michèle Roberts said of the winning book, “The Wife’s Tale is beautifully written, carefully researched and richly imagined, an exquisite blend of memoir, fiction, poetry and invocation. This is a book I shall constantly re-read as well as recommend to everyone i know who loves literature.”

The Millions Top Ten: April 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

4 months

2.
2.

The Friend
5 months

3.
4.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
3 months

4.
3.

Severance

6 months

5.
7

Milkman
4 months

6.
5.

The William H. Gass Reader

5 months

7.
6.

Educated: A Memoir
3 months

8.
8.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
6 months

9.


Becoming
1 month

10.
10.

Transcription
6 months

What pairs better than Haruki Murakami and our site’s Hall of Fame? Running and The Beatles? Spaghetti and cats? This month, Murakami sent his fourth book, Killing Commendatore, to our hallowed Hall, equalling our site’s all-time record for works from a single author. (If someone ever asks you what the author has in common with David Mitchell, you’ll know what to say.)

For the most part, our list held steady from last month, with the exception of one high-profile newcomer. After spending four months in our “near misses” section, Michelle Obama’s Becoming finally cracked our April lineup. Surely Millions readers need no introduction to Obama, and don’t need to be handsold such a blockbuster memoir, but in case someone needs a nudge out there, it’s worth noting that Marta Bausells dug the audiobook in our most recent Year in Reading series. “[It] did GOOD things to me and I recommend,” Bausells wrote.

Next month a minimum of three slots should open on our list, so we should get some excitement. Stay tuned!

This month’s near misses included: The New Me, The Golden StateCirce, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosopher’s User Manual and The Great Believers. See Also: Last month’s list.

Must-Read Poetry: May 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in May.

Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal

Take a poem from Nightingale, and you have the whole
book. This is meant to be an expansive, not reductive, observation—Rekdal’s poems
have lush contours and routes without becoming labyrinthine; she offers
questions in her narratives that are less conversational than illuminating.
Take the grace and control of “Psalm,” the first poem in the collection. “Too
soon, perhaps, for fruit”—the pause of the central word in that first sentence
is like a sigh, the announcement that we must listen to the story about to be
told. The narrator’s neighbor, despite the “ice-sheathed” branches, “waits,
with her ladder and sack, for something to break.” She longs for growth, life:
a gift. “So much abundance,” Rekdal writes, “and the only cost / waiting.” The
narrator, present but not omnipresent (what control it takes to be there
without being overbearing!), watches: “I almost expect the sound of bells, / a
stone church, sheep in flocks.” This grand tree seems like it deserves a
cathedral, some rapt congregation; instead, “it is on a common / lot, beside a
road, apartment buildings, a dog / sleeping in its yard.” I love when a poet
lingers, patiently, perceptively, because if the lines are authentic enough,
then maybe we’ll do the same. Rekdal, the poet laureate of Utah, is skilled
enough to ask careful questions: “Who planted this tree? / How long has it
stood here? How many more years / can such a thing remain?” The tree almost
sounds impossible, and the narrator knows “the fruit is real. I have eaten it.”
She has “spooned it / over bread and meat. I have sucked it / from my husband’s
fingers.” Nightingale is one of the
best books of the year: a tale of transformation and tragedy, arriving in poems
a bit longer than other poets might dare—there’s a patience and persistence
here. Take the enigmatic “Four Marys,” a meditation on Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (1460): “Are the
drapes drawn open or being closed?” This is everything that ekphrastic poetry
can be: “And even if I didn’t believe / the child would rise again, I would
believe the artist.” A poem-essay midway through the collection, “Nightingale:
A Gloss,” is alone worth the collection’s weight, but I hope readers are grateful
for this entire book.

Hybrida by Tina
Chang

“It feels like grace,” poet Tina Chang has said about her pregnancy. “Mercy. Deep down in darkness, I uncover it. Those spirits underground shake until I hold to the wall to keep still.” Her son was her past made present, “a strangeness of the future. The idea of a child is something so unreal, it can only be manifested by human hands. It’s like a ghost rummaging in your mind that says, Go ahead, imagine it.” Hybrida, the newest collection from Brooklyn’s poet laureate, is a beautiful meditation of home and hope and hurt. “In every definition of home, my son conjures / milk,” she writes: “In every memory / I have of him, his hands are outstretched / and he is asking for his last bottle.” She thinks of her son when she hears the news of Leiby Kletzky, a young boy killed; how his mother felt waiting for him, his life forever a story unfinished. Chang holds her son close: “I’m afraid of the world.” She tells him stories at home, a “place so safe,” where together they “are weightless, buoyant in its murky sweetness.” There’s an earned gentleness to these lines—call them inspirational (imagine it: a poem can make us love each other better!). Hybrida is a song of love, and creation myths; or perhaps they are our creation truths. From “Patience”: “I come from that too, from the indifference / of doors and keys, from the sonnet of the sewing machine / which wrestled my neck at the collar and all my words / caught at the throat, struggled to make one stitch, a straight line.” Chang’s talent in capturing how our past breathes in our present makes for poems that feel birthed over years. Her lines are realistic, cautious, and yet ultimately optimistic: “The future is an animal / waiting to pounce. It is that bestial. That patient.”

Is, Is Not by Tess
Gallagher

Tess Gallagher has described her poetry as an abiding, yet imperfect, spirituality—the feeling of “reaching” for some presence, and while she might feel unfulfilled, that “reaching is a grace, too, even when I don’t feel answered.” Gallagher writes of the dead and their heavy weight of memory, as with “In the Company of Flowers,” where, “as I dug into earth of my mother / who, when my youngest brother / died, was taken in / by beauty, not as consolation / but because she found him / there as she made the garden.” Her mode of elegy is one of transcendence, and it extends to even the changed lives of the living. “What does it say / that the only shoe repairman in town / has retired?” She “admired your Lazarus / revivals” because “it’s feet in failing shoes / that rule the world.” Is, Is Not is worth our attention for these pauses, as with the heartbreaking short poem, “Opening”: “I entered this world not wanting / to come. I’ll leave it not / wanting to go. All this while, / when it seemed there were two doors, / there was only one—this / passing through.”

Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

“I want you / to say my name like the word: lemon. / Say it like the word: limón. Undress me / in strands of rind.” Scenters-Zapico’s narrators are commanding, absolutely present, mystically intoxicating—each poem feels like a skillfully-recreated dream. She begins the collection with lines from Conchita Piquer’s song that serves as title and inspiration for the collection: “Que penita y que dolor, / La vecinita de enfrente soltera se quedó” (“What pain & what shame, / The little neighbor girl from in front ended up single.”). Lima :: Limón plays on that sharp tension between shame and sexuality, a tension Scenters-Zapico offers in several different incarnations. From “In the Age of Los Zetas”: “Men who only value // a woman for her extra rib, / that holy thing that breaks / & heals without a cast.” Juxtaposed on the next page with “Lima Limón :: Azahar”: “I lie on my back in the grass & let the weight / of a man on top of me. Out of breath, he searches / for a place on my body that hasn’t flooded.” Bodies abound: shamed, worked, desirous, preternaturally attracted to mouths (“Stop writing // about the mouth: the tongue, the holy / molars, the wear of grinding yourself / to bone. Stop writing about the mouth: / his mouth, your mouth, her mouth.”). At first, we might want to label Scenters-Zapico’s style surreal, but her palpable detail and narratives are better described as hyper-real. Lima :: Limón builds toward a confession of sorts, but whose penance is poetry: “My sins: / so many I lie in losing count.”

Time by Etel Adnan (translated by Sarah Riggs)

Adnan can’t help but paint, write, and breathe in philosophy, and we are all the better for it. Born in 1925 in Beirut, she attended Catholic schools—“we had religion around all the time”—but she was a “dissident without effort.” Uninterested in neither the catechism nor the lives of the saints, Adnan was compelled by how the nuns spoke “of revelation, even the word itself,” creating for her sense of light as our profound “definition of life.” Time feels charged by this revelatory sense. The book contains epigrammatic pieces written between 2003 and 2010, and started from a postcard she’d received by the Tunisian poet Khaled Najar. The postcard as medium and space is the perfect vessel for her poems. Her first sequence, dated when she received the note from Najar, ends powerfully: “streets lead to / illuminations, but never to peace / of the heart // watch your brothers die / on TV, and don’t move. / they are in a new world / although with no exit.” Although occasionally tagged by dates and times, the poems in this book feel eternal. “I love the rain when it / wraps me like a / river,” Adnan writes, “grafts me to the clouds. / I share in the properties / of the sky. I grow / like a tree.” A moving book of war: “We have cried enough / to wash your / body / but that body was dead.”

Some Unimaginable Animal by David Ebenbach

A funny, tender, inviting
collection, whose traits come from Ebenbach’s gifts of storytelling. In “Ghost
Stories,” Ebenbach begins: “I’m going to write a Jewish one, a ghost story /
without equilibrium. Because let’s face it: / most of those tales believe in a
God who keeps / a tally.” Those traditional ghost tales are balanced:
punishment metered to sin, no sense of surprise. “So in my story,” the narrator
explains, “there will be the haunting of the innocent. Floorboards will creak
their way / to people just eating breakfast.” He ends the poem: “The lights
tremble, / but in your house, too.” I like that second-person gesture at the
end; it is a nudge, a whisper, an invitation. “This year we spangle the place,
the door / wrapped like something we’re giving away” he starts “Hanukkah,” a
poem in which not much happens other than the struggle with a faulty braid of
lights. In the darkness, the collected family “let the candles / make their
quiet points.” As in this poem, as well as “Passover this Year,” Ebenbach’s narratives
are domestic sketches: unassuming, and yet spiritually revealing. This
particular Passover is painted by snow: “So anyway we sit down together / at a
table where everything’s renewal, / renewal, and under the table our boots /
slush the floor and leave salt footprints.” Ebenbach takes us into his poems,
and these are welcome journeys.

Ten Essential Graphic Novels and Memoirs About Queer Women

When I read a graphic novel that includes a queer narrative there are a few things that make it stand out to me. I want characters that feel sincere, not typecast. In short, characters I can see some of myself in. In the realm of indie comics, representation has taken great strides. A lot of publishers have taken an initiative to highlight heretofore underrepresented stories of queer women. Here are a few I think you shouldn’t miss:

1. Love and Rockets: Locas Books 1-6 by Jaime Hernandez

Love and Rockets is a profound and complex series written and illustrated by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. The series is daunting to begin, but fear not, Fantagraphics has been kind enough to collect them into bite size chunks. Enter the collected Locas books by Jaime Hernandez. I would be at a loss to discuss what indie comics with queer characters are today without mentioning these books. The narrative revolves around a rich cast of Latin-American characters, all from a place called Hoppers outside of Los Angeles. The central focus is often on Margarita “Maggie” Chascarrillo and Esperanza “Hopey” Glass. They are sometimes girlfriends, sometimes estranged, but always each other’s closest confidant when the chips are down. They are chosen family when their own families often leave much to be desired. There is a lot to parse through here since the series is still going on, but it is well worth it. A good place to start is Locas Book 1, Maggie the Mechanic, to get a taste for what you can expect. What begins as a slice-of-life narrative with a lot of fantasy, action, and adventure, slowly matures into realistic fiction about a group of friends and enemies you can’t help but feel are truly alive as you watch them age and grow through the years.

2. Skim by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

Set in an all-girls Catholic high school in Toronto in 1993, Skim is the story of the eponymous character’s journey through her tumultuous junior year. She is a self-described outcast, Wiccan, and goth. When a popular girl named Katie Matthews’s boyfriend commits suicide, the entire school goes into mourning and becomes hypervigilant to “depressives“ (read: goths) leaving Skim in the crosshairs of a suicide prevention club that doesn’t even attempt to understand her. The story is at once sardonic and tragic. Skim’s relationships with her best friend, her parents, and her understanding of her sexuality are simultaneously in turmoil. While Katie Matthews’s grief is put on display without her permission, Skim’s private and even unspeakable grief over a complicated relationship with her female English teacher is kept secret. The two mourning girls find each other despite the chaos of the grief circus. The crux of Skim is loss, yes, but also growth. Mariko Tamaki’s writing is emotionally poignant, and Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations are mind-blowingly gorgeous.

3. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters follows the story of a young girl named Karen Reyes living in 1960s Chicago. Karen is obsessed with horror comics and “creep shows.” The story is told through her notebook, where she depicts herself as a wolfman. The plot of the first volume is very complex and beautifully constructed. Ferris tackles the Kennedy and King assassinations and their aftermath in the lives of the diverse people in Karen’s neighborhood. Karen is also an amateur detective, looking for obscure clues in paintings and tapes to discover the truth about the death of her neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Anka Silverberg. Horror, as a genre, has been described by many as inherently queer. This is especially true of the monster, beings that do not conform to the norms of society. Karen sees herself as different, singled out and persecuted by the M.O.B. (Mean, Ordinary & Boring) but her greatest fear is not being seen as a monster, but becoming one of the normal people. When she begins to have feelings for her best friend Missy (who sees herself as Count Dracula) she momentarily finds peace in the bleak reality Ferris depicts. The illustration in this book is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Drawn completely in Bic pen on notebook paper over the course of several years while Ferris was in recovery from the West Nile virus, the book is nothing short of an opus.

4. My Solo Exchange Diary by Kabi Nagata

This book is the follow up to the popular My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness that came out in 2016. The autobiographical story continues to follow the events of Nagata’s life. One of the things I find most striking about this series is the author’s ability to examine her emotional state and relay it in a way that is not falsely positive or dishonest. She is not afraid to explore darker or more embarrassing emotions, and as you can tell by many of the selections in this list, that is something, in my view, that makes a work great. Sometimes dark moods feel like a sort of enchanted mist that leave you an amnesiac once you exit them, but not so for Nagata. Like its predecessor, this book gets heavy but is ultimately a rope-a-dope into Nagata’s unrelenting optimism.

5. As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

Charlie is a queer African-American teen at an all-white Christian summer camp that she feels compelled to attend by a higher power that comes to her in the form of feathers from the sky. The plot revolves around a hiking trip to a mountaintop that proves to be very uncool and problematic for both Charlie and a transgender camper named Sydney. They soon find their camaraderie over the crappiness of the situation, budding into romance. Charlie’s communication with God throughout the story is something I found very special. Gillman looks at the cross-section of Christianity, youth, queerness, race, and feminism and takes us on a bittersweet and sometimes agonizing journey through it.

6. Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl also takes place at a summer camp in the South. Maggie is 15 and the year is 2000. She’s obsessed with boy bands, getting her DE certification and, most notably, a female camp counselor named Erin. Her feelings about Erin are refreshingly well observed by Thrash. Thrash recognizes and beautifully conveys the convergence of subtlety and power that go along with experiencing a gay crush for the first time. At once it’s so ethereal you feel if you talk about it it’ll disappear, especially at this conservative camp, but it also is the very axis of your emotional world.

7. The Pervert by Michelle Perez, illustrated by Remy Boydell

The Pervert is a brutally honest work that details the desperation and elation experienced by Felina, a trans woman and sex worker in Seattle. Perez delivers the narrative with a dose of dark humor and sarcasm. However, Perez doesn’t hold back. The writer drew from her own experiences, leaving the work feeling raw and powerful. Boydell’s character design is purposefully childlike, using dogs and cats and characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog as stand ins to mask the trauma of some of the heartbreaking moments the book covers. The story also follows Felina’s romantic life and friendships. I was left with my jaw on the floor after reading this story and have since not read another like it. This book pulls no punches and I think that is not only extremely admirable but necessary.

8. Potential by Ariel Schrag

This is book three from Ariel Schrag’s autobiographical High School Comic Chronicles, written while Schrag was in high school and living in Berkeley, Calif., in the late ’90s. It’s hard to fathom that a 17 year old would be able to be this frank and articulate about exploring her life and all its messiness, but Schrag was. Her voice is irreverent, often brash and never shies away from self-immolation. In this book, she falls in love for the first time with a mercurial girl named Sally and records the tilt-a-whirl of joy and agony that often comes along with that. What I find fascinating is that this series is essentially a diary, so it’s written as it is happening rather than recreating the story from memory as a memoir might do. I first read this book shortly after my senior year of high school and it was one of the reasons I started drawing comics. Schrag’s direct, sometimes crude, style was very thrilling to me as a teenager who hadn’t had any artistic training. The other books in the series (Awkward and Definition, and Likewise) are also worth a look if this book appeals to you.

9. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden is a new and super young (only 22!) comics creator who is extremely prolific and has developed a unique style of storytelling that I think she can call her own. On a Sunbeam is a dramatic, cinemagraphic narrative that reminds me more of a Tarkovsky film than other comics I’ve read. The book is part love story, and part soft, metaphoric, science fiction. The galactic landscape Walden creates is surreal, sparse, and poetically beautiful. An interesting touch to this book: there are no men to be found, like at all. Walden creates robust comics where nothing is explicitly told, just understood, through body language and context. I admire her storytelling to no end.

10. Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore

Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski is one of my favorite characters of all time. She is an action hero, a sex worker, an artist, an unrelenting romantic, and queer as hell. While Strangers in Paradise delves into superheros and crime drama, what stands out to me is the dedicated focus on the love triangle between Katchoo, her more-than-friends best friend Francine and their mutual friend David. The complexity of a situation where everyone loves each other but not all in the same way at the same time is hard to communicate succinctly. Thankfully, Moore takes something like 100 issues to explore it. The emotional situations can get heavy at times and slap-stick ridiculous at others. Greater still are moments that feel so real you might even find yourself experiencing an epiphany about your own life.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi Wins 2019 PEN/Faulkner Prize

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi was awarded the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Prize for her novel, Call Me Zebra. This year’s judges, Percival Everett, Ernesto Quiñonez, and Joy Williams, said of the winning title: “Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra is a library within a library, a Borges-esque labyrinth of references from all cultures and all walks of life. In today’s visual Netflix world, Ms. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel performs at the highest of levels in accomplishing only what the written novel can show us.” (For more, check out our review of Call Me Zebra.)The prize—which selects the best works by American citizens published in the last calendar year—has the distinction of being America’s largest peer-juried contest for fiction. The award brings with it a $15,000 prize for the winner, and $5,000 for each of the four finalists.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Names 2019 Shortlist

The Women’s Prize for Fiction announced its 2019 shortlist.

Formerly the Orange Prize and Baileys Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction recognizes the best English-language novel by a woman published in the U.K. in the previous year. The award celebrates “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.”

The shortlist includes one debut author (Oyinkan Braithwaite), one previously shortlisted author (Anna Burns), a previous Orange Prize for Fiction winner (Madeline Miller), and an Orange Award for New Writers winner (Diana Evans). The list also includes a few Year in Reading alums, and all the books were featured in our 2018 First-Half and Second-Half Book Previews.

Here is the 2019 shortlist, with Publishers Weekly reviews:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Read Publishers Weekly’s review here: Barker, author of the Booker-winning The Ghost Road, speculates about the fate of the women taken captive during the Trojan War, as related in Homer’s Iliad. Briseis, queen of the small country of Lyrnessus, was captured by the Greek forces and awarded to Achilles, fated to serve him as slave and concubine. Through her eyes readers see the horror of war: the sea of blood and corpses, the looting, and the drunken aftermath of battle. When Agamemnon demands that Briseis be handed over to him, Achilles reacts with rage and refuses to fight, and when his foster brother and lover Patrocles is killed, having gone into battle in Achilles’s stead, Briseis becomes the unwitting catalyst of a turning point in the war. In Barker’s hands, the conflict takes on a new dimension, with revisionist portraits of Achilles (“we called him the butcher”) and Patroclus (he had “taken his mother’s place” in Achilles’s heart). Despite its strong narrative line and transportive scenes of ancient life, however, this novel lacks the lyrical cadences and magical intensity of Madeline Miller’s Circe, another recent revising of Greek mythology. The use of British contemporary slang in the dialogue is jarring, and detracts from the story’s intensity. Yet this remains a suspenseful and moving illumination of women’s fates in wartime.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Here’s what Publishers Weekly’s starred review had to say: Braithwaite’s blazing debut is as sharp as the knife that twists in the chest of Femi, the now-dead boyfriend of Ayoola, whose boyfriends, curiously, seem to keep winding up dead in her presence. Femi makes dead boyfriend number three—each were killed in self-defense, according to Ayoola—and, per usual, Ayoola’s older sister, Korede, is called upon to help dispose of the body. The only confidante Korede has is a coma patient at the Lagos hospital where she works, which is the only place she can go to escape Ayoola. It is also where she can see the man she loves, a handsome and thoughtful doctor named Tade. Of course, this means that when the capricious Ayoola decides to start visiting her sister at work, she takes notice of him, and him of her. This is the last straw for Korede, who realizes she is both the only person who understands how dangerous her sister is and the only person who can intervene before her beloved Tade gets hurt, or worse. Interwoven with Korede, Ayoola, and Tade’s love triangle is the story of Korede and Ayoola’s upbringing, which is shadowed by the memory of their father, a cruel man who met a tragic and accidental death—or did he? As Korede notes when she considers her own culpability in her sister’s temperament: “His blood is my blood and my blood is hers.” The reveal at the end isn’t so much a “gotcha” moment as the dawning of an inevitable, creeping feeling that Braithwaite expertly crafts over the course of the novel. This is both bitingly funny and brilliantly executed, with not a single word out of place.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Here’s Publishers Weekly’s starred review: In her Booker-winning novel, Burns (No Bones) gives an acute, chilling, and often wry portrait of a young woman—and a district—under siege. The narrator—she and most of the characters are unnamed (“maybe-boyfriend,” “third brother-in-law,” “Somebody McSomebody”)—lives in an unspecified town in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s. Her town is effectively governed by paramilitary renouncers of the state “over the water,” as they call it. The community is wedged between the renouncers, meting out rough justice for any suspected disloyalty, and the state’s security forces. One day, “milkman,” a “highranking, prestigious dissident” who has nothing to do with the milk trade, offers the narrator a ride. From this initial approach, casual but menacing, the community, already suspicious of her for her “beyond-the-pale” habit of walking and reading 19th-century literature, assumes that she is involved with the rebel. Milkman, however, is in essence stalking her, and over the course of several months she strives, under increasing pressure, to evade his surveilling gaze and sustained “unstoppable predations.” There is a touch of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in the narrator’s cerebral reticence, employing as she does silence, exile, and cunning in her attempt to fly the nets of her “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossippy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.” Enduring the exhausting “minutiae of invasion” to which she is subjected by milkman, and the incursion of the Troubles on every aspect of life, the narrator of this claustrophobic yet strangely buoyant tale undergoes an unsentimental education in sexual politics. This is an unforgettable novel.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Read what Publishers Weekly had to say: Evans’s striking novel (following 26A) investigates the relationships of two sets of friends as they navigate pivotal moments during 2008. Melissa and Michael remain engaged after 13 years; Melissa misses her former job as a magazine’s fashion editor, which she left to care for her seven-year-old, Ria, and infant, Blake, while Michael longs for the passionate relationship they used to have. Continually feeling rebuffed at home, Michael searches for attention from others and notices a younger woman in his office. Hesitant to be unfaithful, Michael plans an outing to connect with Melissa, but the evening falls short of expectations and Melissa withdraws further. Meanwhile, in the second narrative, Michael’s friend Damian is frustrated with Stephanie, his wife of nearly 16 years, because she refuses to live in London like their friends, opting instead to raise their children in the suburbs, thereby squelching his dream of city life and ambition of being a writer. Along with coping with the recent loss of his activist father, Damian believes his wife and her family don’t share his values, and instead measure their success by the size of their home and the private lessons they provide their children. With penetrating emotional and psychological observations, Evans creates a realistic portrayal of the couples as they struggle to redefine commitment. Readers looking for careful studies of relationship dynamics will find much to contemplate.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Read Publishers Weekly’s review: Jones (Silver Sparrow) lays bare the devastating effects of wrongful imprisonment in this piercing tale of an unspooling marriage. Roy, an ambitious corporate executive, and Celestial, a talented artist and the daughter of a self-made millionaire, struggle to maintain their fledgling union when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison on a rape charge he is adamant is false. Before Roy’s arrest, the narrative toggles between his and Celestial’s perspectives; it takes an epistolary form during his imprisonment that affectingly depicts their heartbreaking descent into anger, confusion, and loneliness. When Roy is proven innocent and released seven years early, another narrator is introduced: Andre, Celestial’s lifelong best friend who has become very close to her while Roy has been away. Jones maintains a brisk pace that injects real suspense into the principal characters’ choices around fidelity, which are all fraught with guilt and suspicion, admirably refraining from tipping her hand toward one character’s perspective. The dialogue—especially the letters between Roy and Celestial—are sometimes too heavily weighted by exposition, and the language slides toward melodrama. But the central conflict is masterfully executed: Jones uses her love triangle to explore simmering class tensions and reverberating racial injustice in the contemporary South, while also delivering a satisfying romantic drama.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Read Publishers Weekly’s starred review here: Miller follows her impressive debut (The Song of Achilles) with a spirited novel about Circe’s evolution from insignificant nymph to formidable witch best known for turning Odysseus’s sailors into swine. Her narrative begins with a description of growing up the awkward daughter of Helios, the sun god. She does not discover her gift for pharmakeia (the art of using herbs and spells) until she transforms her first love, a poor fisherman, into a god. When he rejects her in favor of vain Scylla, Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster. Now considered dangerous, Circe is exiled to an island, where she experiments with local flora and fauna. After returning from a visit to Crete to help her sister give birth to the Minotaur, Circe is joined on the island by errant nymphs sentenced to do their penance in her service. By the time Odysseus’s ship arrives, winding its way home from the Trojan War, Circe reigns over a prosperous household. Welcome guests enjoy her hospitality; unwelcome guests are turned into wild pigs. Neither the goddess Athena nor the deadliest poison known to man makes Circe flinch. Weaving together Homer’s tale with other sources, Miller crafts a classic story of female empowerment. She paints an uncompromising portrait of a superheroine who learns to wield divine power while coming to understand what it means to be mortal.

The winner will be announced on June 5.