Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2022 Book Preview

- | 1

In this, our first preview for Pandemic Year Three, we offer up nearly 200 books, with the hope that they can, in some small measure, act as a balm, an escape, a distraction, a source of pleasure, a reason for hope, a source of light in the darkness.

Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

January


The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan: Frida Liu doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices, and she can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her—except that one lapse in judgement lands her in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance. An arresting debut. (Marie)

The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi: Five Under 35 author Assadi’s first novel’s voice-driven narrative was classified “superstitious realism”—as in its telling was “slanted and opaque, scenes haunted and possibly dreamed”—by The Brooklyn Rail. Assadi’s second novel, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells, continues in a similar vein of enchanted and haunting narration, but in a different mode: Elle Rainer suffers from Alzheimer’s and she recounts through its haze tales of her life and love and losses on the island of Lyra, and the search for the source of its mysterious blue light. The end result is “a prophetic fever dream sprung from [Assadi’s] singular imagination,” according to Claire Vaye Watkins. (Anne)

Lost & Found by Kathryn Schultz: New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Schultz can write engagingly on everything from earthquakes to human error and now trains her lens squarely on herself, exploring how loss and joy can coexist if not coincide, examining a year where she lost her father and also fell in love. Marilynne Robinson says “Our lives do indeed deserve and reward the kind of honest, gentle, brilliant scrutiny Schulz brings to bear on her own life.” (Marie)

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara: After her blockbuster A Little Life, Yanagihara’s third novel is a triptych of stories set in 1893, 1993, and 2093. In 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). Then in 1993 Manhattan is besieged by the AIDS epidemic. And in 2093, the world is riven by plagues and totalitarian rule. Edmund White promisingly called it “as good as War and Peace.” (Marie)

Yonder by Jabari Asim: Somewhere in the antebellum South, a group of enslaved black people call themselves The Stolen. To their owners they are merely captives, property. Subject to the whims of tyrannical Cannonball Greene, they toil in his quarry by day, endure beatings at night, and suffer the heartache of having a loved one sold off without warning. The bonds that keep The Stolen together begin to fray when a mysterious minister fills their heads with the notion that freedom means the ability to choose things, large and small. Which leads to a freighted question: What would happen if an enslaved person risked everything for love? (Bill)

Free Love by Tessa Hadley: After hitting the bestseller lists with her previous novels Late in the Day and The Past, Tessa Hadley gives us the Fischer family living in leafy suburban tranquility in 1967. The social ferment of nearby London seems worlds away. But when the young son of an old friend of Roger Fischer’s visits one hot summer evening, his wife Priscilla is swept into an affair that upends the family’s conventional life and leads her on a startling quest for romantic love, sexual freedom and the truest version of her life. Hadley is, in the words of Hilary Mantel, “one of those writers a reader trusts.” (Bill)

I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg: After seven books of fiction, Attenberg, who EW calls a “master of modern fiction,” publishes a new memoir about finding a home in the emotional, artistic, and physical sense. Full of wit, charm, and sharp intellect, Attenberg doesn’t hold back as she takes the reader through the defining moments of her life, from growing up as the daughter of a traveling salesman in the Midwest, sleeping on couches, and self-funded book tours to living an independent life as an artist. Kristen Arnett says, “The book is an embrace. It is a love letter to work and to friendship.” (Claire)

All Day Is a Long Time by David Sanchez: Sanchez’s debut follows 14-year-old David as he comes of age on the Gulf Coast of Florida. When he runs away from home, David hits rock bottom over and over again through drug use, sexual trauma, and being stuck in the revolving door of jail-to-rehab, rehab-to-jail. Eventually, he finds a life raft in a community college literature class—and his life becomes imbued with much-needed hope. Justin Torres says, “This book has it all, not only does the harrowing story grip you from the start, but the voice is so insightful, so poetic, so absolutely alive to the world, that you won’t be able to put it down.” (Carolyn)

A Previous Life by Edmund White: White, now in his 80s and firmly ensconced as a major Man of Letters, traverses familiar terrain and new ground with his latest novel, A Previous Life. The central characters—the aristocratic Sicilian musician Ruggerio and his American wife Constance—agree to break their vow and write confessions about their previous lives. Ruggero reveals his many affairs with men and women—and, above all, his passionate love for the writer Edmund White. Given the autobiographical tilt of White’s earlier fiction (notably A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty), the appearance of a character named Edmund White was probably inevitable. It’s definitely delightful. (Bill)

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez: Puerto Rican siblings Olga, a hotshot wedding planner, and Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, a popular congressman, navigate their place in their rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood in Gonzalez’s debut. Set in the months surrounding the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Olga’s and Prieto’s secrets, as well as their family’s secrets, begin to bubble to the surface—and they have no choice but to face them head on. Rumaan Alam writes: “It’s a book about a New York that isn’t always celebrated, the one that belongs to immigrant communities; about money, class, and political power; about one vividly-imagined family and the very idea of the American Dream.” (Carolyn)

Devil House by John Darnielle: In his newest novel, author and The Mountain Goats’ singer-songwriter Darnielle (Universal Harvester) dissects the mega-popular, oft exploitative true crime genre. Gage Chandler, a one-hit-wonder true crime writer, moves into the “Devil House” where a grisly murder took place during the 1980s Satanic Panic. As he falls deeper into his research, into the case, into the memories of his past, he begins to question his work—who it serves and who it hurts. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says, “it operates perfectly on many levels, resulting in a must-read for true crime addicts and experimental fiction fans alike.” (Carolyn)

Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby: Whether they’re virgins, whores, witches, or warriors, the infamous and unknown women in Kirby’s experimental debut collection take the spotlight. “I want to be friends with all of the women in this collection who refuse to be anything other than exactly who they are,” Rachel Yoder writes. “A barnburner of a book that will set you ablaze with its clear-eyed brilliance.” (Carolyn)

Defenestrate by Renee Branum: The word itself—”defenestrate”—is sadly underused. If it recalls anything, then some history buffs might remember those unlucky emissaries at the “Defenestration of Prague” during the springtime of the Thirty Years War, but it’s a fantastic bit of language that we unfortunately rarely get to use (even while we hope that it doesn’t happen to us). Branum’s odd, lyrical, and gorgeous debut Defenestrate follows twins Marta and Nick as they trace the intricacies of a family curse wherein members of their clan are perennially fated to fall out of windows (a burden that began appropriately enough in Prague centuries ago). Evocative of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Branum’s novel is a magical realist family fable, an allegory about the heaviness of history and the lightness of dropping, because “Something in our bodies wants to fall… we splinter that easily.” (Ed)

Perpetual West by Mesha Maren: While historically shifting, the border between the United States and Mexico has always been permeable, communities on both sides having more in common with one another than they might with cities thousands of miles away, despite what demagogues might otherwise claim. Critically lauded novelist Maren’s sophomore effort Perpetual West is a reminder that there has never been a wall, but that the border is a mirror, and that the U.S. and Mexico have always existed in interdependence. Chronicling the cross-border lives of Alex and Elana, ethnically Mexican though adopted by white Pentecostals and raised in Virginia, Perpetual West embodies the continual draw that that country has on the imagination, that complicated fantasy about how to “Start over fresh… south of the border!” (Ed)

Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson: The nameless narrator of Wilson’s sly third novel runs into an old college acquaintance at LAX who invites him into the airline’s private lounge while they wait for their delayed flight to Germany. What follows is a story within a story of how Jeff once rescued a man from drowning in the ocean…and then became fixated on him. Lauren Groff calls it an “agile novel of ideas with unexpectedly sharp teeth” and Andrew Sean Greer declared it “the best book I’ve read in ages.” I myself loved this riveting and smart novel. And: the perfect ending will make you gasp. (Edan)

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, follows up her slim and beautiful novel about poets, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, with a modern retelling of The Brothers Karamazov. The story concerns the family who owns Fine Chao, a Chinese restaurant in Haven, Wisc. When patriarch Leo Chao is found dead, the three adult sons come under suspicion. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it “timely, trenchant, and thoroughly entertaining.” Jean Kwok says it’s “a gorgeous and gripping mystery.” (Edan)

Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi: The author of multiple YA novels and the adult novel Riot Baby again enters the world of adult fiction, and that world turns out to be a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the planet is rapidly emptying out, and those with no choice but to stay behind can do no less than try and make a go of it. Macmillan calls Goliath “…a richly urgent mosaic about race, class, gentrification, and who is allowed to be the hero of any history.” (Il’ja)

The Hard Sell by Evan Hughes: Praised as “revelatory” and as “compelling as a true crime documentary,” Hughes’s second book, The Hard Sell, follows the trail of big pharma start-up Insys and its pedaling of a synthetic opioid in deceitful and fraudulent ways so as to maximize profit and patient use. Think Purdue, think Sackler-like profit and greed, think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos level hubris. The Hard Sell grew out of Hughes’s 2018 story for The New York Times, “The Pain Hustlers” and has been called “a tour de force” by Patrick Radden Keefe, author of bestselling Sackler exposé The Empire of Pain. (Anne)

Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson: It’s the 1990s in Norway and a young mother misreads a word. Normally, nothing to worry about; just read it again. But in this, the latest novel from Øyehaug, who has made a mark with her “wily, mercurial prose” (Kirkus), there’s no second chance, and life goes on, though now with mother and daughter living in different dimensions. Separated for eternity but oblivious to the fact. Or not entirely oblivious—life in a parallel universe also comes stocked with lots of free-floating disquiet, unnamable regret, and a heightened sense of the weight of even a single word. (Il’ja)

Thank You Mister Nixon by Gish Jen: Another fantastic story collection from the renowned, award-winning author, Jen. Thank You, Mr. Nixon is an original, mind-blowing exploration of  U.S.-China relations/dynamics since China reopened its borders half a century ago. City girl Lulu Koo gets confused by the American obsession of walking “in the woods with mosquitoes”; Hong Kong parents make extreme efforts to reclaim their “number-one daughter” who now lives in New York; raised under the mantra “no politics, just make money,” Betty Koo grows up to reflect on her family culture. As always, Jen’s signature humor shines through these linked stories. The collection makes you laugh, gasp, wonder, and sometimes gives you pause. In those little moments when you pause to think, you are actually witnessing the astonishing transformations that have been reshaping the world and era we live in. (Jianan)

The Latinist by Mark Prins: The Latinist is a brilliant contemporary thriller about obsession, power, and control. Tess Templeton is a golden girl at Oxford University. Her mentor, professor Christopher Eccles, supports her whole-heartedly. However, just as Tess believes she will secure a promising position in the academic job market, she finds out Christopher has shattered her career picture. He is doing everything to keep her with him at Oxford. Tess struggles to find a way out of his control. Fortunately, she discovers an obscure ancient Latin poet that could potentially turn her into a rising star in academia. The Latinist reminds us of the Daphne and Apollo myth. The novel delves deep to question the blurring line between love and obsession, between a yearning for truth and a desire of power. (Jianan)

Biblioepsy by Gina Apostol: Who hasn’t used books as an escape? For Primi, who is living through the brutal Marcos regime in the Philippines, she is “a vagabond from history, a runaway from time” and sees her favorite authors and literature as a way through the revolution. Originally published in 1997, Apostol’s debut novel is finally available in the U.S. and a perfect read for these chaotic times. (Kate)

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho: Fiona Lin and Jane Shen have been best friends since second grade. As they grow into messy, restless adults, their connection is a constant reminder of their families’ complicated pasts and lingering insecurities. Their story—hilarious, poignant, and intense—offers a refreshing portrait of friendship in all its limitations and bounty. (Kate)

Manywhere by Morgan Thomas: A collection of short stories following queer and genderqueer characters in the South, spanning states and time. In a starred review, Kirkus praises these “Innovative stories that probe the ineluctable bond between storytelling and identity.” (Lydia)

Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka: Ansel Packer is a convicted serial killer soon to be executed. He’s just not quite ready to go; not until he gets some credit for his work. But the women whose lives he’s shattered—his mother, his wife, his sister-in-law, and the detective who stopped him—aren’t interested in celebrating him, not in life, not in death. Much more than a procedural thriller, HarperAcademic says, that Notes, examines “…our system of justice and our cultural obsession with crime stories, asking readers to consider the false promise of looking for meaning in the psyches of violent men.” (Il’ja)

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang: Any book that features an introspective, solitary woman living along in a big city is automatically added to my TBR pile. Wang’s debut novel, Chemistry, was an instant favorite, and her follow-up promises an equally complex and intelligent protagonist. Joan is an ICU doctor who is asking all the big, unknowable questions in the wake of her father’s death, and when she’s met with relentless uncertainty, that’s when the adventure begins. (Kate)

The Boy We Made by Taylor Harris: In this memoir, Harris shares the experience of looking for a diagnosis for her toddler son when she knew something was wrong, and how that bewildering and confounding experience of navigating the healthcare system as a Black mother also ended up revealing life-saving information about her own health. Deesha Philyaw says of the book: “Taylor Harris has masterfully captured the wonder and weight of the endurance race that is motherhood. Mothering in the face of illness and uncertainty as a Black woman is downright Olympian. Harris’ beautiful, crisp prose drew me right into her family’s journey. Their story is heart-wrenching, hopeful, and truly unforgettable.” (Lydia)

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu: Fans of Cloud Atlas and Station Eleven will love this spellbinding and profoundly prescient debut. It’s 2030 and a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter, where melting permafrost reveals the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus. Matt Bell calls this prescient debut “A book of incredible scope and ambition, a polyphonic elegy for the possible.” (Marie)

Velorio by Xavier Navarro Aquino: The novel follows the movements of an island utopian community in the aftermath of devastating Hurricane Maria. Justin Torres raved of the book “Velorio recognizes that neither utopia nor dystopia are finite states, that they exist alongside and even inside one another, like the hurricane and the eye, the empire and the island. Xavier Navarro Aquino takes us on a riveting, harrowing journey through the aftermath, where the natural violence of the storm is compounded by disaster capitalists; the dead haunt the living; impossible decisions are made and seemingly impossible futures are born.” (Lydia)

Strangers I Know by Claudia Durastanti, translated by Elizabeth Harris: In her first novel to appear in English, Durastanti composes a riveting portrait of a woman’s eccentric family and her binational upbringing in America and Italy. The book begins with the narrator presenting two different versions of how her parents, each of whom are deaf—“They spoke the same language composed of gasps and words pronounced too loudly”—met for the first time in Rome, both claiming that “they saved the other’s life.” The perceptive, witty narrator chronicles their intense, brief connection and her shambolic coming-of-age in a work that has been compared to Natalia Ginzburg’s. (Matt)

Wahala by Nikki May: A novel of three Anglo-Nigerian best friends whose dynamic is thrown off by the arrival of a glamorous, treacherous fourth. In a starred review, Library Journal wrote, “May seamlessly weaves love, betrayal, self-reflection, and Nigerian food, clothing, and customs into this fast-paced debut.” (Lydia)

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, translated by Elena Pala: In the second of his books to win the prestigious Strega Prize, the Italian novelist Sandro Veronesi tells the story of an ophthalmologist with a roving wife and a gambling problem, among other troubles that are clouding his vision. Publishers Weekly praised this “chaotic black comedy of blunders” for being “cleverly structured like a jigsaw puzzle,” and a rave in the Guardian proclaimed that “everything that makes the novel worthwhile and engaging is here: warmth, wit, intelligence, love, death, high seriousness, low comedy, philosophy, subtle personal relationships and the complex interior life of human beings.” (Matt)

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades: A polyphonic novel celebrating the lives of young brown girls in Queens. Raven Leilani says of the book, “An acute study of those tender moments of becoming, this is an ode to girlhood, inheritance, and the good trouble the body yields.” (Lydia)

Seasonal Work by Laura Lippman: This collection of 11 stories from Lippman hardly needs any selling, but just for the heck of it: if you’re into tales of “deception, murder, dangerous games, and love gone wrong,” this is for you; and if you’re a Lippman devotee and/or Baltimore superfan (synonymous?), rest assured that ’does indeed make an appearance. (Nick M.)

Violeta by Isabel Allende, translated by Frances Riddle: The novel’s titular narrator begins with the story of her birth—a rather ominous entry into this world, replete with a storm, lost electricity, and the scourge of the Great Influenza pandemic. Illness, quarantining, fear, and resolve shape the family. Violeta’s expansive tale is told to her grandson Camilo, a Jesuit priest—an appropriate framing for a confession of generational and historical scope. (Nick R.)

High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez: A memoir of coming of age as a queer Latinx man, taking place in spaces disparate as a cockfighting ring in Nicaragua, a drag queen convention in Los Angeles, and a doctor’s office. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “A brilliant and provocative interrogation of sex, gender, race, and love.” (Lydia)

Fuccboi by Sean Thor Conroe: This novel was the last editorial project of the late Giancarlo DiTrapano of Tyrant Books, and was then acquired by Little Brown (read a profile of Conroe here.) The book is an exploration of toxic masculinity that Sheila Heti (whose emails are reproduced in the novel without permission, although she later forgave!) says, “Got under my skin in the way the best writing can.” (Lydia)

No Light to Land On by Yara Zgheib: A novel about a young Syrian couple separated by the Muslim ban on the eve of their child’s birth, and the hellish limbo of bureaucratic cruelty. Hala Alyan says of the novel, ““A masterful story of tragedy and redemption, an entire history told through the prism of a single Syrian couple, beginning and ending with love.” (Lydia)

Call Me Cassandra by Marcial Gala: As a young boy in the Cuba of the tumultuous 1970s, Rauli feels misunderstood by his family and drawn to the myths of the Greeks, especially the Trojan war and the visions of Cassandra. Gala’s novel travels from Cuba to Troy to Angola, interweaving Rauli’s story with the story of Cuba. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “A haunting meditation on identity and violence.” (Lydia)

South to America by Imani Perry: Brilliant scholar and writer Perry explores the southern U.S., complicating the narratives that persist about it today with real encounters of people and communities. Kiese Laymon says of the book, “South to America marks time like Beloved did. Similarly, we will talk not solely of books about the south, but books generally as before or after South to America. I have known and loved the South for four decades and Imani Perry has shown me that there is so much more in our region’s fleshy folds to know, explore and love. It is simply the most finely crafted and rigorously conceived book about our region, and nation, I have ever read.” (Read Perry’s 2021 Year in Reading here.) (Lydia)

Sticker by Henry Hoke: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, Hoke’s “memoir in twenty stickers” weaves memories of different stickers with reflections on his hometown of Charlottesville, site of the infamous violent fascist march that held the attention of the world. Jocelyn Nicole Johnson called it “Funny, nostalgic, and weird in the best possible way.” (Lydia)

A Dream Life by Claire Messud: The great Messud returns with a novel set in Australia, wherein a family moves from New York of the 1970s to a giant mansion by the Sydney Harbor. In what must be one of the best blurbs of all time, the legend Helen Garner says of the novel, “A perfect frolic of a book, puffed on breezes of beauty and wit: it waltzes you through a little fear, a little darkness, and tips you out, refreshed and laughing, into the sun.” (Lydia)

February

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti: This is a touching, funny, and philosophical novel about a woman looking to find her place in the world. When Mira leaves home for school, she meets a charismatic woman named Annie, who, as the publisher describes, “opens Mira’s chest like a portal.” After Mira’s father dies, she enters the strange dimension of acute grief and finds a world of insight inside. As the publisher says, it’s a “contemporary bible, an atlas of feeling, and an absurdly funny guide to the great (and terrible) things about being alive.” (Claire)

Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong: The fiction debut from acclaimed poet Birdsong, Nobody’s Magic tells the story of three women from Shreveport who have albinism, and the way their lives intersect. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “a stunning achievement,” and Angela Flournoy describes the novel as “a world full of complex, memorable characters who feel real, with stories unlike any I’ve read before.” (Lydia)

In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs: in this memoir, writer and perfumer Tanaïs—that’s right, perfumer not performer—reckons with their American Bangladeshi Muslim femme experiences, via stories of childhood, love, psychedelics, and fragrances. In addition to personal history, In Sensorium is “an interrogation of the ancient violence of caste, rape culture, patriarchy, war, and the inherited ancestral trauma of being from a lush land constantly denuded…because of colonization, capitalism, and climate change.” Body and scent as history, herstory, theirstory. (Sonya)

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The eighth book by pithy stylist Manguso happens also to be her debut novel. She’s written across genres—from poetry collections to nonfiction works (OngoingnessThe Two Kinds of Decay), and her previous book, 300 Arguments, is an aphoristic autobiography. Her novel, Very Cold People, is an “empathic bildungsroman” about a young girl coming of age in an austere (and very cold) Massachusetts town. Lauren Groff says Very Cold People “knocked me to my knees” with a story that “is devastatingly familiar to those of us who know the loneliness of growing up in a place of extreme emotional restraint.” (Anne)

Recitatif by Toni Morrison: The literary giant Morrison’s first published story, and the only short story she ever wrote, is now republished for the first time since 1983 with an introduction by Zadie Smith, who writes, “When [Morrison] called Recitatif an ‘experiment’ she meant it. The subject of the experiment is the reader.” (Lydia)

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James: The second installment of James’s Dark Star trilogy now arrives, continuing the grand saga of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and has been greeted with great acclaim. In a starred review, Booklist writes, “If Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a penciled comic panel, Moon Witch, Spider King is the version rendered by James the inker: the geography, myth, magic, and people of this epic setting are revisited to add shading and detail in a recursive procedure that results in a vibrant tapestry begging for infinite return trips.” (Lydia)

Antiquities and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick: The present edition centers on Ozick’s masterful novella—Antiquities—about the struggles of a former trustee of the long-defunct Temple School for Boys who’s trying to write his memoirs while fending off senescence. But the modern world just keeps butting in on memory. The volume includes four previously uncollected stories by the author: “The Coast of New Zealand,” “The Bloodline of the Alkanas,” “Sin,” and “A Hebrew Sibyl.” (Il’ja)

Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell: In this story, Gonzalo, an obscure Chilean poet, isn’t much good at relationships, but just maybe his ex-stepson and budding poet Vincente will prove to be. The thing that has always made Zambra’s writing irresistible (to me, anyway) is his attention to the seemingly inconsequential matters that render our lives so flush with consequence. Chilean Poet will almost certainly amble along Zambra’s wonderfully original, laconic literary path. (Il’ja)

The Boy with a Bird in His Chest by Emme Lund: Lund’s debut novel is a magical realist queer allegory that follows a young boy who finds out as a teenager that a bird named Gail lives in his chest—a revelation that has his mother spiriting him away and sending him to live with a cousin with whom he navigates the shoals of growing up in a thorny world. Andrew Sean Greer called it “a modern coming of age full of love, desperation, heartache and magic. An honest celebration of life and everything we need right now in a book.” (Lydia)

Clean Air by Sarah Blake: In a follow-up to her gorgeous, award-winning debut, Naamah, poet Blake explores the post-climate apocalypse where tree pollen poisoned the air and killed billions. Ten years later, the survivors (including Izabel, a restless mother, and her family) live in domes and have begun to build a new normal—until an unknown person begins slashing through the barrier and exposing people to the deadly air. Angie Kim writes, “Clean Air is an amazing blend of page-turning mystery, important commentary about environmental destruction, and poignant portraiture of maternal love.” (Carolyn)

Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black: A father writes letters to his son on his deathbed, making amends for years of silence and the rifts caused by his reaction to his son’s coming out. The letters share stories of his past and the past that came before them in rural Arkansas, back to the days of slavery and the fallout of the intervening years. Jesmyn Ward calls the novel “a perfect song.” (Lydia)

Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World by Sasha Fletcher: Fletcher’s debut is a surreal comedy about endless debt and the perversities of American life. Amelia Gray raves, “Fletcher’s full-throated talent shines in this tender, funny, time-jumping novel spanning faith, love, and the modern world. A bold and open-hearted work, like nothing else.” (Lydia)

How to Be a Revolutionary by CA Davids: A novel connecting China during the Great Leap Forward and the Tiananmen uprising with Apartheid-era South Africa through the story of a South African diplomat posted in China and her explorations of Langston Hughes’s travels in China with a Chinese friend who eventually disappears. Publishers Weekly calls it “exquisite and eye-opening.” (Lydia)

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas: Jonas’s unnamed narrator—a 50-something, tenured English professor at a small liberal arts school—finds herself at the center of a campus scandal: her husband is under investigation for having inappropriate relationships with his students. As she navigates the notoriety, she finds herself becoming deeply sexually obsessed with her new colleague, Vladimir, a young, married novelist. A book that explores power, gender, and desire, which Adrienne Brodeur calls “a whip smart and ferociously clever tale of swirling allegiances, literary rivalries, and romantic tripwires detonating hidden mines.” (Carolyn)

Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman: As the Crime columnist for The New York Times Book Review, author of The Real Lolita, and editor of Unspeakable Acts, Weinman is one of the best at getting beyond sensation to understand the intersection of crime and our larger culture. This book is her investigation into the wrongful exoneration of killer Edgar Smith and how his editor, the women who loved him, friends, and the courts were among those he manipulated into helping set him free—only for him to re-offend again. Booklist calls it, “a psychologically fascinating must-read.” (Claire)

Wildcat by Amelia Morris: Morris’s debut explores new motherhood and toxic female friendships set against the backdrop of contemporary Los Angeles. Our own Edan Lepucki said of the book, “Wildcat is that rare novel I’m always in the mood to read: at once laugh-at-loud funny and deeply serious, page-turning and smart. Amelia Morris tackles contemporary motherhood—with its social media-induced peer pressure, its confusing isolation, its complicated beauty—with the sharpest wit and a tenderness that takes my breath away. I loved this book. I want to press it into the hands of…everyone.” (Lydia)

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb: Why are priceless string instruments so hard to keep track of? Yo-Yo Ma left his Stradivarius cello in a cab, and two other musicians have in recent decades forgotten their multi-million-dollar violins in a taxi and on a train. In Slocumb’s debut novel, a talented Black violinist from rural North Carolina faces this nightmarish scenario when his priceless Strad goes missing before a music competition. From this setup, Slocumb composes a mystery around the disappearance of the violin and the painful racial history of its provenance. An added bonus: the author has provided an accompanying playlist. (Matt)

Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh: The abortion debate gets personal in Haigh’s timely sixth novel. Claudia, a counselor at the Mercy Street clinic, smokes weed to cope with the stress of guiding young women through the choice of their lives while a rabidly pro-life activist shames women online for visiting the clinic and plots to travel from his remote cabin to “save” Claudia. “I’m just going to say it: Jennifer Haigh is the greatest novelist of our generation,” says Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year. “And Mercy Street is her best novel yet.” (Michael)

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer: Three novellas—Cowboy Graves, French Comedy of Horrors, and Fatherland—from the Chilean master. The final tale focuses on a young writer of poetry—the genre that defined Bolaño’s vision. Bolaño once noted that Nicanor Parra claimed the best novels are written in meter, while Harold Bloom said the best contemporary poetry is written in prose; the novella form is the perfect synthesis of both modes. (Nick R.)

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: A “tour de force of economy, precision, and emotional power,” says Otsuka’s publisher about her new novel; and I utterly believe it. This is what Otsuka does—spare yet unforgettable novels that know exactly what they are about and how to convey their depth of meaning. Here she plumbs the inner lives of a group of recreational swimmers—their quotidian needs, and the fragility of their minds and bodies when these needs are disrupted. I am really looking forward to this one. (Sonya)

How to Be Normal by Phil Christman Though the Midwest is by far the largest geographical region of the United States, diverse in culture, history, and ideology, it’s still often slurred as “flyover country” and reduced to a set of often inaccurate red state stereotypes. Writer, professor, and theorist of the middle American sublime Christman complicated those tropes in his excellent set of essays Midwest Futures, which was both narratively and structurally innovative in how it moved beyond the tired tropes of a million New York Times think pieces. In his follow up How to Be Normal, Christman presents essays on a variety of topics ranging from race and masculinity to religion and pop culture, all written in the tone of a subversive self-help guide. Engaging a belles-lettristic negative capability, Christman takes on the big subjects while always remembering that the point of criticism is to more fully be a person, part of “our little attempts that we make at building a home in this world.” (Ed)

When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry: In the latest from the author of We Ride Upon Sticks, two identical twins—brothers who fell out years before after one rejected the monastic life they shared—set out across Mongolia to find a great lama reincarnate. The brother who remained a monk, Chulun, struggles to get along with his estranged twin, Mun, a task that only gets more difficult as the terrain pushes their differences to the breaking point. Throughout, Chulun wrestles with questions of faith and brotherhood, along with the futility in trying to hold on to one set of beliefs in a world that seems to change by the minute. (Thom)

Dead Collection by Isaac Fellman: An archival love story between a TV star’s widow and an archivist with a condition (vampirism) that keeps him hiding in the basement. Jordy Rosenberg called it “A moving and provocative novel, that caresses the decay nibbling at the hard edges of postmodern officescapes, exposing a sexy, neurotic, cinematic vampire love story bubbling up from the ruins.” (Lydia)

Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You by Ariel Delgado Dixon: Two sisters in a desolate town in New York support each other when their parents disappear, spending stints in homes for troubled teens. Joy Williams calls the book “Eventful, complex, admirably structured, relentless, and spooky.” (Lydia)

The Maiden of All Our Desire by Peter Manseau: Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and cofounder of the excellent religion website Killing the Buddha, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, Manseau writes excellent books at an unnerving pace. Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead saw Manseau traveling pilgrimage routes to investigate relics, The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost told a story at the intersection of technology and spiritualism, and Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son followed his own unusual autobiography. The Maiden of All Our Desires shows Manseau turning to fiction for the second time in his career, but his interest is still in the lived experience of faith. Evoking both Umberto Eco and Lauren Groff, The Maiden of All Our Desires unfolds in a single day at a convent during the 14th-century Black Death, in which issues of belief and heresy are engaged, and the individual must face the enormity of history. (Ed)

Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan: Kaplan was twice a finalist for the National Book Award, in 1976 and 1981, for O My America! and Other People’s Lives, and her short fiction is collected here for the first time, vibrant stories of post-war Jewish New York. Vogue says the collection “fizzes with the urbane energy of J.D. Salinger, Grace Paley, and Deborah Eisenberg—a restless delight.” (Lydia)


Cost of Living by Emily Maloney: An essay collection by an emergency room technician who came to the work after her teenage suicide attempt put her into the tortuous cycle of medical debt—a burden that might touch anyone who has the misfortune of needing medical care in our broken American system, where a broken leg can lead to financial ruin. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves, “Maloney artfully unpacks the fraught connection between money and health in her brilliant debut collection. Maloney is masterful at beginning in a place of skepticism and ending with empathy, all while weaving in her own fascinating story.” (Lydia)
New Animal by Ella Baxter: This strange, sexy, wonderful novel by Australian author Baxter follows a woman who works in her family’s mortuary and processes the grief of a loved one’s passing by an exploration of local kink clubs. Kirkus wrote in a bewildered but supportive review, “this unusual novel navigates the most treacherous of emotional territories—the fault lines between love and grief, sex and death—with a deliberate lack of grace and real charm.” (Lydia)

Away to Stay by Mary Kuryla: A novel of the Inland Empire following a working class immigrant family struggling to keep afloat and housed in an unforgiving economy. Lexi Freiman says of the novel, “Kuryla has an unflinching eye for the dark strangeness of domestic life and her ravishing prose only deepens the provocation. A powerful and stunningly original book.” (Lydia)

March

Digital Communion: Marshal McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age by Nick Ripatrazone. At The Millions we’re lucky to have Ripatrazone as a contributing editor, since he has consistently proven himself to be one of the most astute commenters on culture and religion writing today, at sites like Image, Rolling Stone, LitHub, and here. His latest book Digital Communion investigates the religious implications of the celebrated Canadian media theorist Marshal McLuhan, a figure who first explicated the philosophical implications of television. In Ripatrazone’s hands, the Jesuit educated McLuhan is restored to being “the greatest prophet of the digital age.” In our own era of communion administered through Zoom and mindfulness apps that incorporate Zen onto your smartphone, Ripatrazone makes a brilliant argument as to what McLuhan has to say about the benefits and perils of digital faith. (Ed)

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo: From the author of We Need New Names, which The New York Times called “A deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel,” comes a novel charts the fall of Old Horse, the long-serving leader of an oppressive regime in a fictional country, but inspired by the coup in November 2017 of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. The novel centers on Destiny, who has returned from exile to witness the revolution, and a chorus of animal voices, who call out the absurdity of contemporary politics and, according to the publisher, help “us see our human world more clearly.” (Claire)

Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde: A naïve young woman with idealistic hopes of fighting climate change follows a charismatic leader to a remote island in the Bahamas. She joins a band of eco-warriors only to discover that things aren’t what she expected. This debut novel follows Hyde’s 2016 story collection, Of This New World, and wrestles with similar themes of utopia. (Hannah)

Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis: In this pre-apocalyptic novel, every person on Earth has a dream that tells them the world will end in November. Lyd, a once-successful novelist who has become a deeply dysfunctional agoraphobe, is forced to leave her home for the first time in years in order to protect her teenage daughter, Mott, who is determined to write her own first book before the world ends. The pair embark on a road trip through a strange and menacing world, fleeing from their dangerous ex-husband/father, David, who believes that they should be forced to spend their last days in his home. Appleseed author Matt Bell called it “the best new novel I’ve read in ages.” (Adam P.)

Body Work by Melissa Febos: The memoirist and essayist has written an insightful and innovative craft book addressing the grueling work of intimate personal writing. Alexander Chee said of the book, “Melissa Febos has written one of the most liberating books on the subject of writing that I can think of.” (Lydia)

Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra: Returning to fiction after a two-decade hiatus, Indian writer Mishra delivers a new novel that explores the high cost of unbridled ambition. At the center of Run and Hide is Arun, who gets a ticket out of his hometown when he’s accepted at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. There he makes two friends who will cut any corner to succeed, and soon they’re living a Gatsbyesque life. Arun withdraws, but he is lured out of seclusion by a journalist who is writing an expose of his former friends’ chicanery—and will teach Arun that we can run from our origins, but there’s no place to hide. (Bill)

The Last Suspicious Holdout by Ladee Hubbard: Spanning 15 year—from 1992 to 2007—this collection from the author of The Rib King focuses on a single Black neighborhood in “a southern sliver of suburbia.” In “There He Go,” a young girl copes with her itinerant home life by telling herself stories about her absent grandfather. In “False Cognates,” a formerly incarcerated lawyer struggles to pay tuition at his troubled son’s elite private school. Throughout, characters from one story pop up in another, giving the collection a unified narrative weight. (Thom)

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou: An Asian American PhD student desperate to claw her way out of academic hell? Sign me up, please! Even better, Alexander Chee calls this an “Asian American literary studies whodunnit.” Ingrid Yang finds herself in the midst of solving a mystery tied to a late canonical Chinese poet that leaves her questioning everything from her romantic life to her academic career. Oh, and her best friend is named Eunice Kim. For everyone with a Eunice Kim in their life, let’s kick off our inaugural book club with Disorientation. I’ll bring the soju. (Kate)

We Had to Remove This Post By Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault: Employed as content moderators at a social media company, Kayleigh and her colleagues watch and evaluate endless streams of the most horrifying and disturbing content the Internet has to offer. The unending violence and hate begins to take a toll and the team, and Kayleigh, fall apart. Ling Ma writes: “This novel gives us an acid glimpse into a new form of labor existing today, a job that extracts an immeasurable psychic toll. Fascinating and disturbing.”  (Carolyn)

Border Less by Namrata Poddar: Poddar’s debut, which was a finalist for the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, is divided in two sections tracing the migratory journey of Dia Mittal, an airline call center agent in Mumbai who supports her family and who is looking for opportunity, leaving on a journey that brings her together with South Asians from across the spectrum of class and circumstance. A beautiful narrative approached with what Ananda Devi calls “heart-breaking delicacy and precision.” (Read Poddar’s 2021 Year in Reading here.) (Lydia)

A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande: A love story of the Mexican-American War about the romance between a Mexican healer and an Irish American soldier who defects and joins the fight for Mexico’s freedom, forming an Irish battalion. Julia Alvarez writes of the novel, “Grande integrates a sweeping Tolstoyan vision and command of language with her very own Latin American popular traditions…This is indeed a grand and soulful novel by a storyteller who has hit her full stride.” (Lydia)

Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton: Essayist and critic Newton’s first book length work is memoir, a fascinating combination of a journey to find out more about the flamboyant characters in her family going back generations, mixed seamlessly with “America’s Ancestry Craze,” her Harper’s article about the genealogy craze that has become a serious even all-consuming hobby for many Americans. An unflinching exploration into the history of a troubled family tree and the universal but also peculiarly American need to discover “roots.” (Marie)

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole. This debut coming-of-age novel is a love story set in Kentucky during the run-up to the 2016 election. It centers on Owen Callahan, an aspiring writer who moves back home to Kentucky to live with his Trump-supporting uncle and grandfather. He takes a job as a groundskeeper at a local college, in exchange for writing classes. There he meets Alma Hazdic, a writer in residence who hails from a Boston, and whose immigrant family is much more liberal than Owen’s. They are from different worlds, and as they begin to fall in love, Alma struggles to understand Owen’s complicated relationship with his conservative relatives and his home state. (Hannah)

Homesickness by Colin Barrett: The good folks at Grove Atlantic say that Homesickness contains “…eight character-driven stories.” Here’s what I say: Young Skins, Barrett’s first short story collection (2015), destroyed me. So good. I’m not paid to be objective, and it would be impossible anyway since Young Skins won ALL the awards, not just the Irish ones. With an ARC of Homesickness in hand, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d read Barrett’s grocery lists should he choose to publish them. A major writer in the making. No less than Anne Enright calls his work “lyrical and tough and smart.” Anne Enright is correct. Expect stories of the down and out, the oddballs and misfits, the working class. Characters with flaws and nary a tidy, dignified outcome within sniffing distance. (Il’ja)

A House Between Earth and the Moon by Rebecca Scherm: A House Between Earth and the Moon is a page-turning exploration of a potential human future. As climate change makes our planet less and less habitable, scientist Alex accepts an offer from giant tech company Sensus to set his lab in outer space on Parallaxis. However, as soon as Alex and six other scientist arrive in the outer space, they become the hard laborers of Sensus. Yet, they persevere, hoping they will reunite with their families soon. On Earth, wildfires and storms are tormenting humanity. People struggle not only with the elements, but also with the surveillance of the Sensus phones. How can humanity find a way out of these apocalyptic events? Contemporary literature does not lack dark sci-fi to warn us of the possible futures that we are headed toward. But A House Between Earth and the Moon dedicates its most vivid imaginations to not only a scary future, but to human tenacity and the power of love. (Jianan)

A Novel Obsession by Caitlin Barasch: Naomi Ackerman wants to write a novel, but she’s having trouble coming up with a novel-worthy idea. She meets a man; she’ll write a novel about love! The man has an interesting ex-girlfriend; maybe Naomi should write about her instead. But first she’ll have to get to know her. Lies unfold; chaos ensues; the line between fact and fiction, real life and invented, blurs and then disappears. In a starred review, Kirkus calls Barasch’s “dread-laden psychological novel” of a debut “an incisive study of female friendship…smart, jarring, and funny.” (Kaulie)

Mecca by Susan Straight: Straight’s return to fiction in the time of Covid, Mecca follows her recent memoir and shares with it a fascination with California and the generations of dreamers and desperates who have made their home in the west. At the novel’s core is the Latinx community of Southern California—highway patrolmen, ICU nurses, animal control workers, gardeners; representatives from the web of people who sustain others’ golden dreams—and the interconnected lives of characters facing drought and fire as well as ICE and viruses. A novel of “fierce compassion” (PW) and “a hymn to all that have called the Golden State home” (Walter Mosley). (Kaulie)

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton: The Secret History meets Fight Club, sort of, but younger, more feminine, more queer. In Burton’s second novel, sensitive Laura transfers to a Maine prep school, the alma mater of her favorite novelist, a Byronic figure who died tragically young. There, she finds her place in the cultish chapel choir, a group fervently devoted to the novelist and held in thrall by their charismatic leader, Virginia. Laura becomes infatuated with Virginia, but when charisma turns dangerous, she has to decide how deep her devotion goes. (Kaulie)

Páradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes: In her second novel to reach the U.S., Melchor moves from Hurricane Season’s rain-soaked villages into an upscale apartment building called Páradais. There, two boys from different economic strata find common ground: drinking and scheming. Translator Hughes deftly rendered Melchor’s vivid, powerful prose in Hurricane Season, so buckle up for what’s next. (Nick M.)

How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman: “I’m not a fan of the moral filter in fiction,” Bergman has said in an interview. “I don’t want to write about what we should think, feel, or do. I want to write about our ugly, exquisite humanity, our desperate inner selves navigating the world’s obstacles.” Bergman’s characters are unfailingly human—steeped in paradox and grace—and her new collection is pensive, playful, and ambitious. Stories like “The Heirloom” and “Peaches, 1979” alone are masterclasses in dynamic detail, in the lineage of Jayne Anne Phillips. Equally talented as a writer of nonfiction—about subjects ranging from the environment to music to family—Bergman is a sensitive, essential writer. (Nick R.)

Let Me Count the Ways by Tomás Q. Morín: A memoir from the skilled poet (most recently, the collection Machete) and translator of Pablo Neruda. Morín has described his memoir as an exploration of “what it was like for me to grow up in a rural town in South Texas surrounded by a culture of drugs and machismo,” the formative influence of the men in his family, and how he tried to cope with the struggles of his youth. “My parents taught me early that their love had its limits,” he writes early in the book. “I wish I could have mapped out their love. My counting is a way for me to return the things people have made to the blueprint stage.” (Nick R.)

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali: This debut novel from Londoner Ali, is the story of young man torn between family and love, culture and individuality. “Honest” is a word that comes up repeatedly in blurbs and reviews (emotionally, absorbingly, heartbreakingly). “Unafraid of the gray areas of race, faith, sexuality, and love,” writes novelist Lillian Li. (Sonya)

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler: In the seventh novel by the Man Booker finalist, the reader travels back to 1822, where the Booth family—progenitors of John Wilkes Booth—move to a farmhouse near Baltimore to live their lives in seclusion. Over the next 16 years, the family has 10 more children, and Junius Booth, the family’s unstable patriarch and a Shakespearean actor, trains his children for their own careers on the stage. But the background for this training is a country descending into civil war—and one of the Booth children starting down a path that ends with his name in infamy. (Thom)

Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett: Irish author Bennett’s second novel, a Bildungsroman in which a woman recounts the upbringing that led to her becoming a writer, takes us through the unnamed narrator’s childhood in a town west of London. As she grows up, she develops a unique attention to detail, not to mention a growing pile of books and manuscripts. As she navigates her own relationships and her own connection to literature, she forges the talent that leads to her eventual career. (Thom)

Homo Irrealis by Andre Aciman: In his new essay collection, the author of Call Me by Your Name expounds on topics that range from subway poetry in New York to the legacies of Sigmund Freud, W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust, and more. Aciman focuses on the power of the imagination to shape our memories, using himself as an example—though he admits his readings of certain authors may be “erroneous,” they shaped him nonetheless, and so they retain a certain power. This contradiction (among other things) gives the book its narrative throughline. (Thom)

Red Paint by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe: A memoir of a poet and artist from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack tribes who weaves her experience in the punk scene with her experience as a child moving around the Pacific Northwest, and the influence of her great-grandmother, a linguist who helped to preserve her indigenous language of Lushootseed. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the memoir “an engaging, poetic, educative examination of the search for home and personal and cultural identity.” (Lydia)

Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde: A novel of the dispossessed of Lagos, Nigeria—poor, queer, sex workers, rogues, and how their lives intersect. Marlon James says of the novel, “You don’t read this novel. You swan dive into its sea of gods and monsters, lost girls, violent boys, and well-behaved people both righteous and wicked. And when you finally surface, that sound will be you, gasping in wonder.” (Lydia)

April

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow: This debut bildungsroman, a blend of fact and fiction, draws on three generations of the Stringfellow family’s involvement in the civil rights struggle. It opens in 1995 when 10-year-old Joan New, her mother, and sister seek refuge from her father’s violence at the ancestral home in Memphis. There Joan comes of age while painting portraits and learning family history and secrets—among them that her grandfather was lynched and her grandmother was a mistress of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Stringfellow, an attorney and poet, told Book Pipeline: “I hope girls growing up in the North Memphis projects will read it and say, ‘Wow, somebody wrote a story about me.’” (Bill)

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: Another twisty, intellectually meaty novel of the uncanny and otherworldly from Mandel, longtime Millions staffer and bestselling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. This one spans 500 years, from 1912 to 2401, and features a bestselling author visiting Earth from her moon-based colony on a book tour, where she must field a million and one questions about her novel about a “scientifically implausible flu,” while the news warns of a mysterious new virus. That Mandel herself found herself answering a million and one questions about her own pandemic novel during the present pandemic no doubt lends this plot element some verisimilitude. (Michael)

Binding the Ghost by Ed Simon: Simon’s essays are some of the true hidden gems in our contemporary literary world. After the deconstructionism and with the rise of cultural studies, literature is often used as a vehicle to form a political conversation. “Art for art’s sake” seems to be a tradition that we now consider not only outdated but also narrow-minded. Binding the Ghost helps restore our pure pleasures in reading literature as what literature actually is. Simon’s essays are never dogmatic. He guides us through a theological perspective and inspires us to meditate on the many significant, yet often neglected, literary evolvements: the development of the alphabet, the mystic power of punctuation, how the novel and Protestantism construct a relationship with people. Binding the Ghost sings a genuine, beautiful hymn to the magic and wonder of poetry and fiction. (Jianan)

The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Extraordinary Century―From the Civil War to the Cold War by Bill Morris: Our own Morris (Motor City Burning, American Berserk) is back with a work of nonfiction that mixes the personal with history and traces the life of his grandfather, John Morris, who was born into a slave-owning Virginia family during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War. In a starred review, Kirkus, hailed the book—which covers everything from Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition to the horrors of Jim Crow, two World Wars, and the advent of nuclear weapons—as “An entertaining combination of domestic and world history,” adding “[Morris] does a superb job of recounting a life amid a series of significant decades. His imaginative ‘mongrel’ approach—a mix of…biography, history, reportage, memoir, autobiography, and, when the record runs thin, speculation that flirts with fiction—is successful. An entertaining combination of domestic and world history.” (Adam B.)

Song for Almeyda & Song for Anninho by Gayl Jones: The new flow of published work from the brilliant and elusive Jones continues with this extension of the universe of Palmares, a love story for two of its characters entirely in epic verse. (Lydia)

Forbidden City by Vanessa Hua: Hua follows up her extraordinary novel A River of Stars and the collection Deceit and Other Possibilities with a novel that illuminates a figure from history—Mei, Mao Zedong’s protege and lover, a teenager who came from her village to be a dance partner for party elites. Hua deftly explores a tumultuous period in what Maxine Hong Kingston calls “an intriguing and suspenseful story.” (Lydia)

Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones: Jones—tennis reporter, Pulitzer Prize finalist (for her profile of Ramsey Orta, who filmed the police killing of Eric Garner), philosophy professor, fiction writer, too—is indisputably of exquisite mind. In her first book, Easy Beauty, she investigates and interrogates the Western ideals of beauty philosophically and experientially, as a woman living assessed, judged, and often othered for her own disabled body. Cooper Jones’s examination is performed with “the rigor and precision of Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson,” according to playwright Sarah Ruhl. The resulting book is “utterly remarkable,” according to The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Anne K. Yoder)

The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe: Singer-songwriter, actress, fashion icon, producer Monáe has written a book, y’all. Building on the Afrofuturistic mythos of her third album Dirty Computer—a totalitarian, mind-controlling world where queerness, race, gender plurality, and love are all subjugated—Monáe has collaborated with a team of creatives on this collection of stories that “fully explore what it’s like to live in such a totalitarian existence…and what it takes to get out of it.” If anyone can speculate engagingly on such liberation, it seems to me Monáe can. (Sonya)

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan: Described as a sibling novel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Candy House begins with tech entrepreneur Bix Bouton and his venture called Own Your Unconscious, wherein people can download and view their own memories, and share and exchange the memories of others. The rest of the novel explores the consequences of such a phenomenon, and as with Goon Squad, it spans decades and narrative styles, from the omniscient to the epistolary, to a chapter told in tweets. Technology, intimacy, privacy—these are subjects Egan has tackled before, and with such brilliance and formal daring. I cannot wait! (Edan)

Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson: The fantastic critic and memoirist follows up Negroland with another work of memoir that uses a physiology as its architecture: the human nervous system. Vivian Gornick called it “one of the most imaginative—and therefore moving—memoirs I have ever read.” (Lydia)

Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon: Chaon’s eighth book and fourth novel tells the story of Will Bear—a man who, at 50, has been living off the grid for nearly half his life. He’s never paid taxes, never held a full-time job, and never been in a monogamous relationship. What he has done is carry out “errands” for his employer, a powerful organization whose exact nature Will remains hazy about. One day, Will gets a call from a stranger on one of his burner phones, a woman in her 20s who claims to be his long-lost daughter. She needs his help, she says. One problem? The people she needs help dealing with might work with Will’s employer. (Thom)

Shelter by Lawrence Jackson: A memoir of homecoming, by a Black son of Baltimore who returned to the city to teach at Johns Hopkins, buying a house for his sons in a covenanted, predominantly white neighborhood and reflecting on the paradoxes of the city. The memoir weaves his own story of making a home for his family with a history of the city. Edward P. Jones raves: “There are an endless number of wonderful things to say about Lawrence Jackson’s Shelter―from luminous to breathtaking to just being outright admirable.” (Lydia)

The Unwritten Book by Samantha Hunt: Hunt publishes her first book of nonfiction, a work of memoir and literary inquiry that begins when Hunt finds her late father’s unfinished manuscript. Maggie Nelson said of the book, “I can’t remember the last time I read something so heavy with grief and darkness that made me feel so accompanied in the human condition, so inspired to return to my life with more curiosity, love, and wonder.” (Lydia)

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang: A novel set against the background of the American West during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, following a young woman from calligraphy school to a San Francisco brothel to the mountains of Idaho. Ann Patchett called Four Treasures of the Sky “an engulfing, bighearted, and heartbreaking novel.” (Lydia)

Search by Michelle Huneven: Huneven’s fifth novel is based in southern California and revolves around a Unitarian Universalist Church and its search for a new minister. Food writer and memoirist Dana Potowski agrees to join the committee, thinking it will be fodder for a new book. The committee’s choices bring her lots of colorful material but when it comes time to make the decision, Dana finds herself more invested than she realized, and fights for her choice. (Hannah)

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Michael Favala Goldman: It’s no secret we’re often woefully late to read and celebrate foreign authors here in the States—case in point is the 50 year lag in the (re)translation of celebrated Danish poet and author Ditlevsen’s devastating memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy. This “brilliant” and “stunning” accomplishment is one of the most oft-cited books on this year’s “best of” lists despite Ditlevsen having died nearly half a century ago. The one upside for us English language readers is the remaining trove of her work that awaits us. Next up is Ditelevsen’s story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, never before translated to English. It features precisely observed stories from the 1950s and ‘60s, quiet and understated tales of characters yearning and struggling to escape the roles assigned to them while not knowing quite what they’re looking for. (Anne)

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li: Think Indiana Jones but with generations of filial piety and Chinese history behind him. In Li’s debut novel, questions of art and the diaspora are explored as a group of Chinese-American students ransack museums of priceless Chinese art and return it to their homeland. Part thriller, part crime fiction, and part intriguing examination of identity, Portrait Of a Thief is the heist novel art history majors have been waiting for. (Kate Gavino)

Happy for You by Claire Stanford: Stanford’s debut novel follows Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, a young woman at a personal and professional crossroads, as she leaves academia for a research job in Silicon Valley. Tasked with developing an app that helps people quantify their happiness, a struggling Evelyn must find a way back to her own joy. “Happy for You is the optimal novel for the strange times we find ourselves in,” writes Rachel Khong. “This is a book for anyone who’s ever looked around at this brave new world—and wondered about your own place in it.” (Carolyn).

Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson: Probably Ruby is about a Métis woman in her 30s, whose life is spinning out of control. In interwoven narratives, the novel brings together Ruby’s story, from being given up for adoption and raised by white parents to how she finds meaning in kindship and her roots. Imbolo Mbue calls the novel “a celebration of our universal desire to love and be loved.” (Claire)

Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart: The follow-up novel to the Booker prize-wining Shuggie Bain, exploring masculinity, love, queerness, and growing up in Glasgow. In a starred review, Kirkus writes, “You wouldn’t think you’d be eager to return to these harsh, impoverished environs, but again this author creates characters so vivid, dilemmas so heart-rending, and dialogue so brilliant that the whole thing sucks you in like a vacuum cleaner.” (Lydia)

A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn: The L.A. writing community has been anticipating this debut novel from one of our most passionate and engaged members since we learned of its sale. Inspired by Chadburn’s Filipina heritage and her own time in the foster care system, A Tiny Upward Shove begins with a young woman’s death and her transformation into an aswang, or Filipino shapeshifter, able to venture into the minds and experiences of those she has known—including her own killer. Hector Tobar writes: “Melissa Chadburn is a fiercely original, brave writer. She writes with the voice of the survivor she is, finding the lyrical and the deeply human in seemingly dark and impenetrable landscapes.” (Edan)

Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker follows her beloved first novel, Godshot, with this collection of stories about desperate people in Central Valley, California: a woman who steals a baby from a homeless shelter, a mother and son selling dreamcatchers along the highway, teenagers taking too many risks online. Stephanie Danler writes that this book is “astonishing…absolutely devastating” and Lauren Groff calls Bieker “an absolute crackling talent.” (Edan)

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda My interest in this debut novel was first piqued when I read about it in Ruth Ozeki’s Year in Reading for The Millions. I love the title. And a mixed-race vampire, you say? Lydia is a young woman in a London sublet, rooming with artists, away from her vampire mother for the first time. She can only consume blood—and, yet, she doesn’t want to. She wants to be an artist. Kohda, is a British book critic and violinist, and of her debut book, Ozeki writes, “The spell this novel casts is so complete I feel utterly, and happily, bitten.” (Edan)

End of the World House by Adrienne Celt: In Celt’s exhilarating, inventive third novel—the follow-up to Invitation to a Bonfire–Bertie and Kate are long-time friends who take a trip to Paris before Kate moves from Silicon Valley to LA. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the world weren’t, essentially, ending in a slow-motion apocalyptic buffet that includes terrorist attacks, pandemics, and freak weather brought on by climate change. When Bertie and Kate get a chance to tour the Louvre on a day it’s closed, they find themselves in a time loop and must figure out how to rediscover one another, and get to the bottom of their tension, codependence, and resentment. This book about love, friendship, and the cruel nature of time is catnip for fans of Groundhog Day and Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. Rufi Thorpe writes: “Reading Adrienne Celt is like being granted access to a secret kingdom, another layer of reality you didn’t know existed.” I agree. (Edan)

Nobody Gets Out Alive by Leigh Newman: Alaskan Newman follows up her memoir Still Points North with a collection of short stories that show her home state from all angles, from its sprawling suburbs to wilder regions haunted by the frontier past. Newman debut collection includes prize-winning stories “Howl Palace” and title story, “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” which centers on a bride who returns to her hometown of Anchorage only to blow up her own wedding reception. (Hannah)

Post-traumatic by Chantal Johnson: A lawyer at a New York psychiatric hospital deals with her own trauma at home, self-medicating and unraveling as the high-wire act of professionalism and personal trauma becomes untenable. Myriam Gurba raves, “Chantal V. Johnson has blessed us with a cool, stylish, and violently funny novel about survival. It made me smile, laugh, cringe, shiver, and think. Like life, Post-traumatic is richly triggering and highly recommended.” (Lydia)

The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell: In her new memoir, essayist Caldwell explores her struggles with PMDD, a severe form of PMS that drastically affects her mood and mental well-being. Caldwell describes her attempts to treat her condition, and how it affected her relationships and sense of self. I’m here for any memoir that talks honestly about women’s health issues, but the truth is I’d read whatever Caldwell writes. (Hannah)

The Odyssey by Lara Williams: An employee on a cruise ship is selected by her captain for a bizarre mentorship program, and her adherence to it breaks up her life. Mateo Askaripour says of the book, “I have never read anything like this, which is a testament to Lara Williams’s craft, as well as her fearlessness in diving into the more absurd, cringeworthy, and downright uncomfortable aspects of life.” (Lydia)

Rouge Street by Shuang Xuetao, translated by Jeremy Tiang: Shenyang, a major city in Northeast China, was once a thriving industrial hub under Mao Zedong. But as China transforms into a market economy, the once glorious city finds itself burdened with various social ills: poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, alcoholism. Born in Shengyang, Shuang Xuetao presents a vivid picture that captures the various voices of Shengyang’s natives. Undefeated by life, Shuang’s characters fight a giant fish to survive beneath a frozen lake, consider burning a sorghum field for revenge, and imagine leaving their tough neighborhoods in a flying machine. Shuang’s stories are fundamentally about hope, aspiration, and resilience. (Jianan Qian)

Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen: The debut novel from poet and Rona Jaffe Award winner Chen, Activities of Daily Living follows Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant in New York, as she struggles to work on a “project” about the renowned and elusive performance artist Tehching Hsieh when she’s not working a mindless day job. The deeper she gets into her project, the more of her own life slips in. Highly recommend for: fans of Chen’s poetry; fans of Olivia Laing and/or Ben Lerner; anyone who’s ever found themselves consumed by art; anyone who’s fighting the very nature of time (and, really, who isn’t?). (Kaulie)

An Unlasting Home by Mai Al-Nakib: It’s 2013, and though Sara, a professor of philosophy, returned to Kuwait 11 years ago, her feelings about her country remain… complicated, and only more so after a class on Nietzsche leads to an accusation of blasphemy and the threat of execution. In the 1920s, her grandmothers, still only girls, are beginning to make the choices that will shape their lives; a generation later, Sara’s mother is planning a political life while her ayah leaves her own children to mother Sara. An Unlasting Home, the debut novel from the author of The Hidden Light of Objects, follows the lives of five women and, through them, of Kuwait itself through a long century of change. (Kaulie)

At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter: From one of Japan’s most celebrated writers and translators—Ono’s won the Mishima Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, the country’s highest literary honor, among others—At the Edge of the Woods is an eerie allegory of climate apocalypse and unnatural nature. A family moves to, well, the edge of a wood, which turns out to be full of dark laughter, figures that appear and disappear, sounds of violence and gnashing teeth. Bryan Washington calls it “beautiful and seductive,” writing “Ono illustrates modern life’s horrors alongside the wonder of the unknown” and “balances wonder and disquiet with incomparable grace and precision.” (Kaulie)

Out There by Kate Folk: The debut collection from Folk, Out There is, as Chang-Rae Lee puts it, “wondrously perverse, often creepy and hilarious, and always sneakily heartbreaking.” The title story, first published in The New Yorker, sees a San Francisco woman seek love through a dating app despite the threat posed by stunning artificial men designed by foreign hackers. Other stories dig even deeper into the eerie and weird—a void slowly swallows the world; patients battle a bone-melting disease and a dangerous hospital-ward love triangle—but most uncanny of all is Folk’s own voice, imaginative, sharp, and unsettling, human and alien together. (Kaulie)

People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated by Tiffany Tsao: First published in Indonesia 40 years ago, this story collection from celebrated author Darma gets a second life—and an English translation—as a Penguin Classic. Across seven stories set in the gridded streets and rented rooms of Bloomington, Ind., Darma’s characters navigate their morbidly funny lives in this meditation on alienation, failed connection, and the universal strangeness of the human mind. (Kaulie)

Ruin by Cara Hoffman: A collection of anarchistic stories from a founding editor of the Anarchist Review of Books and celebrated author of So Much Pretty, Be Safe I Love You and Running. American society is falling apart; Ruin is a look at what it may look like to survive the collapse, if survival was as surreal and funny as it was brutal. A little girl disguises herself as an old man, a dog begins to speak, separated lovers communicate across the penal colony via technical drawings. The New York Times Book Review has said Hoffman “writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain,” and in Ruin both the pain and poetry are present in force. (Kaulie)

True Biz by Sara Novic: Set in a boarding school for deaf students, Novic’s novel follow teens and adults navigating the personal and the political in a novel that Alexandra Kleeman calls “Rollicking, immersive, and boldly, exquisitely felt…delves into the deepest questions about community, communication, and collective action, inviting the reader into a world of language made new.” (Lydia)

Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur: This novel takes us to 1970s rural South Korea, where a young girl named San who is ostracized from her community meets a girl called Namae. Following a moment of physical intimacy, Namae violently rejects San, setting her on a troubling path. This novel is one of Shin’s first, written while she was in her 20s. The author of the worldwide sensation Please Look After Mom, Shin is one of the most widely read authors in Korea and the first South Korean and first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize. (Marie)

I Was the President’s Mistress! by Miguel Syjuco: A rollicking polyphonic novel from the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize for Illustrado. A satire of political scandal, social upheaval, and absurdity, of which Salman Rushdie says, “This brilliant black comedy is a wild, and wildly unpredictable, ride through the dark side of the Philippines. Miguel Syjuco is his country’s most original and unflinching literary voice.” (Lydia)

Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett: Ghostly narrators, omniscient after death; a drop-out medical student returned home to take care of her dying father; her brother, fresh out of rehab; her oldest friend, a missing addict the local police refuse to search for. Also, hallucinated animals. The second novel from the author of Rabbit Cake, Unlikely Animals is, as our own Lydia Kiesling writes, “a warm, joyful, generous novel about families and human frailty—an homage to the dead and a celebration of the living, one that embraces the complexity and fullness of both.” (Kaulie)

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad: In a literary noir set in Lahore, a chief of police moves through the red light district, caught up in a conspiracy to cover up the murder of a young woman and revisiting his own memories of being abducted as a child from the same neighborhood. Anthony Marra calls the novel “mesmerizing. That a novel so epic in scope can remain so intimate at heart is nothing short of astonishing.” (Lydia)

Some of My Best Friends by Tajja Isen: Catapult editor-in-chief and voice actor Isen publishes a collection of essays on how issues of race and identity surface in both the cartoon and the literary arenas, and how efforts at change have faltered. (Lydia)

All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond: The debut novel from the prolific story writer and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast is also one of the first titles from Zando Projects, a new independent publisher founded by Molly Stern. The novel tells the story of two teenage girls on the trail of a mystery, a “mashup of Jane Eyre and The Wire.” Hector Tobar says of the book, “Almond, a master of the short form, has now set himself loose on a vast canvas, giving us a rollicking, wide-ranging, unpredictable novel. This book is sharp, fast-moving, juicy…a wild ride and a great deal of fun.” (Lydia)

May

The Evening Hero by Marie Myung-Ok Lee: In the Millions’ own Lee’s long-awaited new novel, a Korean immigrant pursuing the American Dream must confront the secrets of the past or risk watching the world he’s worked so hard to build come crumbling down. Dr. Yungman Kwak has worked as an obstetrician for 50 years, treating the women and babies of the small rural Minnesota town he chose to call home. But a letter arrives, and Yungman faces a choice—he must choose to hide his secret from his family and friends or confess and potentially lose all he’s built. The Evening Hero is a moving and darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores. (Adam P.)

Either/Or by Elif Batuman: This novel is a continuation of the story of Selin, Batuman’s protagonist from The Idiot, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK. It’s 1996 and Selin, the one in her family who got to go to Harvard, is now in her sophomore year. Guided by her literature syllabus and more worldly peers, she tries to figure out how to live a worthwhile life. (Claire)

Essential Labor by Angeles Garbes: Garbes wrote a modern classic of pregnancy with Like a Mother, and she follows that with another major contribution to the nonfiction of caregiving and childrearing, with a challenge to reshape the way we think about caregiving and family life in a book that seamlessly weaves together memoir and cultural analysis. This is an incredibly resonant book in pandemic year three, a book I wish we’d had long ago, and a book I’ll never forget. (Lydia)

The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara: A sweeping, biting, elegant book for our time that follows the imprisoned daughter of a tech mogul who began life as a Dalit worker on an Indian coconut plantation before launching an invention that would reorganize the world and profoundly upend his place in it. A novel that explores tech, race, class, politics, and power, from a journalist who was previously the Wall Street Journal’s first Facebook beat reporter, The Immortal King Rao is also one of the only American novels by a Dalit author. R.O. Kwon calls it “Utterly, thrillingly brilliant. From the first unforgettable page to the last, The Immortal King Rao is a form-inventing, genre-exploding triumph.” (Lydia)

Trust by Hernan Diaz: The Pulitzer Prize finalist follows up his brilliant western In the Distance with Trust, a story of the Wall Street tycoons of the Gilded Age with a reality-bending literary mystery at its heart, in keeping with the postmodern historical beauties of In the Distance. Of the novel, Rachel Kushner said, “Its plotlines are as etched and surreal as Art Deco geometry, while inside that architecture are people who feel appallingly real. This novel is very classical and very original: Balzac would be proud, but so would Borges.” (Lydia)

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub: What would you do if you could travel back to 1996? Personally, I would go to the book launch of The Secret History and ask Donna Tartt for style advice. But Alice Stern, heroine of Emma Straub’s fifth novel, has a much better mission: make the most of her time with her eccentric novelist father, Leonard. If you think you know the rules of time travel, think again and pick up this thoughtful, insightful exploration of the complicated connections between parents and children. (Kate)

Valleyesque by Fernando Flores: The followup to Flores’s acclaimed Tears of the Truffle Pig, this collection of stories from the U.S.-Mexico border gathers up tales as disparate as a muralist taken on a journey by a Zapata tee-shirt, or a young Lee Harvey Oswald. Matt Bell calls Flores “one of the rare truly singular fiction writers of our time, and his stories are endlessly innovative, surprising, and fun.” (Lydia)

Circa by Devi S. Laskar: The second novel from poet, photographer and author Laskar, Circa follows Heera and her friend Marco as they try to navigate their changed lives and find a way back to each other after their youthful rebellion leads to a sudden and devastating loss. Heera also must balance the expectations of her Bengali-American family with her own desire for freedom and the life in New York she imagined she’d lead before the night everything went wrong. As lyrical and rebellious as Heera herself, Circa comes highly recommended for fans of Claire Messud’s Burning Girl. (Kaulie)

Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman: When young, queer Brooklynite Eve posts nude photos of herself one night, she sets off a series of events leading her to Olivia and Nathan—and soon the three begin an affair that’s equal parts thrilling and distressing. Raven Leilani writes: “Acts of Service doesn’t kiss you first; it gets right to it—depicting the liquid frequencies of need and power with a thoughtful, savage eye.” (Carolyn)

Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej: A chance meeting at an artists’ residency leads a young, queer artist headlong into a sexual affair with an older, established choreographer. This sensual and gripping coming-of-age explores desire, art, obsession, and selfhood. Ling Ma calls the debut “a darkly sensuous tale of awakening that will quietly engulf you in flames.” (Carolyn)

Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces by Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Abdelmahmoud is a culture writer for BuzzFeed and host of the CBC’s podcast Pop Chat. This collection weaves together a story of his life, from arriving in Canada at age 12 from Sudan and his teenage years in a homogenous city to learning to become, “every liberal white dad’s favorite person in the room.” The essays reflect on how experiences and environment shape our identity, covering everything from The O.C., to wrestling, and the long shadow of colonialism. As the publisher says, it’s a book, “with the perfect balance of relatable humor and intellectual ferocity.” (Claire)

Companion Piece by Ali Smith: The title says it all: Smith’s latest novel is a companion piece to her beloved seasonal quartet. As with the previous titles in the collection, it is a time-sensitive work that attempts to capture the way we live now. (Hannah)

The Year of the Horses by Courtney Maum: The author of Costalegre and I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You returns with a touching and insightful memoir of depression and healing. Maum has a privileged past, a mortgage, a husband, a healthy child, and a published novel—she feels no right to her depression, but that does not make it go away. When other treatments fail, she returns to her childhood passion of horseback riding. Maum alternates timelines and braids historical portraits of women and horses into her own story in The Year of the Horses, an inspiring paean to the power of animals that Lisa Taddeo calls “A memoir of power and beauty and pain that moves across the world like the beautiful horses that carry it.” (Adam P.)

We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart: In the midst of grieving her mother, college freshman Mallory strikes up an all-consuming affair with an older, married, and enigmatic woman. Unsure of who she is and what she wants, Mallory must come to terms with how the relationship upended her life and who she wants to become in the aftermath. About Hart’s debut novel, Meg Wolitzer says: “Michelle Hart’s first novel is a haunting study of solitude and connection, moving and memorable.” (Carolyn)

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley: Only a year away from its 10th anniversary, Cleveland-based independent publisher Belt has compelled writing mavens in New York to finally pay attention to the rich literary culture of the industrial Midwest. Long focusing on new nonfiction, reprintings of classic rust belt titles and their celebrated city anthologies, Belt’s first novel is Foley’s Boys Come First, an account of three Black gay friends in Detroit that upends popular expectations about race, class, gender, sexuality, and masculinity. Foley’s novel evokes Brian Broome in its hilarious and very millennial perspective on what it means to be a 30-something as the first quarter of this century comes to a close, a love letter to gay Michigan, which receives less attention than New York, San Francisco, or Atlanta. But as Foley writes in his Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, it’s still a “city that works hard, gets tired, gets defeated, and picks itself up every day and keeps going.” (Ed)

The Shore by Katie Runde: Life in a vacation town isn’t all sunshine and sea breezes; when the last tourists leave and the weather turns sour, locals and longtimers are forced to reckon with their families, choices, and secrets. In Runde’s debut novel, The Shore, a mother and her two daughters, year-round residents of idyllic Seaside, face enormous tragedy and change. Rather than fall to pieces, they react in erratic ways—one daughter pretends to be a middle-aged mother on an Internet forum, for example—but they never really lose each other. Our own Lydia Kiesling calls The Shore “a delicious page turner” and “a deft, deep meditation on illness, grief, and loss…a lovely, expansive look at the hard work of caregiving, saying goodbye, and keeping on.” (Kaulie)

Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin: Stegner Fellow Conklin publishes her debut collection of short stories, each following queer, trans, and gender non-conforming characters as they navigate life and look for connection. Lorrie Moore said of the book, “Lydia Conklin writes with humor and tenderness about the way we love now. Rainbow Rainbow is an impressive and beautiful collection.” (Lydia)

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama: A debut following a family over 50 years of exile and migration, from Tibet to Canada. Maaza Mengiste says of the book, “We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies showcases a writer of rare talent and uncompromising vision. In these pages that speak of exile and loss, of longing and sorrow, Tsering Lama also manages to remind us–with startling beauty and compassion – how much can still survive. This novel is a testament to a people’s resolve to love, no matter what. A triumph.” (Lydia)

Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney: Part notebook, part audiovisual anthology, Barrera’s hybrid essay Linea Nigra is not your typical book on motherhood. Instead it’s a collection that serves as representation—a comprehensive “compilation of images, citations, and references from women who have conceived of pregnancy, birth, and lactation through art and literature.” (Nick M.)

Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman: Seven siblings remember two pivotal events in their collective life, all their own way: the death of their mother and one sibling’s teen pregnancy. The novel explores the fallout from these events in what Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, calls “a superbly executed saga.” (Lydia)

Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera: A novel following a Dominican family in New York City as they face family drama, gentrification, and family secrets. Naima Coster calls the novel “The rare book that manages to be chilling, fun, and profound all at once.” (Lydia)

The Red Arrow by William Brewer: A debt-saddled writer down on his luck ghostwrites a doctor’s memoir until the doctor disappears, leaving him in limbo and sending him toward an experimental psychedelic treatment. Charles Yu writes, “The Red Arrow is bold and thrilling—a work of unbridled imagination. Unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.” (Lydia)

A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times by Meron Hadero: Winner of the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and the Restless Books Prize, Hadero’s collection of short stories traces borders and migrations. In the citation, the Restless Books Prize judges write, “With enormous power and wonderful subtlety, Meron Hadero grants us access to the inner worlds of people at moments when everything is at risk.” (Lydia)

Mirror Made of Rain by Naheed Phiroze Patel: When Noomi breaks out of her privileged circle of partying to forge her own path as a journalist in Mumbai, she falls in love with a man and then finds the marriage plot leads her to the same self-destructive impulses and familial patterns she fought to avoid. Brandon Taylor says of the novel, “Everything feels so lush and gorgeous as the story at the heart of the novel emerges and eventually coheres to devastating effect.” (Lydia)

Be Brief and Tell Them Everything by Brad Listi: Creating art is hard in a vacuum, but it’s never created in a vacuum. Artists have lives, writers have families, and each of us is simply trying our best. In this dark, touching, and often funny work of autofiction, Listi examines the grandeur and minutiae of work, parenting, and let’s face it, simply existing. (Nick M.)

June

Nighcrawling by Leila Mottley: The debut novel by the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate follows a young woman trying to support herself, her brother, and an abandoned neighbor child in gentrifying Oakland, turning to nightcrawling prostitution as a job until she becomes a key witness in a police scandal. Ayana Mathis says of the novel, “Leila Mottley’s commanding debut, inspired by the life events of one woman’s struggle for body and soul against crushing exploitation, is fierce and devastating, rendered with electrifying urgency by this colossal young talent.” (Lydia)

Greenland by David Santos Donaldson: A feverish novel within a novel taking the outer frame of a writer on a three-week deadline to write an entire book from the perspective of Mohammed el Adl, E.M. Forster’s Egyptian lover who once spent six months in a jail cell, an intense and frenetic process that eventually has him merging his own memories with those of his subject, blending past and present. (Lydia)

Blithedale Canyon by Michael Bourne: The Millions’ own Michael Bourne publishes his debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, following the down-and-out Trent Wolfer who comes out of rehab and lands in his hometown near the San Francisco Bay, running into a beautiful woman he knew long ago, now a single mother of two. The novel chronicles the pull of home and the way a place changes over time, and it paints a portrait of a man trying very hard to get something right. Teddy Wayne says the novel “is an ode to the pleasures and pains of the return to the familiar, to the gravitational pulls of addiction, old friends, and Springsteen on a car stereo, but mostly of home. Blithedale Canyon is a tenderly nostalgic and page-turning portrait of a man who can’t control his worst impulses, written by an author in full command of his own tools.” (Lydia)

The Invisible Things by Mat Johnson: While orbiting Europa, a moon of Jupiter, the crew of The Delaney discovers a domed city on the surface that upon closer inspection turns out to be “a funhouse mirror of the United States” (Penguin Random House). And the inhabitants are all alien abductees. And they’re holding elections. And their politics are polarized, their environment is scaring them, and there’s an emerging NIMBY movement. Maybe, the delocalized locals conclude, it’s time to move. Sounds like another trippy ride through the mechanics of survival from this modern master of allegory. (Il’ja)

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh: Since her debut in 2015 with the disquieting but darkly funny novel Eileen, Moshfegh has proven herself to be one of the most immaculate crafters of disturbed, unreliable first-person narrators. From the nameless performance artist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation who drugs herself into a coma to the disturbed widow investigating a murder that may or may not have happened in Death in Her Hands, Moshfegh’s voice is part Dostoevsky, part Poe, and entirely her own, as filtered through a jaundiced millennial sensibility. If anybody would be apt to get into the weird head space of our current moment it’s Moshfegh, who in her new novel, Lapvona, written during Covid lockdown, ironically imagines a medieval setting of depraved feudal lords and witchy, cunning women. Fantasy might seem more the realm of a Robert Jordan than Moshfegh (the title of the book is the imagined kingdom where the narrative is set), but as the author told Vox, “In a time where there has been so much trauma and loss…Humanity finds purpose where it can. It’s like flowers growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk.” (Ed)

Avalon by Nell Zink: One of our most original novelists returns with an updated Cinderella story. Bran’s Southern California upbringing is anything but traditional. After her mother joins a Buddhist colony, Bran is raised on Bourdon Farms—a plant nursery that doubles as a cover for a biker gang. She spends her days tending plants, slogging through high school, and imagining what life could be if she were born to a different family. And then she meets Peter—a charming, troubled college student from the East Coast—who launches his teaching career by initiating her into the world of art. The two begin a seemingly doomed long-distance relationship, and Bran searches for meaning in her own surroundings—she knows how to survive, now she must learn how to live. (Adam P.)

Learning to Talk by Hilary Mantel: For those whose only familiarity with two time Booker Prize winning author Mantel is her crystalline trilogy of historical fiction based on the life of Henry VIII’s counselor Thomas Cromwell—Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror & the Light—the rerelease of her 2003 collection of short stories Learning to Talk might come as a surprise. Learning to Talk features no palace intrigue, no Renaissance poets, or Reformation disputes, but it’s, if anything, more representative of Mantel’s oeuvre. These interconnected short stories take place in a nameless, northern English hamlet that’s “scoured by bitter winds and rough gossip tongues.” Mantel eyes provincial culture and dashed dreams, the hardship of work and the inscrutability of families. If the Cromwell trilogy shares anything with these stories, it’s a sense of what it means to come from nowhere and wish you were from anywhere else. (Ed)

Raising Raffi by Keith Gessen: As a mother of three kids, I’ve read Gessen’s essays about parenting his son Raffi with interest, in part because Raffi sounds a lot like my oldest son: at once brilliant and completely maddening. In an essay for The New York Times Magazine, Gessen writes about how Raffi doesn’t like sports, and for N+1 (the magazine he co-founded), he writes about choosing a school for Raffi. I was pleased to learn Gessen has penned an entire book about life as a father, charting the first five years with his son. As a novelist, translator, and journalist, Gessen is sure to be thoughtful about an experience that so many have delighted in and grappled with. (Edan)

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog, translated by Michael Hofmann: For those who thought Werner Herzog made movies, that’s likely still true. But now Herzog, 79, is sending out his first novel. Penguin Random House says it “tells the incredible story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who defended a small island in the Philippines for twenty-nine years after the end of World War II.” I don’t know what you could possibly expect me to add to that. (Il’ja)

The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter: We all live like celebrities now: we polish up our social media profiles, edit our identities, and keep in the closet the aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to show others. However, we seem to find it ever more difficult to understand who we are and where we belong. The Angel of Rome is a stunning story collection in which all the characters try to reconcile with those contemporary paradoxes. An adolescent girl scrambles to live up to the image of her glamorous, absent mother. An elderly couple has to cope with a fiction writer who fabricates tales out of their lives. A movie star in recovery has a one-night stand with the world’s most scathing critic. Walter’s signature witty humor lights up those darkest sides of humanity. These stories are funny, provocative, inspirational. After reading the collection, your understanding of the perhaps overused phrase “reinventing oneself” may never be the same. (Jianan)

X by Davey Davis: Davis follows up their fantastic debut, The Earthquake Room, with a novel about politics, sex, identify, and power that follows Lee, a sadist whose brief encounter with the dominating X leads to a race against the clock to keep X from being swept up in a government removal program for “undesirables.” Torrey Peters raved: “Davis is an astounding writer, seemingly unconstrained by taboos and waist deep down in the maw of life, examining what the rest of us shy away from—never more than here in X, the rare book that can thrill and entertain, while simultaneously causing you to question everything about how you’re living.” (Lydia)

Mother Ocean Father Nation by Nishant Batsha: Batsha’s debut novel explores the fallout of the colonial system that brought workers from India to the Pacific, and the fractures that occurred during the subsequent era of independence and change, following a young woman from her island home to the San Francisco Bay. Amitav Ghosh called it “A moving saga about the experience of Indian migrants in the South Pacific.” (Lydia)

Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky: In the author’s fifth novel, a modern day masterpiece of swimming pools, trademark turkey sandwiches, climate change, Ashley Judd, and an ill-advised romance, an unhinged narrator contemplates her future after losing her home to a hurricane. (Marie)

More Than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez: Gutierrez’s debut is a stylish literary thriller about a true-crime aficionado wrapped up in a case where a woman married two men, and one husband murdered the other. Julia Fine says of the novel, “As addictive as a real-life whodunnit, with thoughtful attention to the ethical implications of the true crime genre, More Than You’ll Ever Know explores how we entangle ourselves one choice at a time, and what it costs to unravel the damage.” (Lydia)

Nuclear Family by Joseph Han: Set in the days leading up to the 2018 false missile launch alarm, Han’s novel follows a Korean family in Hawaii, franchising their lunch restaurant and watching with alarm as their son is caught trying to sneak across the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Bryan Washington says of the novel: “Joseph Han’s novel is heartfelt and propulsive, immersing readers in a narrative whose questions of family, borders, queerness, and forgiveness constantly surprises and astounds.” (Lydia)

Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch: The author of such dystopian fiction as The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and the memoir The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch has an unmatched gift for capturing stories of people on the margins—vulnerable humans leading lives of challenge and transcendence. In this novel, she offers the story of Laisvė, a motherless girl from the late 21st century who is learning her power as a carrier, a person who can harness the power of meaningful objects to carry her through time. (Marie)

The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran: The first novel in 13 years from the author of Dancer from the Dance, which was published in 1978 and called in Harper’s “An astonishingly beautiful book. The best gay novel written by anyone of our generation.” The new novel follows a man as he watches the decline of a friend, reflecting on all the other loved ones he has lost in the years before. (Lydia)

Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley: On a quiet night out with friends, Lola, a soon-to-be-married New Yorker, ducks out for cigarettes and runs into an old boyfriend. And then another. And … another. What at first seems like mere coincidence turns into something far stranger as Lola must contend not only with the viability of her current relationship but the fact that her former boss, a magazine editor-turned-guru, might have an unhealthy investment in the outcome. “Cult Classic is a romantic comedy set in a new age mind control cult on the Lower East Side,” Crosley told Entertainment Weekly. “My hope is that what sets it apart from every other romantic comedy set in a new age mind control cult on the Lower East Side is that it’s also a mystery.” (Michael)

Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta by James Hannaham: The latest from the PEN/Faulkner winner (for the novel Delicious Foods) introduces us to Carlotta Mercedes, a trans woman who wins parole after more than 20 years in prison. Since Carlotta transitioned during her sentence, her family and friends have never known her as a trans woman, and she struggles to reconnect with her son and the rest of her family. All the while, she’s forced to comply with onerous parole restrictions, which make it nearly impossible for her to stay out of jail. (Thom)

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: A multigenerational western saga about a “wildly entertaining and complex family,” Fajardo-Anstine’s debut novel has been described as a “cinematic, epic story” written in “lyrical, unpretentious prose.” Set in 1930s Denver, the novel is centered around Luz Lopez, who becomes the seer and keeper of her Latinx and Indigenous family stories. (Sonya)

Dele Weds Destiny by Tomi Obaro: Obaro’s debut follows three friends at university in Nigeria who reunite decades later in Lagos, and find out where life has taken them and what it still has in store. Rumaan Alam said of the novel: “This enchanting debut is an affectionate portrait of a three women at middle age, cannily exploring the ways the self is forged in youth. With an admirably light touch, Tomi Obaro documents how class, race, faith, and power define the lives of women in Nigeria and America, past and present.” (Lydia)

The Seaplane on Final Approach by Rebecca Rukeyser: A woman in pursuit of sex and adventure goes to work in a tourist lodge on a remote Alaskan island. What could go wrong?! Carmen Maria Machado said of the book: “I didn’t realize how much I needed this lusty, funny, heartbreaking book until I devoured it in a single sitting. The Seaplane on Final Approach is a novel set at the edge of the world, about people who belong everywhere and nowhere and the vast, unknowable wilderness of desire. A sharp, flawless debut.” (Lydia)

The Midcoast by Adam White: Ed Thatch, a Maine man from a lobstering family, strikes it big, and his old high school acquaintance Adam is curious about his immense success when he attends a party at his mansion. Like any guest worth his salt, Adam snoops around the house and comes up with quite the catch: a file with disturbing images of a burned body. Channeling Balzac (“Behind every great fortune is an equally great crime”), White, a high school teacher and lacrosse coach, dredges up the long-submerged origins of the Thatch money in this dark social portrait of a small Maine town. (Matt)

Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: Yes, that Tracy Flick. The protagonist of Perrotta’s beloved 1998 novel Election, the one Reese Witherspoon played in the movie. She’s back, now a single mom working as an assistant principal at a high school in the New Jersey suburbs. Deep in the mid-career blues, she learns that her school’s principal is planning to retire, give Tracy a shot at the top spot. But this is Tracy Flick, so nothing is ever easy. (Michael)

A Trail of Crab Tracks by Patrice Nganang, translated by Amy B. Reid: In the third installment of Patrice Nganang’s historical fiction trilogy, a father “chronicles the fight for Cameroonian independence through the story of a father’s love for his family and his land,” and in the process reveals to his son “the long-silenced secrets of his former life.” (Nick M.)

Brown Neon by Raquel Gutierrez: Ranging from memoir to criticism to travelogue, the essays in Gutierrez’s collection serve as “meditation[s] on southwestern terrains, intergenerational queer dynamics, and surveilled Brown artists that crosses physical and conceptual borders.” By exploring the places where stories are set, Gutierrez reveals more about who’s in them. (Nick M.)

Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen: Chen follows up Bury What We Cannot Take with a novel that takes on fashion, crime, and friendship through the story of two women who create a global empire out of a counterfeit handbag scheme. As someone who has sported a fake bag or two in her time, I cannot wait for this novel that sparked a television bidding war and which Claire Messud called “Sly and thoroughly compelling.” (Lydia)

Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo: The first short story collection by the celebrated author of Three Women features nine arresting stories about love, desire, and the modern attention economy, among other things. In the titular story, a mysterious group of cool, beautiful girls manage a dating service called Ghost Lover, which comes up with pre-written texts for people to send to their love interests. In another, three women at a ritzy Los Angeles fundraiser compete to win the attention of a feted guest of honor. As is the case with Taddeo’s most famous work, readers can expect a nuanced portrayal of desire. (Thom)

Nevada by Imogen Binnie: Binnie’s 2013 debut, a queer and trans literary classic, gets a deluxe reissue from MCD this year. The novel—a finalist for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Trans Fiction—tells the story of Maria, who’s trying to uphold her punk values while living as a young trans person with no money. When her girlfriend breaks up with her, Maria steals her car and drives west, eventually meeting a new friend named James, who reminds her of her younger self. As Maria assigns herself the tentative position of trans role model, she has to grapple with her place in the world—and what she wants. (Thom)

The Millions Top Ten: December 2021

-

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 December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The House on Vesper Sands
6 months

2.
3.

The Book of Form and Emptiness
4 months

3.


The Morning Star
1 month

4.
8.

Cloud Cuckoo Land

3 months

5.
9.

These Precious Days: Essays
2 months

6.
10.

Beautiful World, Where Are You

3 months

7.
6.

Crossroads
3 months

8.
4.

Bewilderment
4 months

9.
7.

Matrix: A Novel
3 months

10.
5.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
5 months

I need you to hold on. The surge is real, cases are rising, but the vaccines work. It’s decoupled: your likelihood of ending up in the hospital is reduced if you’re vaccinated, which is all along what the vaccines were supposed to do. But, remember: a small percentage of a bigger number can still produce a big number. We aren’t out of the woods.

Oh, right, we were talking about books. In that case, I still need you to hold on, Millions readers. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus remains on our list, but it’s in precarious position. We have the unprecedented chance to put a book from 1921 into the Hall of Fame, but we need two more strong showings from y’all. If you haven’t read Ed Simon’s piece on Ludwig Wittgenstein, you must. Here it is. Here’s a second link to it in case you didn’t click it the first time.

Carrying on. This month we bid farewell to Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake, which rode six straight strong showings into our site’s Hall of Famed sunset.

In its place, we welcome newcom—oh, no, wait we’ve seen you before, surely? Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose novel The Morning Star joins our ranks in the third spot. Knausgaard is no stranger to Millions readers but it may surprise you to learn he’s not yet made the Hall of Fame .

Will he this time? We’ll see.

This month’s near misses included: The Magician, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Intimacies, Harlem Shuffle, and When We Cease to Understand the World. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions’ Most-Read Pieces of 2021

-

As 2021 limps to an end, we at The Millions took stock of the year by diving deep into the site stats to determine which pieces were most popular with you, our readers.

What follows are two lists. The first ranks the most-read pieces from our archive—those posts that are incredibly popular year after year. The second tallies the most-read pieces published in 2021. For both lists, we’ve excluded Preview posts.

Long-time readers of the site will likely see some familiar bylines below, and we’re sure that both lists will provide interesting reading, as we look to 2022 and hope for better days.

The Most-Read Archive Pieces of 2021The World’s Longest Novel, by Ben DooleyThe Saddest Poem Ever Written, by Nick RipatrazoneThe Queering of Nick Carraway, by Michael BourneTen Ways to Look at the Color Black, by Ed SimonDickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions, by Kevin Hartnett

The Most-Read Pieces Published in 2021The World Is All That Is the Case, by Ed SimonThe Origins of Raoul Duke, by David S. WillsKarl Ove Knausgaard Will Not Read This Interview, by Adam DalvaThe 10 Creepiest Gothic Novels, by Elizabeth BrooksTen Essential Books Inspired by Greek Mythology, by Jennifer Saint

A Year in Reading the Backlist: Larissa Pham

-

In January, I started an MFA in fiction. The idea was that I would learn how to write a novel, which I have been trying to do for some time and am still attempting. Happily, as a result, I’ve been forced to read widely and voraciously—and with an eye toward craft, structure, and form. It’s been a pleasure to read not as a critic, but as a student, trying to see how something so seamless as a book is made. Lately, I’ve tried to read books published more than five years ago, and this year, I found a lot of pleasure in dwelling in the backlist—though I made time for a few new books. Here are some titles out of the 50 (!) I read this year which I particularly enjoyed, with an especial shoutout to the Libby app, without which I would not have survived these pandemic times.

I began the year with Luster, or rather, still feeling the effects of having read Luster at the very end of 2020, which is why I feel I’m still allowed to place it on my 2021 list. I didn’t love the book the way I thought I might—in fact, at first, I didn’t like it at all—but as more time passed after reading, I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My mind returns to it at strange moments; I’ve learned that some of the best books are the ones that linger.

I properly kicked off the year with a reread of Min Jin Lee’s historical epic Pachinko. Even though I knew everything that was going to happen, it wrenched at me; on a re-read, I marveled at Lee’s dramatic pacing and the perils she puts her characters through. Few other novels have seemed to so accurately capture, with both historical sweep and granular detail, the effects of inherited and colonial trauma. Pachinko was followed by The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. One of the books I’m working on is partially set in Vietnam during the ’50s and ’60s. Though Truong’s novel takes place in the Paris of the ’20s and ’30s, I was curious to know about the lives of colonial-era Vietnamese people, and I wanted to see how other writers of historical fiction had handled their material. Truong’s text is a portrait of a man, Binh, a cook working in the house of Gertrude Stein. Though his story is so steeped in the circumstances of history, his narrative is written with such beauty and delicacy that it has the freshness of present life.

Everyone ought to read Alice Munro at least once, preferably in adulthood—this year, I read Dear Life, particularly for its semi-autobiographical stories, which appear in a section at the end of the collection. Munro does this incredible thing with time, where a story begins in one span, events happen briskly, and then, near the end of the story, in the last few pages, the narrative turns on its ear, and a whole, huge arc of time is opened—enough to reveal, or change, a life. Soon after, I read Beloved. Somehow I had gone my whole life without encountering it, and though I’m sad to have read it so late, I was floored by Morrison’s use of poetry and imagery—the scene where Paul D flees north, marked by the blooming of flowers, will stay with me for a long time. And though it’s zeitgeisty, I didn’t realize a movie was coming out later this year—I haven’t seen it yet—I managed to find an old copy of Passing by Nella Larsen, and was surprised by how contemporary it felt. That it resonates with audiences in 2021 makes perfect sense.

Then I descended into what I think of as my autofiction phase. There was The Lover, set in colonial-era Vietnam, which I finally picked up after years of people insisting I read it—and I don’t know why I waited so long, it’s divine—and then, in quick succession, all the Annie Ernaux I could find. A Girl’s Story, Simple Passion, The Years. I was interested in what both authors do with point of view—how the self can be written from within and without.

My first term instructor at Bennington, the poet and novelist Monica Ferrell, recommended How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of short stories by Julie Orringer, which I loved. The stories are so tightly crafted, and yet so awake to alive details, that they work perfectly. In keeping with the underwater theme, I read The Seas because my friend Hannah was reading it too—did everyone read The Seas this summer?—and devoured it. 

While on break for a month (around this time, my book also came out!), I had a moment to read two new books, Second Place by Rachel Cusk and To Write as if Already Dead by Kate Zambreno. I have a tendency to read by author, and had both Cusk and Zambreno deep-dives in 2020. Zambreno’s latest was fantastic, as always, and I was baffled by most of Second Place (The exclamation points! Who the hell is Jeffers!) until about the last 50 pages, when it blew my mind so thoroughly that I had to text everyone I knew telling them Rachel Cusk is a genius. 

And then, somehow, it was June. Louise Erdrich’s The Round House cracked my writing life open. Something about not setting dialogue in quotations, letting the characters narrate for themselves—and the themes of justice and revenge that she explores feel so relevant today. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea—I’ve been interested in post-colonial literature, probably for obvious reasons—was so frank and so devastatingly good that I had to read it again the moment I finished it. As an antidote to Rhys, or perhaps as good medicine, I also read At the Bottom of the River, a slim, absolutely bewitching collection of short stories—maybe even prose poems—by Jamaica Kincaid. They convinced me that a story can travel on the power and pulse of a narrator’s voice alone.

Perhaps the book that changed my writing life the most was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I had tried for many years to appreciate the Modernists, not quite getting it, and then, somehow, through a mix of structure, experimentation, and enchanting metaphor, Woolf opened the door. I use open a lot to describe how reading affects my writing—it doesn’t create new material as much as it makes new paths for my mind to explore. With new possibilities in hand, I can return to my work with a fresh heart and lifted spirits. The very Woolfian portraits in Beautiful World, Where Are You may have had something to do with this, and my friend Michelle Taylor’s writing on the Modernists, particularly Hope Mirrlees, certainly did.

Two more 2021 books—I reviewed Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So for The Nation, and was so honored to have a chance to write about a Cambodian-American writer whose work revels in character and dialogue, though I’m sorely gutted by our (and literature’s) loss. On a trip to Iowa, I had just finished an e-book of Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette, one of my favorite debuts this year, when we were driving from Grinnell to Iowa City and we were met with a vision of low, blinking red lights, all in unison, all the same height, as far as the eye could see. It’s a scene mirrored in Luchette’s novel: they’re the red lights of a wind farm, the windmills impossibly tall, the distance between them impossibly vast.

This year, I learned to appreciate short books—books that are lean, each moment accounted for. I picked up a copy of Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, on the strength of its cover alone; it’s one of the best things I’ve read this year, though I might be biased as I’ve lately been interested in Bronze Age history (though, it seems, re: Rooney, who hasn’t?). That was followed by Summerwater, also by Sarah Moss, which takes place in one day, though I found Ghost Wall’s spooky mysticism to be more enchanting.  

You’ll notice that this list is mostly fiction—I try to read essays and memoir when as I can, but usually what I encounter in my daily browsing (and procrastinating) is stand-alone pieces. I was lucky enough to get to read Kat Chow’s beautiful memoir Seeing Ghosts, in anticipation of a conversation we had together for her launch events. And I am closing the year with Thin Places by Jordan Kisner, an essay collection that is the most marvelous of its kind, incisive observation and reporting threaded together with insight.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Kyle Winkler

- | 1

Welcome to the Year of Horror. No, friends and
neighbors, I’m not talking the pandemical matter. I’m talking about the genre
of horror.

According to my notes, here are some of the standout books of the year. The first book I finished was Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. Turns out, it was the best horror book to start the winter with—it’s cold, unforgiving, paranoiac, and manic. Jones blends the Indigenous experience on the reservation with dark-ass horror tropes. I would venture to say that Jones is the inheritor of Pynchon’s free indirect third person narrative voice. Jones isn’t Tex Avery-zany like Good Ole Pynch, but he’s well-attuned to popular culture the same way. So what you get is a voice-y, kinetic, knowing narrator mentioning music, food, and Wal-Mart-esque purchases, guiding you through the history of five friends’ botched takedown of an elk. The novel is also unusual in that it takes formal risks, too. I shan’t spoil much, but to say that around page 100, the business turns fuliginous. There was a reason this topped so many lists this year.

Then I read a hard-to-find novel by one of my Top Three Authors—Barbara Comyns. Comyns is known primarily for her NYRB reissues like The Vet’s Daughter, The Juniper Tree, or Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (all of which are excellent and worth buying immediately). But the one I got my hands on through interlibrary loan (a much-neglected resource) was The Skin Chairs. And that title’s not a metaphor, y’all. Apparently on Jan. 22, I tweeted: “So the good news is that Comyns’s THE SKIN CHAIRS is delightful and oppressive at the same time. It’s like uplifting mildew.” Plot is worthless here. The aims are the character interactions and just reading Comyns’s mind coruscate with deleterious wit. But here’s the best one I could find: “When her father dies, ten-year-old Frances, her mother and siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by the formidable Aunt Lawrence. Living in patronised poverty isn’t fun, but Frances makes friends with Mrs Alexander, who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motorcar.” A copy of this out of print novel is worth hunting down for passages like the following:

The hospital was nearly two miles away and I ran most of the way and arrived there breathless and untidy, which did not make a good impression when I rushed into the hall demanding to see Jane. A calming-down sort of woman pushed me down on a shiny bench and told me to wait. Sitting opposite to me were two people who appeared as if they were growing there: one an old man with a deep slimy cough, and the other a bearded woman. They did not appeal to me at all; I was particularly put off by the bearded woman, in case the beard was catching.

All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook is a farrago of a book. It’s a collection of highly charged essays. But I won’t even bother with what it purports to be, but just describe what it felt like to me as I read it. A bangarang death tour of the Kentish seaside, visiting has-been actors, ghostly sightings, and ever implied sex-trade. The book is a blister. It’s fun to touch, mess with, and you eventually want to see it explode. But when it does, it’s more of a mess than you expected, hurts, and takes a while to heal. Whether or not you want to read it will depend on your relationship to pain.

Next was a one-two punch of novels that I would call the best two reads of the year from two of my favorite presses (Grindhouse and Apocalypse Party, respectively). First, True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik. I’ve never had such a short book slice a pouch in my skin and crawl inside and use it as a corrupt hideaway. But this book is brutal where it should be gentle, delicate where you’d expect it to be gross, and intelligent in all the places that are barely covered in clothing. It’s a dark horror novella built on the vicious murder spree of a brother and sister, but that should not dissuade you from falling in love with the main characters anyway. Negative Space by B.R. Yeager broke my brain. My favorite book of the year, but I’m speechless/wordless when it comes to how to discuss it. All I can say is that: teenagers have rituals that are unanchored and when acted out enthusiastically will kill the world. I recently read that piety without identity equals nihilism. That about sums it up.

I taught a course on science fiction in the spring, so we read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This book is one of my favorites. It has some of her best lines (the opening about the wall), some of her best characters (Shevek is sweetly cold but passionate), her best set pieces (when the boys on the anarchist moon of Anarres learn what a prison is and then recreate it for play). And every time I read it, I take a different tack on who’s got the right idea. It’s not simplistic; it’s metamorphic. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents is, perhaps, the best duology ever written. They’re more properly considered socio-economic thrillers. Butler got more right in these two novels about where America was heading in the next quarter century than any political philosopher of the past 100 years. If there was any novel I felt cheated out of, it’s the third book in what was meant to be a trilogy here. And yet, the two books still give a realistic and brutal portrait of a world myopically walking right into Christian nationalism, fascism, and desperate strongman-hood. Sickening but believable. Read it.

The following two may not seem horrific, but they are. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is what I call “nightmare fiction.” It’s a person in a situation that on the outside (the reader) is obviously unjust. But everyone around them in the story allows them to suffer unjust guilt. The novel is about women’s prisons, incarceration, and the way any notion of rehabilitation is absolute bullshit. If Foucault was ever right about anything it’s that we live in a disciplinary society. Those who may break the law will never be truly rid of the stain of their crimes, prison or no. Whereas Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is the absolute opposite of this. Prison is the body mangled in war. Joe Bonham is blown apart in World War I and stuck in a hospital room where he has to deal with the reality of his own consciousness. His entire world shrinks down to the memories he has or the sensorium of his torso. No eyes, no ears, no tongue, no nose. He eventually communicates with a nurse by Morse code by banging his head against the pillow. How David Lynch never made this into a movie, I’ll never know. But the book is devastating for its anti-war message, its empathy, its raw, hateful hope, and the lack of commas.

P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout had a scene in it where the main characters traverse a metaphysical crack in space to a place where hateful entities (which are actually KKK members in this universe) make up a kind of evil Voltron. It was the most creative scene I’d read in a long time. Since I released my own cosmic horror novella this past April, I was highly (paranoiacally) aware of this cosmically clever novella. This book pairs well with Lovecraft Country.

The Wingspan of Severed Hands by Joanna Koch is another novella that I was hyper-aware of while reading it because the style is so rhetorically refined and aggressively poetic. (As are most of the books released by Weirdpunk Books.) And then there was the amazing pile of indie horror authors that I’ve made connections with online. Gird yourself for a litany. All of these are great examples of why horror is doing its best work outside the confines of the culture industry’s trope templates. A long, but by no means comprehensive list would include: A Mouth Full of Ashes by Briana Morgan, The Potted Plant by Thomas Gloom, I Hear the Clattering of the Keys by Jamie Stewart, The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani, Smolder by Michael R. Goodwin, The House on Harlan by Mike Salt, The Miracle Sin by Marcus Hawke, The Fear by Spencer Hamilton, and Take Your Turn, Teddy by Haley Newlin.

I am finishing the year in my first climb up the sewer clown mountain with Stephen King’s IT. What impressed me about this “Moby-Dick of horror” (such a shitty comparison, really) is that King (even at his Reagan-era height of suburban-reader fame) dared not to deliver the usual goods. I would suggest that there’s not much in the King canon that rivals the sweetness and love between big brother Bill and little brother George Denbrough in the first chapter of the book. He foreshadows his recent dip into crime fiction with the Adrian Mellon sections that take the form of the police blotter style. And, in the sections that I found most terrifying, Mike Hanlon’s diary entries record his visits with old time Mainers wherein we intuit the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown somewhere in the past, pulling the strings. Yes, terror, gore, and the horror of hatred are woven throughout this novel. But right when you think that the story has flagged or King has spent his gas, another set piece will blow you away. (Junkyard leech attack anyone?) Point being: the imagination is limitless. And some writers plug into that constant image feed with ease. Others, not so much. But the horror waxes and wanes, and the imagination isn’t going anywhere. That is, not until we (eventually, painfully) do.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby

-

When the world began falling apart, I decided to apply for grad school. I had been hemming and hawing for years about what to go back for. A PhD in English Lit? No for various (though mainly) job-related reasons. An MFA in creative nonfiction? Uh…maybe later. An MLIS? Yes then no; yes then no. I knew I wanted to go back eventually, but I talked myself in circles for years. Then 2020 happened.

I started my MLIS program this summer. My first class involved learning the basics of coding. I read about HTML, CSS, Javascript, MySQL, FTPs, VPNs, and a whole host of other acronyms. It was a far cry from the literary fiction I tend to read—though I found myself enjoying coding more than I thought I would. I felt nostalgia for the baby coding I would do on my secret Xanga as a pre-teen. This fall I’m taking a class all about human information behavior, which requires me to read anywhere from 60 to 120 pages of theory per week. While the class is super interesting, it’s a huge reason why I can’t find the proper brain space for novels. The other reason is that my brain (and attention span) seems to be irreparably broken from the onslaught of the last couple of years, but I digress. My program has been great so far but I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to my breaks during which I plan to inhale as many books as possible.

While I read less for pleasure than ever before, I wasn’t always distracted and the reading wasn’t always bad. I read and reviewed Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days, and I was reminded why she’s one of the greatest writers working today. As spring bloomed around me, I made my way through Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which was beautifully written and totally engrossing. On the eve of my 30th birthday, I devoured Lily King’s Writers & Lovers and I felt so seen. As 2021 comes to a close, I’m slowly making my way through a few books: Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming novel, How High We Go in the Dark; Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House; and Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot.

I also leaned heavily on audiobooks this year to squeeze in reading whenever I could. In no particular order, here are some books I listened to and enjoyed this year: Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close; Hilarie Burton’s The Rural Diaries; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and Sutton Foster’s Hooked. They kept me company as I took my daily walks, ran errands, cleaned the apartment, and took long post-vaccine road trips to visit friends and family. While I can’t listen to all kinds of books (i.e., literary fiction or anything heavily plotted are no gos), I am grateful for audiobooks and their ever-increasing presence in my reading life.

In many ways, 2021 seemed just as strange and unmoored as 2020. Of course, I wish I had read more—though that’s the case even during my most prolific reading years. There’s simply never enough time to read everything we want. In 2022, I vow to put down the books I’m not enjoying and make my way through the unread books I already own. If the last two years have shown us anything, there’s no guarantees or certainty in life, so read the book or don’t; apply to grad school or don’t; take the road trip or don’t. And when all else fails, try an audiobook.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Jennifer S. Cheng

-

The facts of motherhood, along with the pandemic, have made reading not only a rarer pleasure but a balm for times of graceless dissonance. There is a reason why my artist-mother-pandemic-support group regularly shares textual fragments and book recommendations—older and newer—to such an extent that our biweekly in-person gatherings have become a kind of book club. We share them the way we do precarious home spaces, bowls of miso broth, mushroom rice, spontaneous gifts of kaga plum jam and embroidery thread: with incredible care and tenderness, owing to the sparing nature of joy and togetherness in these years. This list, then, culled to 10 entries, is a history of care and tenderness these past several months. It traces a web of connections against the distances of the moment. I assemble this list especially for Vivian, Mia, and Heidi.

1. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: a place to begin, though most of my reading of this book happened in 2020. I am still making my way through the final chapters, sleepily, sporadically, hoping, perhaps, to make its pages last through the entirety of the pandemic—a through-line that I can wrap around me like a blanket. I have such gratitude for the profound listening and being within these pages, ear to earth, which, at the beginning of our world-wide calamity, helped to locate me inside an ethos of tending, attending, and care.

2. Poetics of Relation by Édouard Glissant: this one, a private return, a re-reading, on which I pin a series of orbitals. The epigraph from Derek Walcott reads “Sea is History.”Later, in the section “Repetitions”: “This flood of convergences… When you awaken an observation, a certainty, a hope, they are already struggling somewhere, elsewhere, in another form. Repetition, moreover, is an acknowledged form of consciousness…” And here, from my favorite essay, “For Opacity”: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity… Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components. For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures.” In my notes I have written down a list of words and phrases: multiplicity, diffracts, decentered, open sea, unknown, fluidity, relation, accumulation of sediments, poetics as epistemology, trembling knowledge, archipelagic thought, errantry, traces.

3. Asemic: The Art of Writing by Peter Schwenger: to speak of convergences—in late spring, I happened upon poet Carolina Ebeid’s Instagram post about an upcoming class co-taught with artist Maia Ruth Lee. I heart-poundingly noted the words “Asemic Writing” because in the previous week I’d found myself, by way of what I call “poetic rituals,” experimenting with a kind of mark-making that resembled writing but was empty of actual meaning. Something about the language of grief. Something about language for when language is impossible. In the final assignment, Carolina and Maia asked the class to wrap and bind an object, paying attention to materials and gestures. I wrapped a scrap of textile around a tiny, speckled river stone, and around that I wrapped little sheaths of asemic mark-making I’d made, binding it all together with pieces of leftover embroidery thread as I went. To wrap something so small required all my attention and forgiveness. The process was not linear but recursive. At one point, I used my teeth.

(Asterisks: Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures and Danielle Vogel’s Narrative and Nests, an earlier incarnation of her beautiful book Edges and Fray. Around this time I shared some of Vogel’s work with Mia, who found her way to Edges and Fray, which informed the class she was teaching, in which I was a participant… Here, we might mention weaving, a language of repeated returns. At some point, we began writing and stitching asemic letters to one another.)

4. Keeping / the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, edited by Ben Lerner: or, more specifically, the excerpt from Rosmarie Waldrop’s Against Language?. My interest here was always poetry, poetics, gardening the gap, e.g. “All mystical sects know the concept of the sanctum silentium which…is…part of their cognitive method”; “anything that exists hides”; “But since the silent poem is not possible, Mallarmé has to make do with approximations.” What particularities of meaning do silence, blank space, lacunae carry in this moment?

5. Since last year, perhaps in search of grounding, rootedness, I have been particularly drawn to nonfiction on the natural environment. In the summer I read Underland by Robert Macfarlane while my partner, toddler, and I drove for uncountable hours amid a global-warming heatwave to see our families in Texas, stopping at Joshua Tree and the rocks of Arizona and Utah. It was a stressful trip for many reasons. My only tether to a state of being resembling peace was sketching the passing landscape from the car as my child slept, before it got too dark, and making detailed drawings of rocks I’d picked up on short walks in the dry heat. What I am trying to say is that my experience of reading about deep time and deep earth in Underland is inextricable from this practice of mark-making; my memories of the book will always recall streaks of charcoal pencils, dust of red rocks imprinted on my palm. Later, I would text an excerpt to the group: “In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts and other brinks.” Someone in the group would respond with gratitude for the ways we were overlapping and touching in this thin place.

6. Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan: is a book I only just finished reading, the first in a series edited by Youmna Chlala and Ken Chen called Spatial Species. The text examines a phenomenon of aloneness. The text examines space, place, and landscape, in relation to a constellation of questions and anxieties. It brings together the spectral presence of a glacier; bewilderments of the Alaskan landscape; the artwork, writing, and scholarship of figures like Lorna Simpson, Matthew Henson, Fred Moten, Jean Toomer, Saidiya Hartman; memories of the narrator’s past relationships with women; the space of boredom; the space of relation; the space of interiority; and alongside/against/through all this, an experience and meaning of Blackness. Among the passages I marked and starred: “When I paint the walls, the change in space says something to the idea of an hour. Or, what I wanted to say was that this has never been a book about glaciers so much as its about landscape, which can be an internal experience Black women who have been called ‘strange’ by their sisters have had collectively, and alone.”

7. Art and Faith by Makoto Fujimura: at the beginning of our text group in early 2020, someone shared a different book by Fujimura, who is an artist and person of faith, and almost unthinkingly, I passed the title along to my older brother simply because he had recently given up his livelihood as an engineer to become a missionary. Even in childhood, my brother and I were opposites that repelled, negotiating the world in totally divergent directions without ever meeting. Unexpectedly, the ethos that Fujimura brings to both art and faith has become a kind of bridge between us. In Art and Faith, Fujimura proposes a theology of art-making. Attention is a form of worship, Fujimura says. He describes how as a child, “moments of creative discovery seemed sacred to me, even if I did not fully understand them.” Furthermore: art-making is a form of knowing, rooted in intuition, feeling, and the body—by nature it is anti-capitalist. Beauty is superfluous, pleasure is superfluous, making is superfluous, Fujimura says, in the way that “God creates out of love, not necessity.” Even the story of Creation, he writes, “is more about poetic utterance of love rather than about industrial efficiency, a mechanism for being, as many Western commentators may assume.” All I have been wanting, I am realizing, is to be eternally inside the space of process, never ceding to the purview of product.

8. At some point, Vivian mentioned Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and intergenerational trauma. Mia had read it a while back. Heidi began listening to it on tape the morning I was halfway through; I kept reading until the end because it was too disorienting to put the book down. A certain liminal space can be ruptured open when one is attempting to replace the threads of a novel’s world with those of the real world. Over warm broth, the four of us talked about the book and shared stories from our own matrilineal inheritances, our own negotiations of identity and displacement. Every time I read a novel with Asian characters, I am startled by my emotions while reading. It’s not as if I weren’t emotionally immersed in books I read growing up—on the contrary—but encountering all the subtle layers of familiarity and intimacy transforms the reading experience in a way I hadn’t known.

9. Names for Light by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint: I started reading this last week. I am moved by: the shapes and sizes of its textual blocks; the naming of family history, which one might call biomythography; the page that starts “This place repeated enough times begins to sound like displaced” and ends “Displaced is where we moved to, displaced is where I grew up, displaced is where I am from.”

10. Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. I save this one for last because it has been a guiding spirit through the year. Something of its temperament makes it a soothing companion. It isn’t only her hermitic way of life—it’s also the vulnerability of the epistolary form as a way of inhabiting distances, and it’s the exquisite care with which she attends to world and word, Self and Other. The tone of her address, whether to friend or cousin or mentor, merges tenderness and boldness all at once. She is unafraid in navigating by her interior language. Death and loss perforate the epistles, along with generous reports of seasonal flora, careful gifts of pressed yarrow or geranium leaf, beautifully precise textures of daily domestic life. The letters contain sentences like “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations” and “These behaviors of the year hurt almost like music, shifting when it ease us most.” In a time when every small utterance can feel like a missive I am either sending out or catching in my hands, I am somehow consoled when Emily observes that letters contain something of the infinite “because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend… there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.”

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.

The Year (More or Less) in Reading

My fairly new home of Portland threads through this note (which in editing looks more like an unintentional literary travelogue), so I’ll start my reflection on standout reads of the past year locally with Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. As with Pym, he shows his ability to write heartaching prose while casually inserting the spectral, the surreal into the everyday. And more of that everyday appears in Chris Stuck’s Give My Love to the Savages, a collection that reads like James Alan McPherson writing in this new millennium with a bit of encouragement from Johnson. But Stuck smartly and sharply makes the body and mind familiar through exposure, the full self on display in heightened inescapable ways that are hilarious and harrowing and entirely his own. I took Chuck Palahniuk’s advice to Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. You should, too.

I headed a little east toward the Oregon high desert to enjoy the hell out of Jeremy Robert Johnson’s The Loop. His earlier offering, Skullcrack City, was a batshitcrazy (okay, um, that last word didn’t redline in this doc so I must’ve reviewed it on this machine) pair of stories in one that crashed into each other in a way that might’ve birthed his latest. The Loop is a wild and frighteningly probable nightmare with an amazing teen hero named Lucy who I instantly thought of when hearing Jade share the incomparable Stephen Graham Jones’s gift of My Heart Is a Chainsaw. And though I’d already been through it twice, I wanted to write a super tight review to send off to PANK, so I took another run through his game-changing The Only Good Indians. Speaking of Indians, Oklahoma was the site of multiple iterations of Apocalypse, past, present, future, and Cherokee. Mary and the Trail of Tears by Andrea Rogers is an outstanding MG book on a brutal moment in their history that’s a necessary and wonderful read. Two thousand twenty-one NBA Finalist Brandon Hobson’s The Removed deals with dark and Darkening Land, moving over both in loving and crushing embraces, stopping along the roads at places lots of us lived in younger days and ways. Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah blew me away with its instantly encircling stories that vest you in minute one. Bonus; I finally learned how to spell “a-whole-nother.” Thanks, Kelli Jo! 

Marcie Rendon’s Cash Blackbear books Murder on the Red River and Girl Gone Missing, murder mysteries set up north, left me wanting more and I hear there’s now a third book on the way. Can’t wait. Such a smart and eminently readable series. Shane Hawk’s debut Anoka horror collection and Clifford Taylor’s spiritual Memory of Souls showcased just a taste of what Indigenous writing encompasses. 

Returning to my tour of a neo-settled unsettling south brought me to Andy Davidson’s The Boatman’s Daughter. Think Cormac McCarthy writing Ozark fan fiction. A few states east, Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me was a crushingly Florida return to form that had been just out of reach in his last couple of offerings.

I traveled back north along with Chester Himes in Cotton Comes to Harlem, classic, funny, and sharp. To keep an eye and edge on my own writing, a couple of crafty genre works were Walter Mosley’s Elements of Fiction and Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. The artsy side was satisfied by Richard Hugo’s essential The Triggering Town, which happily reminded me that sometimes words hit the page more for their sounds than their wordiness, and the logic of the music in those words can make much more sense than the logic of their textual meaning. Speaking of sorcery, I detoured on my westward way home, arriving on the Alberta prairies to read Wayne Arthurson’s novella The Red Chesterfield a couple of times; will probably make it an annual thing like Katherine Dunn’s also magical Geek Love, after I read it again next week. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to drink tea (tea!) and eat Russian wedding cookies. Under a blanket. WTF.   

That cozy feeling led me back to some classics here at home. Some of Patricia Highsmith’s sublime shorts collected in Eleven. Tillie Olsen’s extraordinary work gathered in Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works. Continuing pandemic in the U.S. urged me to reinfect with Camus’s The Plague, but after a couple dozen pages I opted to brighten things up with a reread of The Stranger. A revival of unrest and injustice in Portland led me to more Camus, so I took in The Rebel, too. 

It’s quiet now except for Crow O’Clock outside my window. Seems to get dark here around 4:30 in the afternoon. Not much else to do except read, I guess.

Thank god.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Santiago Jose Sanchez

-

I read very little this year. I was living by myself for the first time and learning that the longer you’re alone the harder it is to not be alone. When I wasn’t on my phone for six hours a day, I was stoned out of my mind and streaming every single episode of Survivor I could find online. For much of the summer and early fall, as I finished my first novel, I avoided reading altogether to protect this book from my bottomless need for comparison; it’s impossible, when you’re an immigrant, to not notice everything you’re not. But now that my novel has sold, I feel ready to take risks as I haven’t since my early 20s. I want more books, more sex, more writing, more love. There is so much more to life than protecting myself from—and I hate to say this—myself. The following are the few books that managed to draw me into the world, when all I wanted was to curl into a ball and forget I was human.

Akhil Sharma’s Family Life—January, my first book of the year. Sharma’s deceptively simple sentences and bewildering transitions were a map for huge grief at a time when my mind was with my grandmother in Colombia—bedridden for years, mostly mute—and all the stories of love and hate my mother had shared with me over the holidays.

Larry Kramer’s Faggots, which I read with my friends, Carl and Ryan, as part of our short-lived gay book club. We were trying our best to stay in touch; Carl was back in Little Rock, and Ryan in Philadelphia. I forget who picked this one, but it was so fun, so sloppy, so full of poppers and dildos and beach orgies that it was a joy to read, especially as February in Iowa City made the world white, then whiter.

My pick was Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends. The three of us followed Brontez online, and we often shared his posts in our group chat. Ping-ponging between lovers and memories of lovers, this book was a celebration of how faggots make lives out of who and what we can get our hands on. I took a selfie with the book covering my bare ass for Brontez, starting a new friendship.

Next was Peter Kispert’s debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am. I saw so much of myself in these characters, and the calculated, often misguided, risks they took for connection.

Our fourth book and final pick was Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, a devastating story of queer womanhood in Jamaica. For several weeks, I treaded slowly through the pain these women were forced to withstand. As for Carl and Ryan, they took months to finish it, and when they finally did it was November, and I had forgotten everything but the painful image of Thandi—a teenager and artist—rubbing bleaching creams onto her skin, wrapping herself in saran wrap, and throwing a sweater on to keep her secret safe.

T. Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through was the most genius thing I ever read about art, sex, and queer community. Posting picture after picture from its passages to my social media, like they were lyrics or poems, I felt 15 again.

Then, for several months, and for no apparent reason—or for every imaginable reason—I struggled to read a complete book. Several people I knew were reading Shirly Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and so I checked a copy out from the library, adored its first 50 pages and never picked it up again, realizing that even if I was reading the same book as some acquaintances, I was still alone. I turned to Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth, which was as funny and unsettling as her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, and though I still think of this unhinged mother and her chaotic little lovely son, I only got halfway through this book. I read a few essays from Larissa Pham’s Pop Song, about running, photography, and the color blue, which I’d seen Larissa write over the years and though I really shouldn’t be surprised by her genius—since we’ve been best friends since college—I was.

In May, I was so manic and restless that I ordered every single book by Carl Phillips through my university’s interlibrary loans. Everyone I’d known in Iowa City for the last three years was moving away, and it felt like my life was vanishing before my eyes. I would have to start again somewhere else, and after so many of these dislocations, I wasn’t afraid, exactly, as much as I was tired, and though I didn’t get through all of them, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, Silverchest, and Double Shadow, in particular, beamed a light into my life when I needed it most.

In June, as I packed my apartment into boxes and left everything ready for a swift move when I returned at the end of the summer, I read Donika Kelly’s Bestiary and The Renunciations, back to back, and sometimes aloud. They were like hot rocks, I couldn’t put them down even if they were searing my hands; I wanted more, the way some pains make us insatiable.

A sweaty room with no A/C in New York City was my home for July. I was teaching an online workshop for queer high schoolers, and I prepared for class everyday by rereading sections of Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World, the only book on craft I keep nearby. A manifesto and practical guide, this book is a reminder that craft and workshop are malleable forms we can change to better reflect how we—those othered and marginalized—tell our stories.

In Colombia, at the farm my mother bought without telling anyone, I read a galley of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City. When his best friend gets married, Young, a gay 20-something in Seoul, preoccupies himself with his mother’s ailing health and his relationships with a series of men, shuffling between familial and erotic love. This book was hilarious and heartbreaking, bitchy and profoundly poignant—everything I wanted my own gay book about mothers and lovers to be. Meanwhile, on the farm, every other conversation with my mother was about her upcoming retirement, which, inevitably, led to a discussion of what she would do if and when her husband died first. As we mapped out her life in all its possible iterations, she kept reminding me that she never talked to my older brother about her health, even if he was the doctor, because you know how he is, and so this too, I learned, would be part of my role as her easy gay son. The weight of this obligation was lessened those days I spent with Young at his mother’s hospital bedside.

At the end of the summer, I moved an hour west of Iowa City to Grinnell where I started a fellowship. Alone in this new town, I locked myself in my empty office for hours to finish my novel. I tried reading Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, but it was impossible to get through more than a page or two before I felt compelled to write, such was the beauty of these luminous books that they made my own words feel vital. The only book I was able to finish during this time was Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red. After a stroke leaves her blind, a young Chilean writer finds herself increasingly trapped within her body and life. Her voice—wet, dark, pulsing—held me spellbound. I often paused in the middle of a page to convince myself I wasn’t losing my own vision.

When my book sold, I returned to reading. I ripped through an early copy of Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, a masterfully plotted novel, bold, and surprising book about two siblings in Brooklyn and the revolutionary mother who abandoned them. I breezed through Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, which I was anticipating since A Separation. Every single line of this novel held the charge of an existential threat. My friend laughed because I was taking a picture of almost every page, but I knew that what I held in my hands was a masterclass on bringing characters within an inch of unraveling. The next book I picked up was Red Pill by Hari Kunzru, and I couldn’t help imagining Kunzru and Kitamura, the power couple of literary psychological thrillers, sharing pages with each other. In my head, I spun a fantasy of love and collaboration. I decided: My next lover would be a writer. And then I remembered that not so long ago, at the beginning of this year, I’d dated another writer, who was so talented, that once, when they edited a paragraph for me, I felt like an idiot for days after.

As the months got colder and I got lonelier and my therapist upped my Lexapro prescription, adding Wellbutrin for good measure, I began flirting shamelessly and idly with guys in big cities, wishing I was anywhere but where I was, and this was how I struck up a friendship with Mark Doten. He sent me a copy of Dennis Cooper’s I Wished, which he’d edited. This was my first time reading Cooper. I had heard of him over the years, but he kept getting lost in the notes I kept on my phone of books to read. In this slim, unruly book, Dennis Cooper returns to write about George Miles—the lover/man/boy/idea-of-a-person he has memorialized in five other novels. My first boyfriend, Ed, who I’d met at 13, was so much like George, that I could not stop thinking that I needed to write more about him. I had to write two, three, five books about his hunger and madness, his idiocy and pride.

In the last two weeks, I’ve started Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgard, Sisters by Daisy Johnson, A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux, and The Art of Revision by Peter Ho Davies. I’d forgotten how much I loved reading several books at once. It brings out the way writers, no matter where they are, are all speaking to each other, and reaffirms my optimistic belief that we’re never just writing for ourselves. I want to say it’s like a party then. Everyone’s invited. Here’s Annie building suspense by telling us everything about her teenage life before getting to what happened at the summer camp; there’s Peter sharing the time his father intervened in a hate crime. Everyone is telling the story of how they came to know themselves more deeply, how they did or didn’t make sense of the world, and—my personal favorite—how those stories were later revised. I’m walking across the room to Roland, saying hello; he’s just as engaging now as he was a decade ago. Like at any party, I bring whatever conversation I just had into the next. I make connections between unlikely friends. It can feel like work, but I’m not jealous of anyone, only happy they’re here, that they came. And sometimes, just for a moment, when I step back and look across the room, I feel like I understand my place in the world. I’m right where I should be. Then when I’m bored, hungry, horny, I leave. Before I go—won’t you sit next to me? Tell me whom and what you love?

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Julietta Singh

-

How to Hold a Body

I spent most of this year reading through Canadian archives in pursuit of a strange new project, a search for traces of women who lived, worked, and studied in my childhood home before me. I have been trying to imagine through what logics I might say that their lives have shaped my own, what forms of ethical belonging and attachment we might invent to sustain life. I’m reaching for other women across time and text, across histories of race, class, and disability, envisioning a single brick and mortal space as a portal through which I might understand my connection and responsibility to place and people differently. 

My search has been mostly virtual because I’ve remained in a certain state of seclusion this past year, with a nine-year old unvaccinated whirlwind in my midst, trying, like all of us, to live safely together. In the face of so many tangible enclosures produced through the pandemic, my reading life this year has been attuned to affective openings, to women writers making space for each other and for other possible worlds. I’ve spent the year remembering that literature has, across my life, been a space for kinship, for breathing. 

At the turn of the new year, I lifted Dionne Brand’s No Language Is Neutral off the shelf, a collection I hadn’t read since 1999, when I was young, lost, and wanting, and did not know how to hold the heft of the world. I lit a candle, smoked a bowl, and opened that thin collection to discover these words: “this is you girl, this cut of road up/to Blanchicheuse, this every turn a piece/of blue and earth carrying on, beating, rock and/ocean this wearing away, smoothing the insides/pearl and shell and coral”… this is you girl felt like a hailing, the most intimate ecological invitation I had ever received, an aperture into queer love through which I blinked and blinked and blinked. 

In the half-cold Virginia winter, I read Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem and was felled by its everything. Grieving and revolutionary, the body here is a warrior that holds colonialism and its undoing in its bones. For all of its Indigenous love, it also asks us—through our different languages, histories, and geographies—to break down this neocolonial world and build another. I did not know Diaz when I read this book, but her words felt like sister words. Two seasons later, when she appeared one late autumn evening at my doorstep and broke me from my pandemic enclosure, she reminded me that where we discover ourselves in words is also where we ground ourselves in the world. 

In the darker months, I picked up Ada Limon’s The Carrying, which articulated so stunningly that what we do not carry also has weight, the heft of which can bend us into other shapes and configurations. I spent some time with her work after this, traveling through her collections in reverse to see how she had arrived here, to this place where my reading her made such perfect sense, where our paths became concert. I felt a deep pleasure at the late discovery that Diaz and Limon had exchanged letter poems released under the title “Envelopes of Air,” where the thickening of female friendship and the poetry of political critique are sutured spheres.  

I kept returning this year to how literature offers a sense of what you wish to have, or what you wished to have had, or what you wish for others to have. Come spring, I sat on the back porch with the greening elm tree and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, taken by how a book that so starkly details the violence inflicted on Asian American bodies manages also to portray the bonds and struggles of feminist friendship forged through art. When the book shifts into an intimate reach for the brilliant writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was raped and murdered in Manhattan in 1982, it’s as though these two writers are stitching themselves together. An impossible reach across time, but together they tell a story that has not yet been heard about the precarity of being a minoritized woman artist, and about how we might continue to hold each other across all thresholds, including our violent deaths. 

Launched back in the classroom this autumn, I took refuge in feminist classics as I struggled with the fact of being so tangibly back in the world. Rereading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was attuned to things I hadn’t considered before, dynamics of care that hadn’t yet landed for me. I’ve always thought of Phoebe, the protagonist’s best friend, as merely the gateway into the story, the one who offers our protagonist the attention she needs to tell us her story. But this time around, I noticed how Phoebe in her “hungry listening” is fueled by the possibilities of what Janie’s adventures might open for her own life. Phoebe, who is “eager to feel and do through Janie.” Phoebe, who while listening “couldn’t help moving her feet.” Phoebe, whose body is readying itself for the stories of other lives lived, whose body holds the eagerness and promise of what those stories might make possible for herself and for us. 

Rereading Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, I was likewise struck by what Mala, a woman so violently dehumanized by the force of colonial patriarchy, continues to make possible for others. In one incredible scene, she offers her transfeminine nurse Ty a dress to wear, and when Ty dons the dress, Mala simply turns away and carries on with her business. It takes Ty a moment to realize that Mala is not failing to bear witness, but rather offering the greatest gesture of feminist friendship: the creation of space and opportunity to let others thrive. 

In mid-October, I sat by the seaside on my birthday reading Divya Victor’s Curb. At the point of contact between water and land, I held tightly to this book that is all about location, those coordinates at which minoritized lives are subjected to violence, stamped out through hatred and misrecognition. Reading by the sea, where the landscape is all smooth and swell, the curbs emerged as both weapons and thresholds, wounds and possibilities. There, we find the poetic coordinates of hate crimes, but we find also the promise of desi sisters wandering the world on “anywhere walks” and learning to fight it through their “anywhere mouths.” Always at the edge of war and friendship, Curb reminds us that in brutality we still manage to lift, salvage, hold the beautiful things, not least of which each other. 

When Natalie Diaz appeared at my door in mid-November as a stranger-friend, I wanted to show her the spectacular orange burst of maple leaves outside my window. Instead, we joked about being different kinds of Indians, indelibly linked through colonialism’s power to name and consume, until our laughter loosened with a coming familiarity. Before she left, she asked if I could show her the mangle of my foot, a once broken appendage that healed so abundantly it took on the shape of a new thing. As I peeled off my sock, she wrapped her hand around the calcified swell, her palm shelling my creature-foot. One appendage becoming flesh home to another, as if to explain: this is how to hold a body—we harbor the breaks, then build the belonging-world.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005