The Millions Top Ten: September 2020

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 September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
8.

Tell It Slant
5 months

2.
3.

Death in Her Hands
4 months

3.
5.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors
4 months

4.
4.

Utopia Avenue

3 months

5.
6.

All My Mother’s Lovers
3 months

6.
10.

The Vanishing Half

2 months

7.


22 Minutes of Unconditional Love
1 month

8.


Disappearing Earth
1 month

9.
7.

Summer
2 months

10.


Vesper Flights
1 month

It’s always a celebration when books alight to our site’s Hall of Fame, but when those books are written by our own staffers it’s a special occasion indeed. This month, Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel becomes the longtime Millions writer’s second novel to reach the Hall. (Station Eleven ascended in April 2015.) Congratulations, Emily! Her book is joined in the Hall by fellow September 2020 inductee N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. This is Jemisin’s first book to reach the Hall, but it’s also the first installment of a trilogy, so we’ll see how things go.

With two spots opened up—and then a third because A Luminous Republic dropped off of this month’s list—we welcome three newcomers: Daphne Merkin’s 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love, Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, and Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth. The first two titles appeared in our Great Second-Half 2020 Book Preview while Phillips’s debut graced our First-Half Book Preview from 2019, well before it became a finalist for that year’s National Book Award.

Of this trio, Macdonald’s likely most familiar to Millions readers, not least of all due to the way H Is for Hawk, her 2015 memoir, was celebrated on this site. But Vesper Flights ushers forth its own delights as well, as Daniel Lefferts wrote in his profile of Macdonald last June. “What unifies the essays in Vesper Flights is her ardor for nature, her extensive knowledge of it, and her fear for its destruction,” Lefferts wrote. “With a naturalist’s command of technical vocabulary and a poet’s eye for simile, she can sound like a former scholar who’s broken free of the constraints of academe—which is, in essence, what she is.”

Next month we may see further shakeups, as the titles on the top half of the list approach the ends of their runs, and other newcomers are sure to pop in.

This month’s near misses included: How to Be an Antiracist, The Mirror & the Light, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and Fleishman Is in Trouble. See Also: Last month’s list.

Must-Read Poetry: October 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

The Historians by Eavan Boland 

Poetry “doesn’t make things happen. What poetry does, if anything, is show that something else happened at the same time.” Boland published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, and her devotion to the art of poetry wasn’t without an awareness of the limits of art. She lamented that in Ireland, “we’ve always had this terrible gap between rhetoric and reality.” She wrote that the “position of women poets in this country is one thing. The shooting of a baby or a woman or a man on his own doorstep is quite another.” Boland’s realist sentiment imbues her poetry with a certain presence: her views feel well-earned. The Historians, her final book, is a necessary volume. The titular, sequential first poem ranges from the narrator’s mother, who “spoke about the influence / of metals, the congruence of atoms” to “old Ireland,” where she sees “candle smoke rising towards / the porcelain / yellow faces of the sanctified.” Later, she writes: “I was born in a place where rain / is second nature,” where “rain was a dialect I could listen to / on a winter night: its sibilance.” There are gently heartbreaking pieces here, such as “Be”: “All I know is / as the light went my / infant daughters / were asleep in it, / brightness arcing towards / a cambered distance.” Forgive me for reading a poet’s final book in the enveloping shadow of her passing, but there is an acute power here, as with poems that end with lines like this: “I should have taken more care.” Boland has left us with gifts: “I remember how I longed / to find the plenitude and accuracy needed / to bring words home, / to winter hills, fogged-away stars, / children’s faces fading into sleep. // Now I wonder / if it was enough.”

The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali

“Arriving in the night / All my forgotten prayers,” Ali writes in “Recite,” the first poem of the collection. “Not prayers really / Nothing to ask for.” After all, “God’s like a misfit / You don’t fit he don’t fit.” Ali’s masterful turns of phrase and feeling make this book feel both encompassing and particular.  The book is anchored by the long titular poem, generous in scope and sense . Born in London in 1965, Sheila Chandra was part of the Indian pop band Monsoon in the early ’80s before going solo. She stopped singing in 2009 because of a rare condition; it hurt gravely to sing or speak. “Laughing and crying also cause me pain,” she wrote in an interview. For Ali, Chandra is a guide and muse; he is entranced by her past voice, for  “Who can in syllables like / Sheila Chandra moan us.” She sings without words / Because a word is a form of rage at / Death.” Before her disease “she sang / In Uzbek contorted her tongue around / Words she never knew learned.” Ali is saddened by her lost voice, but his poem and book know the world moves in strange ways: “In a world governed by storm and noise why / Then should a singer not fall silent.” He lives among her absent song, reflecting back to the book’s originating poem: “Nor do I always turn to the tenor stricken / I have no fear of god but of being / This archangel unfolding to emerge / From god into form.” Such is life: “there is no beginning to any song only the place / the singer picks up the tune.”

Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez

“Sometimes I search for the exact day / I stopped dreaming in the language / that sings my name.” Gómez mines the tactile spaces between cultures and tongues, tinged with the melancholy concern of how it feels “to watch something slowly drift / away without knowing if it might / ever find its way back.” This concern of distance from origin—this unfolding of who we truly are—never ends: “Eleven years later, when you no longer eat pizza / or speak Spanish, when your father’s profile invades // your clenched jawling, you borrow his brisk gait, / his snort, his face. People say you look white. / Your father never does.” Fatherhood—as both father and son—permeates this collection. In “Revisionist,” the narrator’s precise amnesia results in forgotten names of his children, though “each time, / I am called by the wrong name, // I almost correct him, then wonder / the cost of each small revision and / how it might change that sprawling // unknown in the distance.” The narrator wonders if he “might someday need his tools / to right my own family again.” Fractures arrives with the tensions of such precipices.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong)

Seungja’s first published poem appeared in 1979, and eight volumes of her poetry have appeared since—most recently Written on the Water (2011) and Empty Like an Empty Boat (2016). Kim and Hong deftly deliver Seungja’s inventive lines, which command our attention from the first poem’s final stanza: “That I am alive / is no more than an endless / rumor.” Seungja’s imagery and metaphors sting. In “Do You Remember Cheongpa-dong,” she writes of another’s tender touch during winter, until their departure in spring. “Lilacs bloomed like ghosts / but you didn’t smile, even from that far place.” She is “stung in silence,” and makes a vow: “Even if I have to crawl like a worm with my stung body, / I want to go to you. / I want to steal into your warm light / and be stung for the last time / and die forever.” Her narrators are singular and assertive: “I’m nobody’s disciple, / nobody’s friend.” In “Sleep Comes Without Its Owner,” she warns: “Don’t hold onto me. / I’m not your mother, / not your child.” She will “go all alone / with my old body soaked in poetry and blood.” Seungja believes in poetry—it is not quite an optimistic belief, but it is an art of necessity: “poetry is charting a way,” and in doing so, “leaving a trace of the way.” She places parentheticals within her poems as more than asides—they are new routes of feeling, and they range from solemn reflections to flits of beauty: “(A child is eating / an apple outside the window. / I watch her / savoring / a world.).” Seungja offers those comforts, despite the overbearing feeling that life weighs so much: “That the sea I have to cross is getting bigger / worries me.” 

Field Music by Alexandria Hall

An engaging debut, steeped in place: “Nothing ever stays / where it ought: runoff dragged into the river / by summer rains from shit-covered fields— / my thickly perfumed Vermont.” In the book’s first poem, she describes how morning glories “creep up the shafts of the garden / vegetables, their seductive curls choking / out my small plot.” After all, sometimes “we can’t see / the dangers we feed, that we nurture.” In “Geosmin,” the narrator ponders: “Her shoulders were much smaller / than mine. I wasn’t sure // how to touch them. If a man / ever felt this way about my body, // how could he / go on touching me?” Touch pervades this book: “I might hold myself like that, // too tightly. I can feel the weight / of my hand resting on my leg / but not the pulp of my thigh // at my fingertip. There are, I’m told, / two sides to touch.” The contour of her syntax reflects this touch, even in the curve of her description: “Stray dogs dodging cars at the Oxxo. / Water level marked on the bluffs. The peonies / gutted and collapsed on the driveway in June. / I am undone, not by grief, but abundance.” Hall suggests that all we can do is reach for each other: “That night we lay strewn on the grass, / a product of restlessness, like garbage / combed through by skunks who, / though they’ve had their fill, / keep searching through the scraps / of plastic. I held my fingers out / to find yours.” 

Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

“When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing.” Adnan’s prose-poetic rumination on death would strike a chord at any time, but it feels especially apt in this moment of protracted grief. Peppered with questions—“There are so many islands I dreamed of visiting, where have they gone?”—Adnan’s lamentations are recursive and soothing. To live is to die, and the poets can ease the passage. “My thoughts drip,” Adnan writes, “not unlike the faucet. They don’t let me know what they’re about.” She ponders how we “try to subvert the gods, buy their powers, corrupt their souls.” She wonders: “Can we keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days?” Her rhythms make all things new, big and small, including the unread books that line her shelves: “They’re so aloof, so silent. I spend hours next to them.” Among this accumulated sadness, there might be only one balm: “Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.” 

October Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind,” reads the Airbnb posting for the charming Hamptons house rented by a Brooklyn family for a one-week vacation. The world has other ideas. Shortly into their stay, the East Coast power grid goes down, New York City is plunged into darkness, warplanes roar across the sky—the sonic boom “a rend in heaven right above their little house”—and, worse, the rental home’s owners appear at the front door. An exquisitely tense novel of manners in the midst of a catastrophe from which there is no safe haven, however well-furnished. (Matt)

Memorial by Bryan Washington: In the follow-up to his 2019 story collection, Lot, Washington introduces us to Mike and Benson. They’re a couple, and though they haven’t been together forever, their relationship has lasted long enough for them to both become vaguely dissatisfied. Their rather boring comfort gets shaken up by the arrival of Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, from Japan: she reveals that his father is dying, and while Mike travels to Osaka to, Mitsuko stays behind with Benson. The result is not only an exploration of a kaleidoscopically diverse America—Mike is a Japanese American man who works at a Mexican restaurant and dates a Black man—but a moving portrait of two young men who are figuring out exactly who they are in this world. Anyone who enjoyed Washington’s dreamlike yet textured meditations on life in Houston in Lot will be enchanted with Memorial. (Ismail)

The Silence by Don DeLillo: The prerelease literature for DeLillo’s The Silence takes pains to note that DeLillo completed his new novel mere weeks before the advent of Covid-19. One understands why when one reads the plot summary: Five people on Super Bowl Sunday in the near future, trapped together in a Manhattan apartment in the midst of an ongoing catastrophe. In The Silence, DeLillo trains his postmodern meditative powers on what happens when our connection to technology is severed, and asks what ultimately makes us human. As Joshua Ferris writes in The New York Times Book Review: “DeLillo offers consolation simply by enacting so well the mystery and awe of the real world.” (Adam Price)

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Fans of Oyamada’s The Factory— a curious and delightfully eccentric novel that follows four workers through their jobs at a Kafkaesque labyrinthine factory—will be delighted to know that New Directions is publishing the English translation of Oyamada’s follow-up novel, The Hole. Work figures into this book too: when a couple relocates to a rural area for the husband’s job, the wife is left with an abundance of time. She explores the countryside, finding various unlikely creatures, and particularly a hole that seems to be made just for her, in this novel that is “by turns reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, and My Neighbor Totoro.” (Anne)

Bright and Dangerous Objects by Anneliese Mackintosh: A beautiful novel about an undersea welder who juggles her desire to join a mission to Mars with the reality of her pregnancy. This is a lovely and fascinating book about the kind of work that is usually invisible, and a kind of maternal ambivalence that reaches for the literal stars, told from the perspective of a singular, well-drawn protagonist. (Lydia)

The Searcher by Tana French: French, who made her name writing six bestselling mysteries starring detectives from the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, has branched out into stand-alone books. In this one, a retired Chicago cop buys a house in a rural town in Ireland’s Lonesome West, hoping to put police work behind him. But of course trouble finds him in the form of a local boy from a dysfunctional family who needs help finding his missing brother. If you are a French obsessive, you don’t need to know the rest. Just pre-order and call in sick for a couple days after Oct. 6 when the book comes out. (Michael)

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney): A young man works through the aftermath of his mother’s abandonment when he was a young child, from the author of the critically acclaimed Among Strange Victims. (Lydia)

Just Like You by Nick Hornby: The much-loved author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and other hits is out with another unlikely romance—this one between Lucy, a nearly divorced 41-year-old schoolteacher with two sons, and Joseph, a part-time butcher half her age who’s still living at home with his mom. When they meet, Lucy’s looking for a babysitter but winds up with something more. In this age of lockdowns and social distancing, the novel asks timely questions about how people manage to connect when confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Sometimes, this brutally funny novel suggests, the perfect match might be the person who’s utterly unlike you. (Bill)

Missionaries by Phil Klay: Despite soul-sapping fatigue, a soldier-medic adept at patching up the war wounded and a journalist equally adept at covering American war find the chance to enter yet another conflict zone irresistible. A calling of sorts. But whence the call? From its appeal to ego—the belief that one is among the favored few tasked with making things right in the world? As acolytes to violence, if not by preference then by necessity? With Missionaries, Klay, winner of the National Book Award in 2014, has dropped a novel on us of a muscular veracity as terrifying and important as it is rare in contemporary writing. (Il’ja)

Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty: Debut novel Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty ‘defies all modest description” according to Brian Phillips. The novel’s a mix of tragedy and farce that evokes the kitchen sink of classics (high and low): the Greek classics and the Bible alongside nods to Looney Tunes, Charles Portis, and Flannery O’Connor. Set in 1837 Ohio, Medium Son narrates the tale of Big Son, who looks for a steady wage and in doing so stumbles into a series of misadventures that involve (but are not limited to) elderly terrorists, infrastructure collapse, steamboat races, wild pigs, and multiple ruined weddings. A boisterous adventure, Cuyahoga at its essence, per Phillips, is “a ramshackle joy from start to finish.” (Anne)

The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross: In Gross’s debut novel, a disintegrating marriage inadvertently reveals a larger secret: the existence of a tiny Jewish village in Poland called Kreskol. Isolated (in equal measure) from the horrors, advancements, and culture of the 20th century, its residents must come to terms with their new reality—and long-hidden origin story. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says: “Gross’s entertaining, sometimes disquieting tale delivers laugh-out-loud moments and deep insight on human foolishness, resilience, and faith.” (Carolyn)

White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad: Born out of her viral Guardian article from 2018 ( “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Color”), Hamad’s first book explores the ways white feminism has been used to uphold white supremacy and oppress Black and Indigenous women, and women of color. Blending history, research, and cultural criticism, Zeba Talkhani calls the book “an essential guide for those who want to be truly intersectional in their feminism.” (Carolyn)

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: Danforth’s debut adult novel weaves together stories (and stories within stories) centered around Brookhants School for Girls, a shuttered and haunted New England boarding school. Deeply metafictional, mysterious, and queer, the novel explores the ways the past and the present converge in horrifying and spectacular ways. “Brimming from start to finish with sly humor and gothic mischief, Plain Bad Heroines is a brilliant piece of exuberant storytelling by a terrifically talented author,” says Sarah Waters. (Carolyn)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): In a follow-up to her wildly successful English-language debut, Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s newest novel follows Natsuki, a girl who believes she’s an alien. Ignored, abused, and painfully lonely, she grows up but never fits into society; she dreams of escaping the “factory” (modern Japanese society) for her true home: space. Elif Bautman calls the novel “A radical, hilarious, heartbreaking look at the crap we have all internalized in order to fit in and survive.” (Carolyn)

A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man by Sarah Kasbeer: Winner of Zone 3 Press’s 2019 Creative Nonfiction Award, Kasbeer’s debut essay collection explores girlhood, sexuality, trauma, shame, and hope. “An astonishing collection not for the faint of heart,” says Chloe Caldwell. “Kasbeer speaks the unspoken and dares to be vulnerable in a world of facades.” (Carolyn)

Tiny Nightmares edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto: In their second “tiny” anthology, editors Michel and Nieto gather 40 established and emerging writers— including Samantha Hunt, Jac Jemc, and Hilary Leichter—to spin small tales of terror. About the little horrors, Carmen Maria Machado says: “I could gorge myself all day and night on these macabre, hellish little literary bonbons…Tiny Nightmares is an absolute treat.” (Carolyn)

The Millions Top Ten: August 2020

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 August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Glass Hotel
6 months

2.
2.

The City We Became
6 months

3.
5.

Death in Her Hands
3 months

4.
8.

Utopia Avenue

2 months

5.
6.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors
3 months

6.
9.

All My Mother’s Lovers

4 months

7.


Summer
1 month

8.
3.

Tell It Slant
4 months

9.


A Luminous Republic
1 month

10.


The Vanishing Half
1 month

My friends, I’m not sure if you’re like me.

I mean, I see that you’re buying Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors, with it rising to our list’s fifth spot, perhaps on the strength of my past recommendations, but I’m still not sure if you’re really like me.

Instead you’re yourselves. That’s great. That’s grand. That’s what I want. Let’s talk about the books you’re reading.

This month you’ve pushed two books into our Hall of Fame: The Resisters by Gish Jen and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. At the same time, you’ve bumped a couple books out of our Top Ten, freeing space for new entries: Summer by Ali Smith, A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba, and The Vanishing by Brit Bennett.

For a grounding on Smith’s quartet, let’s revisit Jean Huets’s “Things Fall Apart” piece for The Millions:
I’m looking forward to spring. I don’t like the cold. Where I live, the snow comes down these days as sleet and the dust on my ice skates thickens every year. But I’m also looking forward to Spring because I love Autumn and Winter.
For the other two, let’s resolve to read widely. Let’s check in next month, TBR lists ablaze, pitches aplenty, and let’s discuss. We should have a few newcomers to talk about by then, too.

This month’s near misses included: The Mirror & the Light, 22 Minutes of Unconditional LoveFleishman Is in Trouble, and Disappearing Earth. See Also: Last month’s list.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2020

Here are nine notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Horsepower by Joy Priest

One of the best debuts of the year. An early poem, “American Honey,” begins: “It’s easier than you thought—leaving.” Two moves here—the second-person framing and the em dash—give the line power and profluence. From the start of this book, Priest is a captivating guide. “Your long-built dread / dispersing like gas into a brilliantly Black / Appalachian sky” portends a recurrent theme of narrator-as-phantom, of transfigured characters. Her storytelling sense is formidable: “Now you can be a girl / on the back patio with three white men & you can leave / with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.” Pitch-perfect lines abound, as in “Blue Heart Baby”: “Every piece / of advice is one the giver followed to his own // bitterness.” Priest is so adept at sketching place; elsewhere she writes “The darkness / up to our chins. The sky // a bowl of blinking lights above us.” Priest shows that mimesis is about feeling more than realism—the world wobbles while it spins, and her lines have a preternatural ability to reflect this. From “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess”: “Your only friends the carpenter bees who bear perfectly round holes / In the carport’s rotting wood frame & dance in socked feet // Glittering with pollen, the hummingbirds hovering at your head / Like a crown.” She’s equally adept at sketching scenes. In one poem, the narrator is sitting in “my mother’s white Plymouth” below the “Hollywood Video’s fanatic purple lights— // Their appliance buzz.” Her mother, inside the story, has been “stunned-still at the sight of my father, // Possibly a mirage.” The narrator’s father is an arresting character in Horsepower. “He sees the world in us. / Knows the huge, abstract names // for emotions, when it comes to plants, / but not his own self.” He’s a phantom in his own way, and when we read lines from the final poem—“I’m leaving / & being left. Looking for you / In all your haunts”—their worlds unite.

Be Holding by Ross Gay

The lyrical elements of basketball—hardwood and asphalt, hustle and strain—couldn’t find a better laureate than Gay. Sports, in the end, are about controlling our bodies, bending them toward our wills (especially basketball, in the constrained space). Be Holding is a book-length paean to Dr. J., among other wonders. Gay’s collection includes a hilarious early footnote for the uninitiated to Julius Erving (“You could just look on any of the video algorithim machines…or, better yet, you could just ask an elder.”). Gay invites us into his process, as the clip of Dr. J’s baseline levitation in the 1980 NBA Finals becomes a source of meditation, a recursive fount of energy. He ponders the typical admonition of frustrated coaches: “keep your feet! / again and again, // which makes the leaping—leaving your feet— / sound sacrificial.” Like the doctor himself, Gay’s ability to linger in a moment captures the richness of basketball-as-story: “—have you ever decided anything / in the air?—” The classic video clip brings Gay to other places, times, and subjects, including his youth. “I, too, am a docent / in the museum of black pain,” he writes. “my own white mother // how many times told / by white people // that brown child is not yours, / that curly-headed sun-loved thing // you nurse and whose ass / you wiped the shit from // and whose very body you bore / of your florid gore.” Gay delivers beautiful lines throughout: “my body is made of my father,” he notes: “I sometimes will study // my own hands, / which are his hands, // recalling the way he held / my brother’s and my heads // through the crosswalk.” A unique work of form and substance.

Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Gifted in the art of the long poem, Chakraborty, also includes dialogic poems, epigrammatic pieces, and verse essays (with appearances by Foucault, Spinoza, and Dürer)—all pieces touched with the elegiac. In an early segmented prose poem, she offers an apostrophe to the reader: “I am also writing his poem as a fable because at times I have been afraid to speak of myself, and lately it has become important to me to learn how to respect that my earliest affections for abstraction were by way of disguise.” Now, she writes, “I tend to think of obstruction and clarity alike as acts of definition.” A centerpiece of the collection is her masterful long poem “Dear, Beloved”: “Sister, I know neither goodness nor mercy shall follow me / all the days of my life, as surely as I know the beasts / I inherit or create, of all unions familial or otherwise, / are speechless and brute, and bound to die soon.” Some lines that stopped me: “The secret / about lullabies: when they work, it’s because they sound / like something plants would sing in Hades, on the banks / of the river dark.” In the book’s final poem, Chakraborty writes “There is a space in my body that did / not exist when I began this book. It / is a window. When I next speak, I / will do so through that window”—and it feels absolutely true.

Blizzard by Henri Cole 

A bee swarms out of a black-red peony, and “I am waving / my arms to make you go away. No one / is truly the owner of his own instincts, / but controlling them—this is civilization.” While peeling potatoes, “I put my head down,” and “I feel a connection across / time to others putting their heads down / in fatigued thought.” Black mushrooms are found, and “Sometimes, / when I’m suffocating from an atmosphere of restraint / within myself, I fry them up in butter, with pepper and salt, / and forget where the hurt came from.” The early poems in Blizzard immediately establish a hypnotic refrain of syntax and focus—no easy feat for a poet to wrest us from the world that quickly, and let us live elsewhere awhile. From “To a Snail”: “It’s a long game— / the whole undignified, insane attempt at living— / so I’ve relocated you to the woods.” His typically concise form never feels inert or bloodless: there’s a sense of poetic calmness or transcendence to his method of staying in a moment and watching, contemplating, speaking. His lines arrive within the tunnel of each poem, but feel like little gifts to carry elsewhere: “Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” The book’s second section pivots to an earthly, funereal concern about decaying bodies and anxiety. A gray and white dove that slammed dead into a picture window: “We buried it—in some distorted version of its normal self— / folded in a white cloth napkin in the backyard. / Still soft enough to be cut into like a cabbage, I thought, / I’m glad I’m not dead.” “Agnostic and uninsured,” a later narrator laments, “I eat celery, onions, / and garlic—my Holy Trinity of survival.” These lamentations take a different, more sensuous turn in the third section: “Sometimes, a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle. / In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier / kneeling on soft mats.”

Owed by Joshua Bennett

“You contain / multitudes & are yet / contained everywhere you go.” From “Token Sings the Blues”—the first poem in Bennett’s skilled collection—on forward, Owed is a song of identity. An affirmation of how the narrator’s sister says “You. are everything” and the honest melancholy that “on your best / days above ground you / believe her.” In “Barber Song,” Bennett sings of “Postmodern blackness black / -smith,” how someone can make “a cut so close you could see / the shimmer of a man’s thinking.” How the barber is a “biweekly / psychoanalyst, first stop / before funeral, before / wedding & block party.” Yet there’s also a finely tuned sense of entropy in this book: “I’m pretty good / at not loving / anything enough / to fear its ruin. / The cruel speed / of our guaranteed / obsolescence suits / me.” One way against the storm, one measure of survival, is “how I lend my hands / to lyric’s labor, as if forsythia / or chrysanthemum could bloom from black / ideas dancing across a screen.” Bennett manages to do so with pieces that are nearly hymnal, as with “Mike Brown is a Type of Christ”: “By which I mean, mostly, that we gaze upon the boy / & all of our fallen return to us, their wounds unhealed / & howling.” And in one of the sections of the “Reparations” sequence: “But what modern-day / black son wasn’t born / knowing how to pray?” Bennett ends with a poem that follows Langston Hughes, and is much about America as it is about being a father and son, and about dogged hope for “some vast and future country / some nation within a nation.”

The Math Campers by Dan Chiasson

An ambitious new book, as Chiasson plays and prods with time, source, structure, and the spectacle of creation. The book’s first poem, a consideration of a 2017 mural by the artist David Teng Olsen, begins the fracturing—“Through his eyes I see in the dark. / I see through change the static”—which ends with the narrator’s son questing Chiasson’s cover of Bicentennial. Fathers and sons become an emblem for this book, which begins with a poem in four phrases—a porous narrative of fragments, dreams, and daydreams. There’s a self bursting against the world here (Chiasson has said in an interview: “I’m fascinated by the inner life as a social fact, a competing fact, as real as the weather or the news.”). T.S. Eliot haunts these poems well (“I owned ‘East Coker’ on cassette. / We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause / and ask my girlfriend how she likes / the line, In my beginning is my end.” “Over and Over,” the final section of the initial poem, invites the reader to “turn over / her hands to expose her palms,” and to later step away from the page and screen and “ponder who imagined whom.” The titular poem bleeds across adolescent wonders. While the Circus Camp “patches its tents” and at the Farm Camp, “a goat behind a wire fence / prepares to be clumsily milked,” the “Hard problems at the Math Camp wait / all winter for solutions; / engorged sums hibernate / and dream of consolation.” The ultimate equation is youth: “the absolute value of fifteen / or how the summer might expand / and prove eternal by division / of days into hours, minutes, seconds.”

Wonder & Wrath by A.M. Juster 

“Wood sways and mutters; palsied shutters bang. / The call has come.” “November Requiem” rests nearly in the middle of Wonder & Wrath, the poet and translator Juster’s latest, but radiates throughout the book. Juster is a poet of control—carefully pared lines whose concision creates profluent energy, as in the start of “Behold”: “Let the state highway cleave cold, stubbled fields / so that both empty lanes extend like grace.” That feeling carries the end of “Epilogue”: “There are no robins hymning / or gawkers at this scene— / only a lowered sun, / raw cries of crows, and dimming.” A particular standout here is “Inertia”: “High glinting leaves, / glazed by the post-storm light, / are hushing dark / in reassuring waves.” The calming of gl and s sounds lull the reader into an elegiac state, followed by “Our lichen-clad / old maple lost three limbs / to rain that felt / like reprimands from God.” In Juster’s work, the divine is present (and omnipresent), as well as the sense that our existence is part of a sometimes confounding by always certain scheme. “The world turns liquid,” he begins “Vertigo,” as it “reels and rolls, / as gravity // veers at angles.” His insights are often welcome, as in “Fruit Flies,” which opens with a useful reminder: “They are the best, as pest invasions go: / no bites and no disease, just clouds of small / tan smudges spawned in week-old grapes.” Although they “flit and frustrate,” and “outsmart you with their tiny brains,” just pour “some white wine into a dish, and wait.” They cannot resist. “They soak in joy, relax, then drink no more / It’s no surprise—you’ve seen it all before.” 

Runaway by Jorie Graham 

“My Skin Is”—as Graham’s title begins one poem—”brought to you by Revlon, melancholy, mother’s mother, the pain of others.” There’s a sense of breathless exposure to many of these poems, the long lines reaching across stanzas, their tendons the regular em dashes that serve as both pivots and locks. Graham suggests that something new is among us: “Things flinch / but it is my seeing / makes them / flinch. Before, they are / transparent.” One of the finest pieces here is “The Hiddenness of the World”: “The lovers disappear into the woods again.” War, blizzard, life accumulates: “But the lovers are in the woods again, the signifier is in / the woods, the revolution of the ploughshare in, clod-crumble in, cloud- / tumble, hope and its stumble in.” It’s within association that the poetic form carries its most force, how lines can carry subjects amongst other subjects (and amongst ourselves), so that the narrator must wonder: “Do I have to end // in order to begin, I ask the light that lingers on the trees—between the / trees—the lovers have disappeared again.” The book’s final work, “Poem,” offers a way forward: “The earth said / remember me. The earth said / don’t let go, // said it one day / when I was / accidentally / listening.”

Red Stilts by Ted Kooser 

I’ve come to believe that a Kooser collection is best thought of as a gift: he never ceases to offer a gentle correction to blurred visions of the world. A Kooser poem often arrives in a flash, and then enters the air: as with “Ohio Blue Tip,” which is a single sentence of a man lighting his pipe “with a stick match pinched from the trough / of the matchbox holder nailed by the door,” and the play of the flame before “the thin curl / of smoke as it lifted away from the tip / and then vanished, and it seemed he could / read something special in that, but he / never would say what it was.” In dredging memory from the past, Kooser offers a way for us to do the same—I think of the opening lines of “Helping”: “Our basement floor sloped to the linty lid / of a drain, with a muddy-smelling darkness / through the holes.” The simple (yet skilled) gesture of layering detail without oversaturation, the prayer-like return to the past. Another single-sentence gem, “Tarnish,” begins so appropriately with the word “unrolled”—as in the revelation of the past in the form of family silverware, “gone ghostly / with inky fingerprints of tarnish,” found in an attic chest. How those fingerprints “have been feeling / their way forward through time / in the manner that flat black paint / on the back of a mirror picks its way / through to the front.” Consider the gentle “Tree Frog”: “Late evening, a velvety black / beyond the high windows, and on one / a tiny tree frog with its legs spread / presses its soft, white belly to the glass. / This night it gets to be the evening star.” Few poets can continue to reveal the world book after book like Kooser. A beautiful collection.

September Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most
Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be
helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time
around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what
you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, published when she was only 26, told a sweeping story of the descendants of two half-sisters, one who marries the British governor of a coastal slave castle in what is now Ghana, the other held captive in the dungeons below. For her follow-up, Gyasi narrows her scope to one Ghanaian family in Alabama, where Gyasi herself was raised. “At once a vivid evocation of the immigrant experience and a sharp delineation of an individual’s inner struggle, the novel brilliantly succeeds on both counts,” wrote Publishers Weekly in a starred review. (Michael)

Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Last time it was Oedipus Rex reimagined; this time it’s a modern gothic thriller. After the success of her debut novel, Everything Under, Johnson, the youngest author to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is back with her second novel. Two sisters, July and September, were born just 10 months apart and share an unusually strong bond. But after something terrible happens at school, they’re driven to move with their mother across the country to an abandoned home near the shore. Dread creeps in, the walls have a life of their own, and the bond between the sisters begins to change in strange ways. (Kaulie)

Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell: We see goofy smiles in the bumper and headlights of a car, stern visages in the front door and windows of a house, faces in the markings on a piece of burnt toast. Few things are as simultaneously prosaic and mysterious as the human face, and Serpell examines the literary, cultural, mythological, and biological nature of that very window to the soul. From the disfigured face of John “The Elephant Man” Merrick to the contemporary politics of the emoticon, Serpell provides insight on her eponymous subject across several speculative essays. (Ed Simon)

Daddy by Emma Cline: Cline follows her bestselling and critically acclaimed debut novel, The Girls, with this collection of 10 stories, which, the jacket copy says, portray “moments when the ordinary is disturbed, when daily life buckles, revealing the perversity and violence pulsing under the surface.” The collection includes “Marion” from The Paris Review, and for which Cline won the magazine’s esteemed Plimpton Prize. If you got sucked into Cline’s fictionalization of Harvey Weinstein in her story “White Noise,” featured in The New Yorker’s summer fiction, then this collection is for you—and for me. (Edan)

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: The follow-up to Nunez’s National Book Award-winning novel, The Friend, is a novel about a woman who has a series of encounters with an ex, an Airbnb owner, a friend from her youth, and others. When one makes an extraordinary request, it draws the narrator into a transformation. According to the publisher, it’s a story about the meaning of life and death and the value of companionship. (Claire Cameron)

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): A long-awaited novel from elusive genius Ferrante, another work set in Naples. According to Il Libraio, “As you read, a vast panorama of characters slowly unfolds…a diverse and dynamic tableau of humanity. Once again, Elena Ferrante has not created a mere story but an entire world.” (Lydia)

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine: In Just Us, Rankine blends poems, essays, scholarship, images, and fact-checked notes as she examines, questions, and disrupts whiteness. Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “With Just Us, Claudia Rankine offers further proof that she is one of our essential thinkers about race, difference, politics, and the United States of America. Written with humility and humor, criticism and compassion, Just Us asks difficult questions and begins necessary conversations.” A starred Kirkus review states that Rankine’s newest work “should move, challenge, and transform every reader who encounters it.” (Zoë)

Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato: The veteran journalist and co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria writes a combination of memoir and reportage, exploring his upbringing in California and connecting the threads of his experience with the ongoing American project of destabilization and depredation in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America. Héctor Tobar raves “There has never been a book about the Latinx experience quite like Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting. Here is a voice that is outraged, philosophical, thoughtful, blunt, emotional, and, above all, fiercely independent. In this illuminating and insightful memoir, Lovato journeys into the underworlds of the fraught history of El Salvador, and his own California upbringing, and finds injustice, resistance, and hope.” (Lydia)

The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka: Two broke half-sisters are reunited to claim their estranged father’s inheritance, but instead of money they get something else, something stranger. In its pursuit, Veselka expertly lays bare the realities of poverty, work ethic, and what it means to get by in this country today. (Nick M.)

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang: How many ways are there to tell a family’s migratory history? Chang, an extremely talented young Taiwanese-American author, offers a wild portrait of three generations of women who have in them tigers, snakes, and birds: the myths of their homeland. While Daughter, the protagonist, explores the buried secrets of her family, she also reveals the family’s fragile yet staunch connection with the U.S. The transformations of those women’s bodies embody their oftentimes painful adaptations to this new homeland. (Jianan Qian)

Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt: Bhatt has published beautiful work here at The Millions, and here she makes her fiction debut with a gorgeous collection of short stories. Set in India and America, in restaurants, offices, yoga studios, home bakeries, upscale homes, and grief-filled shacks, Bhatt brings her characters and settings to life with these gorgeous explorations of class, work, ambition, and so much more, capturing the nuances of life in fiction that glows. (Lydia)

Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen: In this memoir Jensen explores her own life and the history of violence in America with the through line of guns: guns carried by her father, guns pointed at her at Standing Rock, guns deployed against indigenous women and in classrooms. Terese Mailhot writes, “Carry explores the static and kinetic energies of the American gun—its ability to impose its terrible will from a locked box on a shelf or the hands of an active shooter. Jensen explores the gun’s tragic impact with heartfelt prose and deep intellect—on politics, on history, on Black and Indigenous bodies, on women’s bodies, and on children behind closed doors. Carry unfurls America’s long rap sheet. It is full of difficult and vital news, delivered right on time.” (Lydia)

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever: A novel about a relationship between two men in college that spirals into violence, exploring intimacy, desire, and power. Brandon Taylor calls it “an utterly captivating fever dream of a novel whose tone and atmosphere will haunt you long after you finish. More haunting still is the skill with which Micah Nemerever reveals to us the lengths we will go to in order to be known, to be seen, to be understood. A thrilling first novel.” (Lydia)

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: A hybrid work of fiction and memoir by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, exploring the experience of Muslims in the world after 9/11 and focusing on the travails of one father and son that lead from America to Europe to Afghanistan. Kirkus calls it “A searing work…profound and provocative.” (Lydia)

Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff: In his expansive first novel, a coming-of-age Western gothic, Loskutoff depicts a wild Montana landscape increasingly tamed by condos and golf courses. The titular character is a magnetic huntress who “devised her own morality based on the behavior of animals she saw from her blind.” Raised by her father in a trailer in the Bitterroot Valley, Ruthie makes her way in a changing world: new money, new buildings, and, most chilling, new creatures—headless monsters called forth by ancient curses or spawned by modern hubris. (Matt S.)

Having and Being Had by Eula Biss: In a follow-up to her acclaimed On Immunity, Biss—who had just bought her first home—explores the precarious relationship between middle/upper-middle class life and 21st-century capitalism. Drawing on literature, history, and economics, Bliss interrogates consumerism, affluence, art, and work through the lens of the home. Jenny Offill says, “Her investigation ranges from the strictly financial to the broadly philosophical as she accounts for her life with disarming honesty and grace.” (Carolyn)

Jack by Marilynne Robinson: Five years after Lila, Robinson—recipient of the National Humanities Medal—returns to the fictional world of Gilead, Iowa, once again. The novel follows the illegal interracial relationship between John Ames Boughton, the white son of Gilead’s minister, and Della Miles, a schoolteacher from a prominent Black family. The book received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, with the latter writing: ” This is a beautiful, superbly crafted meditation on the redemption and transcendence that love affords.” (Carolyn)

Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault: Braiding town documents, interviews, and memoir, writer and critic Arsenault’s debut book explores the history of her hometown of Mexico, Maine. Years after leaving, Arsenault realized her idyllic childhood had come with a steep price: the paper mill that kept the town afloat for generations was also destroying the environment and poisoning the town’s residents. A starred review from Kirkus says, ” Bittersweet memories and a long-buried atrocity combine for a heartfelt, unflinching, striking narrative combination.” (Carolyn)

Three Rings by Daniel Mendelsohn: Acclaimed author, critic, and essayist, Mendelsohn’s newest book explores the lives and careers of three exiled writers (Erich Auerbach, François Fenelón, W.G. Sebald), and how they informed his own writing. In just 112 pages, Mendelsohn uses a nested structure to reveal the ways memory, displacement and history inform our lives and literature. About the slim book, Ayad Akhtar writes: “Part dirge, part memoir, part exegesis, all rhapsody—Mendelsohn’s anatomy of literature’s subtlest pleasures is itself that subtlest of literary pleasures: a masterpiece.” (Carolyn)

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: Weaving history, politics, and her own immigration story, Lalami’s newest book (and first foray into nonfiction) explores the limitations of citizenship in present-day America. “Laila Lalami has given us a clear-eyed, even-handed assessment of this country’s potential—and its limits—through her insightful notion of conditional citizenship,” says Viet Thanh Nguyen. “Her book is a gift to all Americans—if they are willing to receive it.” (Carolyn)

Glossary for the End of Days by Ian Stansel: Blurring speculative and realistic fiction, Stansel’s second essay collection features 11 stories about identity, mortality, politics, and survival. About the collection, poet Maggie Smith says: “What a gorgeous, imaginative, and needed-in-this-moment book.” (Carolyn)

Bonus Links from Our Archive:—A Year in Reading: Roberto LovatoAn Imagined Possibility: The Millions Interviews Claudia RankineElena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the MinotaurA Year in Reading: Sigrid NunezLook at Your Game, Girl: On Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’A Year in Reading: Namwali SerpellNamwali Serpell on a Novel 19 Years in the MakingThe Dark Side of Daisy JohnsonA Year in Reading: Laila LalamiThe Story Is Never the Whole Story: The Millions Interviews Daniel MendelsohnMarilynne Robinson’s Singular VisionA Year in Reading: Eula BissAyad Akhtar’s Flesh and Blood

The Millions Top Ten: July 2020

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 July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Glass Hotel
5 months

2.
2.

The City We Became
5 months

3.
6.

Tell It Slant
3 months

4.
4.

Interior Chinatown

6 months

5.
9.

Death in Her Hands
2 months

6.
10.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors

2 months

7.
5.

The Resisters
6 months

8.


Utopia Avenue
1 month

9.
7.

All My Mother’s Lovers
3 months

10.


How to Be an Antiracist
1 month

Well, well, well. If it isn’t Millions readers taking my advice. Last month, I ended the write-up by highlighting Kawai Strong Washburn’s novel about a Hawaiian family (and so much more), and this month the book shoots up four spots in our list. For those of you still on the fence, here’s another Sharks in the Time of Saviors teaser: its opening chapter—part sex scene, part ghost processional—is still the strongest opener I’ve read in 2020.

The other news this month is that Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier capped off six consecutive months on our list by setting off for the site’s Hall of Fame. In an interview last summer, our own Bill Morris asked Barry about his creative inspirations, and also why he describe a barkeep as “stoned-looking as a fucking koala” in an earlier book. Anyway, the paperback edition of Night Boat released a couple weeks ago.

Night Boat’s move to the Hall of Fame freed up one spot on the list, while Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light dropped out of the running this month, so there were two new spots to fill. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist took one of them, after spending some time in the “near misses” section of these posts.

Meanwhile, the eighth spot on the list belongs to David Mitchell, whose new novel, Utopia Avenue, came out last month. Mitchell has long been a Millions audience favorite, having made the Hall of Fame four times since 2010—so if past is prologue we’ll be seeing his name in these posts for five months to come.

This month’s near misses included: A Luminous RepublicFleishman Is in Trouble, Disappearing Earth, and The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. See Also: Last month’s list.

Must-Read Poetry: August 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral

An excellent second collection. “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel,” an ambitious sequence told in shifting intervals, tells the story of those crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona. The water station barrel provides a much-needed salve from the treacherous journey. In the far-reaching poem, dreams, hallucinations, memories, and desires intertwine. No matter what his subject, Corral is a gifted storyteller, precise and dizzying with his imagery: “After my mother’s death, I found, in a box, / her wedding dress. / As I lifted the lid, a stench corkscrewed / into my nostrils: /the dress had curdled like milk.” Later: “Dusk, here, is stunning. Yesterday, I woke to ants crawling / over my body, / to ants crawling / over / the body on the cross around my neck.” I can’t help but linger over his finely-wrought phrases that anchor each poem, as in “Saguaro”: “Sonoran / pictograph ablaze // in cloud shadow, / glass lighting.” From “To Juan Doe #234”: “In Border Patrol / jargon, the word // for border crossers is the same whether / they’re alive or dead.” Corral can capture a world in a poem’s single scene, as in “Córdoba,” when the narrator looks at his reflection in a bathroom mirror. “I reach / to clean, with my thumb” the mirror “speckled / with toothpaste” and blood, but he quickly pulls back his hand. “I don’t touch mirrors. It’s wrong, / my father always said, // to touch a man.” An accomplished book in both style and sense.

Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae

McCrae is a contemporary mythmaker, a poet who is able to lift his art to a spiritual plane. His new book continues a sustained, complex engagement with the ineffable. In “The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World,” “clouds was the last word / He heard the other angels shouting as / They shoved him,” his body too far to hear them, but he “saw their mouths making / Shapes that were not clouds.” McCrae’s method of snipped lines—imbued with breath-spaces—create discrete phrases within each line, creating a layering of the abstract and specific. Near the end of the poem, “as he fell he watched the clouds / Becoming strange    abstract    the way another / Angel would watch a species go extinct,” the effect feels hymnal, symphonic. His ambition and fervor bring to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins, as does his interest in the body as image of God. The angel drifts through these early poems: he “wanders…through centuries of cities / And countries and millennia of cities / And countries and of women and of men.” Next is a sequence of poems about Jim Limber, an adopted, mixed-race son of Jefferson Davis, whose own ethereal drifting sometimes mirrors, sometimes inverts the view of the angel. Limber “yelled when Yankees took me” from his family, and in that way, “home / Follows your sorrow   so it is like Heaven.” Heaven is where he might soon go, and where he wonders if he will become an angel himself: “Will I still be my body if it changes.” Limber and Davis speak in “Old Times There,” a short verse play embedded in the book—which is followed by sections on Limbo and Heaven, where Limber used to hear “the older slaves / Talking about   the fields of bliss.” In Heaven, “They get to keep their bodies    and their minds die.” McCrae is one of the finest poets of God and the unknown.    

Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

harris’s poems teem with emotion, but there’s a control to her lines that feels so clever—as in “Junebug,” the lines “All night I put up your / bad plans on a map” can unfold in so many directions, but the subsequent lines offer even another route: “Your hands / go sideways, like a diagonal gnat / of blankets.” harris has spoken about how poets should play with language, and inherent in her play is a willingness to shift and swing among time and subject. Later in “Junebug”: “in her // photographs she has on the best / lip gloss I’ve ever noticed. Maybe now that I have // stopped flailing my arms and throwing / myself against the walls.” Poems like “Unlike my sister” reveal that harris is original in syntax and rhythm: the poems in this collection never play quite the same song, as if their form keeps us active and alert. “I don’t have children I won’t bring to the city,” the narrator starts, “or to the city beach, or the monkey bars. / I don’t curl my eyelashes in the mirror with a whiteness. or a woman. or an iron bar.” Poems like “Tardigrade” often seem like they are written to a recipient, imbuing the poems with an acoustic touch—perhaps a warning: “I’m not saying close your eyes. I’m saying / don’t look up from your food. your table. your beer. The room is dark for a reason. keeps / everyone at a distance.” 

Anodyne by Khadijah Queen

Her new book opens with a flash of prescience: “In the Event of an Apocalypse, Be Ready to Die,” says the title, “But do also remember galleries, gardens, / herbaria.” Anodyne is full of these “repositories of beauty” among distress, enabling Queen to refute suffering with flits of joy. “The Rule of Opulence” is a beautiful meditation on transcendence: “Bamboo shoots on my grandmother’s side path / grow denser every year they’re harvested for nuisance.” The narrator’s grandmother has, for nine decades, “seen every season stretch out of shape.” The narrator contemplates her on Mother’s Day, although she’s “always disbelieved permanence—newness a habit, / change an addiction—but the difficulty of staying put / lies not in the discipline of upkeep,” she ponders, but in the world’s constant nature. After all, there’s “nothing more permanent than the cracked flagstone / path to the door, that uneven earth, shifting.” Lines from a later poem echo Queen’s refrain of how we might remain in our entropic world: “Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies // Looped into every surface, looped // Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter.” 

Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia

Reflecting on “Warrior Song,” one of the first poems in his debut collection, Garcia has spoken of his usage of first person plural in the poem—how that conception of “we” rather than the “I” of earlier drafts felt more appropriate. “Nothing I have done has been on my own. Our communities—we—have been resisting together.” That collective spirit anchors “Warrior Song”—“When we had no faith luck / was our faith. When we have finished / death will be our luck”—and Garcia’s entire collection. Here the collective is fraught with tension, as when “mom didn’t know I was gay / because she chose not to see,” and later, “My father // didn’t raise me to be a girly man, a fact that might bother him, / except for the other fact: he didn’t raise me.” Garcia returns to a refrain of poems titled “The Language in Question” that ponders language, meaning, and result: “defying gravity after all // isn’t the same as flying”—taken together, these poems affirm identity through distinction, and offer the narrator power. “Confession: during prayers, I don’t close my eyes,” Garcia writes. “Nobody knows this except the other people who don’t close their eyes.” 

Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

“Why is it so tempting / to say the love of a thing / is dependent on its loss?” Hankins considers the paradoxes of holiness in this new collection, his questions often focused on our distance from the divine. It is only human, of course, to seek to lessen that distance, through contemplation or remaking the divine in one’s own image: “I could not presume to know the Maker’s mind, / but I know something of my own— / I could not bear / to make sure magnificent and fleeting things.” Hankins’s narrative voice reaches toward that imperceptible but desirous bridge between mortal and immortal, temporary and eternal. In “Even the River,” “All of nature / seems to address and blame me.” The narrator, physically penitential with “palms upturned,” also offers his “willingness to hold / the guilt that finds no other place to rest.” The natural world returns often in these poems, as a spiritual presence, a creator of awe (in both its inviting and troubling senses): “I feel so far from the meaning of the earth. / It is silent. It lives but does not speak.” And even when we do get seemingly close to the heart of it all—the beautiful vanity of affirming the self—the narrator ultimately ponders Ecclesiastes 1:2-4; that soon enough we become nothing but vapor.   

August Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Luster by Raven Leilani: Doesn’t it feel like everyone is raving about this debut? Carmen Maria Machado tweeted, “This novel is ridiculously good…The sentences wrecked me.” Luster centers on 20-something Edie—Kaitlyn Greenidge describes her as “a slacker black queen, a depressive painter, a damn funny woman”—who gets involved in a white couple’s open marriage. In its starred review, Kirkus says it’s “an unstable ballet of race, sex, and power,” and Brit Bennett calls it a “darkly funny, hilariously moving debut from a stunning new voice.” (Edan)

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s third novel—following Pet, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature—follows a Nigerian family as they grapple with a strange condition afflicting their son Vivek. As a boy, Vivek suffers from unexplained and terrifying blackouts, during which he disassociates from himself, his family, and his surroundings. He becomes close with his cousin Osita, whose confidence and high spirits help guard his own painful secrets. Over time, the two learn exactly what they’ve been hiding from each other, and Vivek’s condition leads them into a crisis. (Thom)

Printed in Utopia by Ed Simon: New from Millions staffer Simon, Printed in Utopia reexamines the renaissance for its moments of radical possibility. From the jacket copy: “Printed in Utopia examines the bloody era of the Renaissance in all of its contradictions and moments of utopian possibility. From the dissenting religious anarchists of the 17th century, to the feminist verse of Amelia Lanyer and Richard Barnfield’s poetics of gay rights. From an analysis of the rhetoric of feces in Martin Luther, to the spiritual liberation of Anna Trapnell.” (Lydia)

Summer by Ali Smith: Smith’s seasonal quartet unfolded in Autumn four years ago and now concludes in Summer. Set in the lockdown in Brighton, Summer explores many urgent issues we are facing. The theme of detention, for example, reminds us not only of the current pandemic but also of the long-standing precarious lives of immigrants. Rendered in Smith’s graceful and insightful prose, those wide-ranging topics come together beautifully, and we feel more sensible and wiser after reading the book. (Jianan Qian)

Talking Animals by Joni Murphy: Murphy’s second novel, Talking Animals, is as remarkable as her first, Double Teenage, which moved “with stealth and intelligence against the North American landscape.” Talking Animals envisions an alternate history of Manhattan, this one cultivated by animals, but sans us human animals. Our protagonist, Alfonzo Vellosso Faca, is an alpaca, working a perfunctory job in city hall as he finishes his dissertation, his best friend is a llama, and together “these lowly bureaucrats embark on an unlikely mission to expose the corrupt system that’s destroying the city from within.” The result is devilishly funny and sharply prescient, an Animal Farm for our times. Eugene Lim calls Talking Animals the best novel since Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers and implores, “Read it; after all, the sky is falling.” (Anne)

A Saint from Texas by Edmund White: Yvonne and Yvette are identical twins, born to an oil-rich father in Ranger, Texas. Yvonne reads women’s magazines and wants to be a member of the French aristocracy; Yvette has a “crush on God.” As the years go by, Yvonne climbs the ranks of Parisian society while Yvette dedicates herself to a life of service as a miracle-working, woman-loving nun in Columbia. But for all their differences and the spaces between them, the twins still resemble one another. Publishers Weekly calls A Saint from Texas “equally tender and salacious…a deeply satisfying character study.” (Kaulie)

Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno: BDSM. Gun culture. Gender identity. Motherhood (and non-motherhood). Tornadoes. Girlhood. These are just some of the topics that Faliveno explores in her wide-ranging, triumphant debut essay collection. With tenderness and honesty, Faliveno explores boundaries, intersections, and the overall blurriness of life. Melissa Febos says the book is “a gorgeously complex ode to the Midwest that is destined to be passed urgently from hand to hand, an anthem sung by all the misfits in those vast places who have not yet seen themselves written.” And I couldn’t agree more. (Carolyn)

Last Call on Decatur Street by Iris Martin Cohen: Set on the eve of Carnival in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Cohen’s second novel follows Rosemary, a young burlesque dancer, who drifts through the French Quarter searching for companionship and contemplating the losses she’s endured. Our own Lydia Kiesling writes: “In a novel about relationships, family, and place, told from the perspective of its real and messy protagonist, Iris Martin Cohen grapples thoughtfully with the rifts between people—both the ones that might be mended, and the ones that might not.” (Carolyn)

Hysteria by Jessica Gross: In the wake of sex-induced shame, the unnamed protagonist of Gross’s debut novel meets the new bartender at her local bar—who she believes to be Sigmund Freud reincarnated. As their relationship shifts and changes, she begins to explore the contours of her desire. About the novel, Courtney Maum writes: “Nervy, candid, wet with ink-black humor, Hysteria champions female sexual appetites while also exploring the emotional hunger that leads to self sabotage.” (Carolyn)

Being Lolita by Alisson Wood: This coming-of-age memoir chronicles the abusive relationship between Wood and an English teacher 10 years her senior; her journey to self-discovery; and how she reclaims the narrative of her own life and begins to write her way into healing. T Kira Madden writes, ” Wood’s debut is a celebration of survival, teaching us that in the end, we are the most reliable narrators of all, the hero of our own stories. Being Lolita is an incisive reckoning, a work of art, a new education.” (Carolyn)

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals by Becky Mandelbaum: The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is broke and for sale. It’s also been the target of several anti-Semitic hate crimes. Ariel, the daughter of the owner, realizes she may be responsible for some of Bright Side’s troubles and decides to return to the sanctuary and her estranged mother, but over the course of a weekend she begins to question her life across Kansas and with her fiancé. (Kaulie)

True Story by Kate Reed Petty: Petty’s debut novel is unlike anything I’ve read before in the best possible way. The novel follows Alice, a 30-something ghostwriter, as she comes to terms with the moment that upended her life in high school: the story of the drunken girl in the backseat of a car. Blurring genres and subverting structure, Petty examines the ways narratives are woven and take root while trying to untangle the truth. “True Story is a spectacular first novel—innovative, convincing, daring, suspenseful, heart-wrenching, and altogether astonishing,” writes Tim O’Brien. “What a beautifully unified, richly imagined, and skillfully composed work of literary art.” (Carolyn)

My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman: Witty and wise, the debut essay collection by Edgar Award-winning author Lippman explores her decades-long writing career (which began at the Baltimore Sun); her marriage to acclaimed TV writer and producer David Simon; motherhood after 50; aging, and self-acceptance. Kirkus calls it “a wryly observed collection from a reliably good writer.” (Carolyn)

Ache by Eliza Henry Jones: In Henry-Jones’s second adult novel, Annie’s life is forever changed when a bushfire destroys her mother’s home, kills her grandmother, and leaves her family emotionally devastated. A year later, she returns to the house to help her uncle but also to heal the wounds left in the fire’s wake. “Eliza Henry-Jones’s gift for close observation and emotional nuance is undeniable,” writes The Saturday Paper. (Carolyn)

Intimations by Zadie Smith: In a slim collection of six personal essays, Smith reflects on the early part of 2020, offering her thoughts and feelings about the pandemic, inequality, racism, and injustice, among other topics. A Kirkus review states that “Smith intimately captures the profundity of our current historical moment,” and that her “quietly powerful, deftly crafted essays bear witness to the contagion of suffering.” (Zoë)

Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women by Lyz Lenz: This is an irreverent, researched excoriation of American maternal mortality rates and the racism and misogyny that shape the experience of people who give birth in America. The books draws upon journalist Lenz’s reporting and her own experiences as a mother from a patriarchal evangelical background. (Lydia)

The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert: A collection of essays on memory and disaster from the poet and essayist. Publishers Weekly writes “Gabbert’s essays manage to be by turns poetic, philosophical, and exhaustively researched. This is a superb collection.” (Lydia)

A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan: Twenty-four sparkling hours in the life of a neurodiverse woman on a night out to a party. Shelf Awareness writes, “The narrator’s voice is astute, clear and strong as the vodka she likes, as luminous as sparkling stars. Madeleine Ryan has created a marvelous woman and a joyous story.” (Lydia)

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: In the follow-up to the bestselling H Is for Hawk, Macdonald brings together a collection of essays on birding and the natural world. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it ““[An] altogether memorable collection…Exemplary writing about the intersection of the animal and human worlds.” (Lydia)

Writers to Watch: Fall 2020

This season’s notable fiction debuts offer first-generation American perspectives on Chinese folklore and Hindu deities, richly inspired LGBTQ narratives, feminist takes on police brutality against Black women and sexism in the workplace, and more.
1. K-Ming Chang: Tiger Daughter

K-Ming Chang began writing Bestiary as a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, and the novel took shape when she was home in California for the summer, expanding on a memoir assignment she’d written about her grandfather. “I initially wanted to go to school in New York because I had this very romantic notion of fleeing home and establishing this whole new life and identity,” she says. “But I quickly realized I would always kind of return back to my family stories and history. I feel like coming-of-age stories are often told about leaving—like leaving the home, leaving the domestic sphere. But I wanted to write one that was about return.”
The novel follows three generations of women who are shaped by the mythology of their Taiwanese heritage. “I didn’t even know my grandfather’s name until he passed away,” Chang says. “He was just this kind of enigma, someone who was completely unknowable, which I think produced a lot of storytelling.”
While she was writing, Chang realized the book was actually about the women in the family, and she began to explore the myths of the Chinese zodiac calendar, particularly her own relationship with being born in the year of the tiger. “The idea of the tiger woman or the tiger daughter is really undesirable,” she says. “My mom kind of withheld that information, and I realized she was afraid it was a jinx. But there was this huge sense of release from being able to confront these curses. It was like reclaiming a sense of agency.”
After finishing Bestiary, Chang Googled “New York City agents” and sent the book out to a long list. “I was still an undergrad, you know—I didn’t have connections yet,” she says. She got a call from Julia Kardon and remembers Kardon said they could be the “year of the tiger team.”
Kardon sold the book to One World along with a poetry collection. “Poetry was kind of my first love, and my way into writing,” Chang says.—David Varno
2. David Diop: In the Trenches

French writer David Diop’s novel At Night All Blood Is Black, a deeply literary monologue from an unhinged Senegalese soldier fighting for the French in WWI, was honored with a prize by high school students in France in 2018. “I was thrilled to receive the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens because I’m a teacher,” Diop says. “I believe high schoolers identified with the soldiers, who were about their age when they left for war. At Night All Blood Is Black isn’t just a novel about World War I—it also evokes friendship and first loves.”
The slim narrative reminded editor Jeremy Davies of the writing of Thomas Bernhard, if Bernhard had turned his focus to world historical issues. Before Davies saw the book, he says, a scout for Farrar, Straus and Giroux mentioned a “very strange, very literary book that wasn’t very commercial,” that was making the rounds at one of the international festivals. “And so that made my ears prick up.”
The book has also resonated with older generations, Diop says. “Many older people came up to me with photographs and documents passed down from their grandparents or great-grandparents, showing a real brotherhood between their ancestors and the Senegalese infantrymen.”
Diop got the idea for the book after reading a book of letters by French soldiers during WWI. “These letters were very moving because they showed the fatal intimacy that the very young soldiers had with the war,” he says. “Given my African origins, I wondered if the Senegalese infantrymen had also written such personal letters.”
Diop began searching, but those he found were “rather impersonal,” he says. “The solution I found was to burst into the character’s thoughts—no filter, no intermediaries. The inner space of a character in a novel can be a place of freedom for the writer who creates him.”
Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night was also an inspiration, Diop says, not only for its WWI setting but the “originality of it’s tone and voice.” He adds that he “wanted to find an original voice to talk about World War I as seen by an African man, a Senegalese man.”—David Varno
3. Victoria Gosling: Our House

Victoria Gosling recalls that when she was a teenager growing up in England’s Wiltshire region, she and a friend went to a party one night at a decrepit manor. The house was well hidden, and they drove down twisty dark roads until they came upon the entrance to a long drive. “We sat on the lawn and drank quite a bit, and then had to stay over,” she says. “The host put me in a bedroom on the third floor, and I woke up in a Queen Anne poster bed.” When she went downstairs in the morning, she was captivated by the house’s shabby grandeur. “I didn’t go back, but the memory stayed with me.”
Twenty-five years later that Wiltshire manor became the main setting for Before the Ruins, Gosling’s debut novel. Its plot concerns the relationship between protagonist Andy and her three best friends from childhood in the 1990s. They secretly meet and play “the game” in a rundown house, searching for a diamond necklace that had gone missing there in the 1930s.
Lucy Carson, Gosling’s agent, says, “Andy was palpably self-destructive, but those tendencies masked some deeper damage and pain. I’m a massive Tana French fan, and I saw the suspense bones of Before the Ruins, and loved the way they intertwined with such a complicated female narrator.”
Gosling says, “I wanted to write about magic and transformation and how they can make up for painful experiences. I’m an emotional dweller.”
At one point in the novel, two of the characters, now grown up, are running from a horrific flood in Florence. “I was living in Prague in 2002 when a very similar storm occurred,” Gosling says. “We were on the third floor of an apartment building and never thought the water would rise that high. Finally the police came to rescue us. They didn’t speak any English, but managed to get us out and take us to safety. My apartment building was about to collapse. It was built on sand.”
Not so for Gosling’s literary future, which seems sturdy and bright.— Wendy Werris
4. Robert Jones Jr: Love in Shackles

Robert Jones Jr.’s interest in writing began while he collected comic books as a child in Brooklyn. Describing the first stories he wrote, he says, “I would read a Wonder Woman comic, and write a story where I’m the only boy allowed on Paradise Island.” He also wrote poetry but for a long time felt writing should only be a hobby.
While living in Charlotte, N.C., and working for Bank of America, the words of a guest on an episode of Oprah made Jones feel the dire need to fulfill his purpose. “Writing was all I wanted to do,” he says, “but I had been discouraged.” He moved back in with his mother in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and at age 31 enrolled at Brooklyn College, where he finished his undergraduate work and, in 2006, went straight into the MFA program.
Describing the origins of his novel, The Prophets, Jones says, “I wanted to write about a black queer person during antebellum slavery. In everything I’d read, from Toni Morrison to slave narratives, the only mention of anything remotely queer was in the context of sexual assault, but there was never any mention of same sex love. So, following Toni Morrison’s command, which was, ‘If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,’ I knew I had to write this book.”
Jones continued working on The Prophets over the next decade while developing a popular Internet community called Son of Baldwin. After he finished the book, his friend Kiese Laymon put him in touch with his agent, PJ Mark. Seven publishers bid for The Prophets.
When editor Sally Kim first met Jones, he mentioned his early passion for comic books. She remembers saying, “I knew it!” She recognized the Morrison and Baldwin influences but noted his grasp of the comic book structure—the beats and the heroes and the villains. “I found that mix really fascinating,” she notes. “Even though this is probably the most literary book I’ve ever edited, this is a book I can hand to anyone, because if you just read it for the plot, which you can, it will totally work.”—David Varno
5. Erica Katz: A Legal Matter

Erica Katz wrote The Boys’ Club—a tale of a young lawyer bearing witness to sexual harassment and chauvinism—over the course of working at two New York City law firms, taking full advantage of her vacation time. “Instead of going off to some beach and really unwinding, I locked myself in my apartment and I actually plugged away at a novel,” she says.
Katz was an English major and says she was “always an avid reader and writer” but chose a secure profession rather than pursuing creative writing, which was how she ended up in law school. “It was the most wonderful education. I learned how to think critically about the world.”
Law school also helped Katz become a novelist. “I have this very legal brain when I look at the world,” she says, which means “seeing all angles of a situation for exactly what they are with as much honesty as possible.”
Katz’s protagonist, Alex Vogel, a competitive swimmer, relishes the challenge of competing with male colleagues at her firm and credits her background as an only child for her ability to fit in. “It’s a far more interesting conversation to have a protagonist benefit sort of unfairly from her situation.”
When it came time to look for an agent, Katz, who admired Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, tracked down Danler’s agent, who passed her onto colleague Alison Hunter. It turned out Hunter had gone to law school and spent a summer at the same firm as Katz. “We just had all these overlaps and it was sort of kismet,” Katz says. “I am surrounded by a team of great women.”
That team includes editor Emily Griffin. “Alison just had a lot of excitement around the book,” Griffin says.
By this point, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings had taken place, which inspired Katz and Hunter to come up with the title. It gave the book a new sense of urgency, and the story is now in development at Netflix.
Griffin says the book works on multiple levels. “A lot of law novels sort of focus on the drudgery, but Erica’s brain works a mile a minute and she really enjoys the work, and her characters do, too.”—David Varno
6. Raven Leilani: An Unruly Path to Art

“I wanted to write a Black woman who is hungry and dogged and who makes mistakes,” Raven Leilani says about Luster. The main character, Edie, works with little job security to cover bills at a New York City apartment where roaches scatter when she turns on the lights. With whatever energy she has left, she paints.
Like Edie, Leilani has held a range of gigs on her nonlinear trajectory as an artist. To raise money for her MFA at NYU, she ran deliveries for Postmates in Washington, D.C., and in New York, she worked as an archivist at Macmillan before FSG acquired the novel.
Editor Jenna Johnson says, “It was clear from the very first page that there was something original about Luster. The language was immediately vibrant and uncontainable. It’s rare that the very sentences of a book demonstrate its intentions.”
Luster opens with Edie navigating a relationship with Eric, a white man twice her age who is in an open marriage. “There’s something extremely seductive about a stark power imbalance,” Leilani says. “And that exists between them.” After Edie loses her job, she ends up living with Eric, his wife, and their adopted Black daughter, Akila.
Leilani’s book comes in a year rife with civil unrest amid the racial justice movement against police brutality. “I had two Black parents,” she says, “and I still had to learn some lessons the hard way and on my own. I remember when both my parents gave me the talk—it was shortly after we moved to the suburbs from the Bronx—and I didn’t believe them. I didn’t want that ugliness to be true.”
In a heartbreaking scene with Akila and Edie on the front lawn of the house, police throw Akila to the ground after she insists she lives there. “It’s a real human response to ask, ‘What do you mean I don’t belong? I’m here,’” Leilani says, adding that she hopes Akila and all Black women will embrace their rage. “When you are angry, you know that you deserve more.”—Essence London
7. Micah Nemerever: For the Sake of Danger

Micah Nemerever’s Hitchcockian novel of obsession, These Violent Delights, grew out of a period of unemployment after he graduated from college during the recession in 2008. “I was immersing myself in queer cinema to keep myself sane,” he says, “and I got into the morally hairy varieties.”
Nemerever’s novel takes place in 1970s Pittsburgh and chronicles a dangerous bond between two college students, Paul and Julian, an artist and a psychology major. “When I was studying art history at UConn, the MA program and the MFA program were very tight,” he says. “I’m fascinated by artistic personalities and obsessives in general.”
In the prologue, Paul and Julian abduct a young man whose car broke down, and as the narrative unfolds, the reasons for their crime emerge. Nemerever chose the 1970s setting in order to dive into his Jewish family history. “My grandfather was a refugee, and so there’s a lot of generational trauma around the Holocaust,” he says. “At the same time, there was a sort of evolution of Jewish ethnicity, where in some situations you’re provisionally white, and in others you aren’t.”
Paul, the artist, identifies as ethnically Jewish and becomes inseparable from Julian, who comes from a family that passes in order to fit into WASP culture, in the wake of Paul’s father’s suicide. Meanwhile, Paul’s mother would rather see him chasing “shiksas” than give the impression that he’s gay.
When Nemerever wrote the first draft—“deep in the hangover of the Bush administration,” he says—LGBTQ stories were rare. As more appeared, he began to feel less alone with his ideas. After submitting to his agent, Caroline Eisenmann, she said, “How did you reach into my head and find this book?”
Erin Wicks, editor at Harper, says she saw an opportunity to add more diversity to the types of stories “within queer narratives” and saw a great deal of potential in Nemerever. “I’m always looking for authors to publish, not books, where I see immense talent and immense promise.”—David Varno
8. Shruti Swamy: Body Movin’

Shruti Swamy confesses she’d been nervous about coming up with a good pithy line to describe her collection, A House Is a Body. Then she participated in demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. She says she experienced immense joy in the presence of others after months of quarantining. She’s now able to boil down the book: “It’s about being alive,” she says.
Over the 10 years Swamy wrote these stories, she picked up two O. Henry awards. “I’d already been publishing stories for several years and emailing with agents,” she says. “But when I won those two awards, I think people really started taking my work more seriously.”
The collection’s opener, “Blindness,” is Swamy’s earliest work, and it features a startling description of a newly married woman who travels alone from Delhi to the mountains of Rishikesh. Despite seeing the piece as a “relic of a younger writer,” she felt it set the tone for the collection, operating “like a door” for the reader. “I really fought for it, because it’s a very weird story.”
Swamy’s determination reflects what she values in the art of the story, as she described in reference to Gina Berriault’s Women in their Beds. “It’s almost like the writer is training you how to see the world,” she says. The collection’s centerpiece, “Earthly Pleasures,” offers a fresh, intoxicating view of a contemporary Krishna.
Swamy’s agent, Samantha Shea, helped her achieve her vision. “I always felt like she had my back as an artist,” Swamy says. “Samantha represents a lot of short story writers and also many women of color. It’s funny, I know way more about agents and stuff now, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”—David Varno
9. Natalie Zina Walschots: Binders of Henchmen

The cynical millennial narrator of Natalie Zina Walschots’s darkly comic debut, Hench, earns a living temping as a henchwoman for supervillains. Walschots, who is 37 and lives in Toronto, describes this career path as “semiautobiographical,” having herself held an eclectic collection of temp jobs, including a memorable stint writing copy for porn films. “At the end of the day,” she says, “there’s not much difference between working for an oil company, which I also did, and working for a supervillain.”
Walschots has long been fascinated by the henchpeople in superhero stories: the characters she describes as “usually nameless—but often with really excellent outfits—who get lobbed at heroes as cannon fodder.” This fascination led to a startling theory. “I had a feeling that the damage being done by heroes was in fact worse than the villainy they were trying to prevent.”
Being a self-described “lifelong gigantic nerd,” Walschots tested this theory by assembling a spreadsheet, weighing the harm done by superheroes against the harm done by supervillains across DC’s Year One comics. Anna, Hench’s narrator, assembles a similar spreadsheet, outlining the aggressions of real heroes in the world of the novel. The collected data enables her to, in her words, “fuck with” superheroes’ lives, leading Anna to rise as a supervillain in her own right—one who wields data science as a super power.
Walschots’s experience as a target of online harassment is what first piqued her interest in the idea of exploiting information to ruin someone’s life. She had just begun a PhD in feminist critiques of video games when male gamers began using the #GamerGate hashtag to harass progressive women in their field, and strangers flooded her dean’s inbox with claims that her work was unethical.
“The school has to go through an inquiry every time,” Walschots says. “So when that process is abused it’s somewhere between annoying and nightmarish.” She describes the experience as “harrowing,” but she came out of it eager to explore the potential of what she terms a “horrifying and fascinating machine” through fiction, posing the question, “What if you used those powers for awesome?”
The answer delightfully explores a moral gray area, melding humor and body horror into a playful and powerful subversion of superhero tropes.—Phoebe Cramer
10. David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Justice Is My Business

Rosebud Sioux Tribe member David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s crime thriller Winter Counts explores a little-known system of vigilante justice on the Rosebud reservation. “These guys do exist,” he says. “It’s kind of something that’s done in the shadows. If you’re the one getting beat up, you’re not happy about them, but if you’re the family of somebody and the federal government has abandoned you after your little child has been harmed, I think you’d feel that these guys were maybe righting some wrongs.”
In the book, Virgil Wounded Horse, half Lakota and half white, serves as an enforcer at Rosebud. After his nephew, Nathan, overdoses on heroin, Virgil vows to rid the reservation of the drug and the dealers responsible for bringing it there.
Weiden grew up impoverished in what he calls “the roughest neighborhood in all of Denver.” There was no library, but every Friday a bookmobile would come around, and he would load up on genre books, from science fiction to crime and noir. “I Just loved that stuff,” he says. “I grew up just loving a well-crafted tale.”
During Weiden’s MFA, which he began at the Vermont College of Fine Arts before transferring to the Institute of American Indian Arts, he dove deep into crime classics he’d overlooked, by Raymond Chandler and Jim Thomspon, and says he was “blown away.”
In 2018, Weiden’s last year at IAIA, he met agent Michelle Browe at the AWP conference in Tampa, Fla. She signed with him on the spot after reading the first five pages of Winter Counts.
Editor Helen Atsma says she was struck by the amount of heart in the story, rare for a crime novel. “You see Virgil’s love for the community and his family,” Atsma says, “and his desire to protect the people he loves shines through on every page.”—David Varno

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.