August 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.

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 neurotypical 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.

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2020 Book Preview

| 1

Well. It’s been quite a year. There’s probably no need to belabor just what kind of a year it has been. Suffice it to say that for the purposes of The Millions Preview, it has made things crowded and strange. A number of books you see below also appeared on the last preview, but have had their publication dates moved as a consequence of the general disarray of world affairs. We are still not sure about some pub dates, so please let us know if you know something that we don’t. There are a *lot* of books coming out, and there’s just no way to feature them all, so as always, we will continue showcasing new books in our monthly previews as well. Jump into the comments to let us know what you’re looking forward to. Wash your hands, wear your mask, keep a safe distance from others, and pick out a book. There are so many here to keep you company.
Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.


Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford: Called “electrifying,” “spellbinding,” and “a stunner” by Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and Publishers Weekly respectively, Crooked Hallelujah tells the story of four generations of Cherokee women. Whether living in Indian Country in Oklahoma or working to navigate life outside their community in 1980s Texas, they’re faced with forces of nature, class, religion, and family. Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and this is her first novel. (Janet)

Want by Lynn Steger Strong: A gorgeous meditation on work, motherhood, daughterhood, friendship, and the frayed patchwork of American life, told from the perspective of a woman who is going through a bankruptcy while trying to keep her family afloat. The L.A. Times raved, “Want, like our current crisis, exposes a system on the verge of collapse. . . but it’s also powerful proof that novels, and novelists, can still speak undeniable truths.” (Lydia)

The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio: The story of a mother and son, undocumented Filipino-Americans trying to make it work via methods conventional and less so–working in a pizza shop and doing scams, respectively. The novel concludes with a road trip to a desert hippie town and, possibly, a chance to start anew. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls Tenorio’s debut novel “Mordant and moving…. Written with great empathy and sly humor…. This is a wonderful achievement.” (Lydia)

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson: After two award-winning YA novels, Johnson is back with her first adult novel in eight years. In Trouble the Saints, Phyllis, a young, light-skinned Black woman from Harlem, has become an impossibly skilled assassin working for a Russian mob boss in Manhattan. Her boyfriend’s hands can sense danger; a friend has an oracular gift; the world they live in is steeped in violence, overt and otherwise. Ten years later, Phyllis given up everything. Kirkus called it “A sad, lovely, and blood-soaked song of a book.” (Kaulie)

Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos: A grieving young woman returns to her childhood home of Athens and gets swept up in the lives of her friends and neighbors. Claire Vaye Watkins calls this “a riveting, elegant novel keenly observed in the manner of Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk. A divine, chiseled stunner.” (Lydia)

Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson’s timely satire of digital and consumer culture mines humor from herd mentality, crypto-currency and video game addiction. In near-future New York, the marriage of Wendy and Michael Mixner is riven first by a stillbirth and then by, of all things, a Universal Basic Income program. Wendy is hired to work on an anti-UBI data-mining project which, in a nice nod to the Nazis, results in the tagline #WorkWillSetYouFree. Michael, meanwhile, is reeling from the murder of his best friend and the loss of his fortune through bad investments. This is a dark snapshot of our cultural moment and where it’s taking us. (Bill)

Alice Knott by Blake Butler. Eight paintings belonging to a reclusive heiress are stolen and destroyed, with their destruction captured on video that goes viral, leading to copycat crimes as well as an international investigation of the heiress herself in Blake Butler’s fourth novel, Alice Knott. Butler is a master of the American dystopic, language-driven novel, and here returns with his penchant for mining the unsettling national psyche, delving so deeply into its unconscious that the resulting delirium is uncannily close to truth. Witness: within are acts of art-terror, a pandemic, and a contagious delirium infecting the US president. (Anne)

Antkind by Charlie Kaufman: The screenwriter of Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and more has written a novel, and it won’t come as a surprise that it’s knotty, weird, and postmodern. Starring the unhappy film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, the novel follows Rosenberg as he finds a long-lost movie, which he becomes convinced might be the best film ever made. But when his copy — the only copy in existence — is destroyed except for one frame, he has no choice but to recreate the rest of it from memory. (Thom)

The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama: An historical novel set in 1930s Hawaii, when sugar plantations lured workers from across the globe only to exploit them, The Color of Air centers on Daniel Abe’s return to the islands just as Mauna Loa erupts. In this setting, as lava gushes and flows, the Dr. Abe confronts old secrets – not just his own, but those uncovered by his family, and scores of “ghost voices” and “island voices” alike. (Nick M.)

F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton: A debut collection of stories taking place in post-coal Appalachia, featuring dead humans, dead honeybees, told with humor and heart. Rachel Heng writes, “These stories take you apart slowly, piece by piece, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late. The stories are in your blood now. They live in you, with all their strangeness and decay, isolation and comfort, hellscapes and moments of grace.” (Lydia)

Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman: Wendy Doe, found on a bus to Philadelphia, has no money, ID, or memory. Suffering from dissociative fugue, she becomes a body to be experimented on to some, a source of fascination and wonder for others. But who is Wendy Doe, really? Untethered from obligations and history, who can she become? The novel follows on the success of Wasserman’s first book, Girls on Fire. Leslie Jamison praises it as “not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself.” (Jacqueline)

Natural History by Carlos Fonseca (translated by Megan McDowell): A postmodern archival mystery about art, fashion, the natural world, family histories, religion, and climate change. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes, “Fonseca’s inventive, complex tale reads like a literary onion, constantly revealing new narratives and layers of meaning . . .The various characters’ perspectives blur the line between memory and fantasy, and their charm will keep readers along for the very intricate ride. Fonseca’s innovative puzzle box of a novel packs a powerful punch.” (Lydia)

Pew by Catherine Lacey: To some degree all of Lacey’s fiction focuses on ontology and states of being, conveying the intimacy of relationships, as well as their built-in claustrophobia and desire to flee. Lacey has a way of articulating this in a way that’s both beautiful and delightfully jarring. It seems this counterbalance of delightful and jarring will also hold true in her third novel, Pew (what a name, even), which depicts the itinerancy of a person shuffled between homes during a Forgiveness Festival, and who is nicknamed such for having been found sleeping in a church pew. (Anne)

The Party Upstairs by Lee Connell: Anyone who has ever lived in New York, or even just visited the city, can detect the latent drama inherent in every apartment building they walk by. Personal tragedies and triumphs, family dynasties, and comedies of error all inevitably play out beyond the gold entrances assiduously guarded by uniformed door-men. Lee Connell’s The Party Upstairs brings the Aristotelian unities to one Upper West Side apartment building in her debut, which follows a single day in the life of Ruby, the daughter of the super who oversees a gentrifying complex. What follows is Connell’s perceptive observation of how class and politics plays out in the real world, behind the metal chain securing an apartment door.(Ed Simon)

True Love by Sarah Gerard: Called “brash, sexy, and addictive,” Sarah Gerard’s second novel, True Love, is a biting dark comedy that follows the vagaries of one contemporary woman’s navigation of romance during the tech-pervasive, ego-driven lead up to the Trump era. Through Nina, Gerard investigates the complexities of modern love, all of its sexting and texting and outrageousness, while also examining the precarity young workers face as Nina, the aspiring writer who chooses both M.F.A. and NYC, finds her dreams ever deferred. “What’s at stake,” says Idra Novey,” in this frank, ferocious novel is the brutal, ever-elusive salvation of oneself.” (Anne)

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: A new novel from the literary superstar follows the career of a fictional British psychedelic rock band. Mitchell described the book in the Guardian: “Songs (mostly) use language, but music plugs directly into something below or above language. Can a novel made of words (and not fitted with built-in speakers or Bluetooth) explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Mitchell asked. “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? Utopia Avenue is my rather hefty stab at an answer.” (Lydia)

Cool for America by Andrew Martin: Martin, whose 2018 debut novel Early Work introduced us to a cast of erudite readers who were also aspiring writers, returns to that well with Cool for America. A collection of linked stories about the hopes and agonies of art, Cool for America finds Martin once again obsessed with languishing artists who haven’t quite lived up to their own expectations. In one story we’re reunited with Early Work’s Leslie — a writer whose ambitions are tempered by her laziness and alcoholism, if we’re being honest — as she decamps from New York to Montana to shake a persistent depression. Of course, our first image is of her not writing, but trying to write. In “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth,” we follow a book club whose members may or may not have finished reading War and Peace. It all depends on your definition of “reading.” As in his novel, Martin probes the inertia, self-doubt, and outright shiftlessness that is the prerequisite for artistic creation. (Ismail)

Vernon Subutex 2 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): For Americans whose only knowledge of contemporary French literature begins and ends with Michel Houellebecq, they might benefit by extending their reading lists to include the similarly transgressive Virginie Despentes. The second book in her trilogy Vernon Subutex, Despentes’ novel brings a jaundiced eye to pornography, drug addiction, and punk rock in the noirish titular story of record shop owner and eventual homeless messiah guru who has tapes concerning the dead rock star Alex Bleach. Like William S. Burroughs updated for the age of WhatsApp, Vernon Subutex 2 straps our current world to a chair and interrogates the hell out of it, producing what writer Nell Zink described as the most “zeitgeistiest thing I ever read.” (Ed Simon)

Wonderland by Zoje Stage: You know the drill: a family leaves the city behind for a simple life in the country—where darkness waits. In this version, contrasts are drawn between dense, communal city living and isolated, lonely country life. Stage’s second novel, like Baby Teeth, her acclaimed debut, coils around the part of your spine that tingles when a branch rubs against the window, or the basement door yawns open. (Nick M.)

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby: A buzzy summer crime novel, Cosby’s novel is a heist tale against the backdrop of car-racing and the realities of life in America. Walter Mosley says of this novel, “Diamonds and fast cars, trailer park dreams and late night illegal street racing, S. A. Cosby reinvents the American crime novel. Black and white with bills unpaid and no exit in sight, his characters feel the pull of family and swagger with the melancholy ache of wanting to be someone. Blacktop Wasteland thrums and races―it’s an intoxicating thrill of a ride.” (Lydia)

Members Only by Sameer Pandya: Pandya’s debut novel features a middle-aged man, Raj Bhatt, whose life so far has not quite lived up to his expectations. Born in Mumbai, Raj now lives in California, where he teaches at a university. Things are more or less okay. But then a Black couple seeks to join his mostly-white tennis club, and while interviewing them, Raj makes a racist comment he can’t take back. From there, everything falls apart. The white club members kick him out for his racism; at his university, a group of students report him as a reverse racist. Throughout the novel, which The New York Times calls “as witty as it is woeful,” Pandya explores membership, belonging, and what it means to be brown in America. (Jacqueline)

22 Minutes of Unconditional Love by Daphne Merkin: In this latest novel from longtime novelist, essayist, critic, and memoirist Merkin, a woman looks back on a sexual obsession that nearly obliterated her. In 1990s New York City, Judith Stone, a young book editor, meets criminal defense attorney Howard Rose. They begin a sadomasochistic relationship in which Howard pushes boundaries with Judith – sometimes to her liking, sometimes dangerously. The novel centers self-analysis through its form as well as its content; Judith recounts her own affair in the third person, but includes occasional annotations and comments in the first person. Sigrid Nunez calls it “a bracingly honest, keenly insightful, utterly compelling book.” (Jacqueline)

You Again by Debra Jo Immergut: With shades of Paul Auster’s metaphysical noir, Debra Jo Immergut’s You Again asks what it means, for our sense of self, our personal histories, and our very sanity, when we repeatedly encounter who appears to be a doppelganger two decades our junior. Middle-aged New York Abigail Williams, with her staid and safe corporate job, keeps encountering amongst the city crowds a version of herself twenty year younger when she was a Manhattan artist. Immergut’s novel pushes at the contours of identity and change, asking how we can recognize ourselves after so many years have passed.  (Ed Simon)

Lake Life by David James Poissant: Set in western North Carolina, Poissant’s absorbing first novel (after a story collection The Heaven of Animals) is fueled by moonshine and melancholia. The Starling family gathers in western North Carolina to say goodbye to their ramshackle lakeside vacation house, which they plan to sell. The farewell gets off to a rocky, breathless start with the tragic drowning of a young boy, whose death ripples through a family as riven by secrets as it is united in love: “Love is dragging things behind you—dead children, houses fallen into disrepair, infidelities lassoed to your back—and continuing on.” (Matt)

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford: In 2018, St. Paul’s School—an elite New England boarding school—came under investigation for decades worth of sexual abuse. Thirty years after her assault on St. Paul’s campus, Crawford realizes her truth was the truth—and that she had been gaslit and bullied into silence. In her powerful memoir, Crawford looks back on her assault at the hands of two older boys; the administration’s attempts to undermine and smear her; and the devastation and shame that followed. Kirkus writes: “Trenchant in its observations about the unspoken—and often criminal—double standards that adhere in elite spaces, Crawford’s courageous book is a bracing reminder of the dangers inherent in unchecked patriarchal power.” (Carolyn)

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous: The fragmented nature of the internet lends itself to an aphoristic quality, and its anonymity has resurrected a certain Respublica literaria that can, for all of the web’s reputation, feel downright Enlightenment. The anonymous woman behind the popular Duchess Goldblatt account on Twitter, with her avatar drawn from a Netherlandish Renaissance portrait, is a case in point. With thousands of followers (including Lyle Lovett!) Duchess Goldblatt has self-fashioned a persona delivering bon mots both witty and gnomic, all while using the internet itself as an aesthetic medium where the product is constructed identity. “I’m going to try and be as Duchess Goldblatt for you as I possibly can,” she writes in her pinned tweet, and this anonymous memoir delivers.  (Ed Simon)

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa: This debut collection from an O. Henry Prize-winner spans over 150 years, with stories set in colonial and postcolonial Asia and the United States. The stories are written from diverse perspectives and are interconnected. Ben Fountain writes, “Asako Serizawa depicts with rare acuity and nuance several generations of one far-flung family as it’s buffeted by the forces of war, migration, displacement, and that ultimate crucible, time. There are no easy answers or clean resolutions in Serizawa’s stories, but what you will find is the genuine stuff of human experience, rendered with precision and honesty.” (Sonya)

The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson: The title character of Larry Watson’s The Lives of Edie Pritchard lives a multitudinous American life, that despite its ordinariness is as complex and baroque as the national story. Edie Pritchard has had multiple jobs and multiple husbands over the course of her long life, and yet her work of self-definition is never done, even as new problems come on the horizon. Set in Montana, and evoking Annie Proulx, The Lives of Edie Pritchard is a testament by one of our greatest “regional” novelists to the power of stories.(Ed Simon)

Mother Land by Leah Franqui: What will happen when a strong-willed American woman gets stuck with her also headstrong Indian mother-in-law? Leah Franqui, the critically acclaimed author of America for Beginners, explores identity, culture, and communication by putting her characters into this extreme situation. Shortly after she marries her Indian-born husband, Rachel Meyer finds herself not only living in sweltering Mumbai, but also staying under the same roof with her mother-in-law, whom she barely knows and who sees life differently in every way. Smart, sensitive, sincere, Mother Land encourages us to see the fundamental bond between people behind those culture shock experiences. (Jianan Qian)

Absolute Zero by Artem Chekh (translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna): Chekh, a contemporary Ukrainian author of eight novels, was drafted into the Army following the Russian advance on eastern Ukraine in 2014. In Absolute Zero, he lays out a relentless, guileless account of life in post-Soviet military service. This non-fiction account depicts his two-year stint, with nearly a year of it spent on the frontlines defending his nation against “Brother Russia”, as equal parts tedium and terror. Further testimony that lust for war is never far from the heart of a fool. (Il’ja)

Everything Here is Under Control by Emily Adrian: A tender novel about early motherhood, small-town life, and the various way people make their families. Kevin Wilson writes “Everything Here Is Under Control skillfully lays out a story that converges on motherhood, friendship, and our responsibilities to the world around us, the lives that touch us. A beautiful, bracing novel by an amazing, open-hearted writer.” (Lydia)


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 twenty-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)

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey: In her searingly beautiful memoir, Trethewey—former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner—looks back on the great wound of her life: at nineteen years old, her mother Gwendolyn was murdered by her former stepfather. Unafraid in her exploration of grief and trauma, Trethewey writes about growing up as a mixed-raced child in segregated Mississippi; her parent’s failed marriage; their relocation to Atlanta; the abuse doled out by her stepfather; and the lead-up (and aftermath) of her mother’s death. The book also weaves in documents and transcripts kept by Gwendolyn in the days and weeks leading up to her murder, which are heartbreaking to read. Harrowing, tender, and deeply affecting, Trethewey’s memoir is an absolute must-read. (Carolyn)

Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender: Bender’s first novel in a decade (following her bestselling The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) begins with a little girl named Francie whose single mother has recently been taken to a mental hospital after a psychotic episode. Twenty years later, Francie is an adult grappling with three memories of otherworldly incidents. The jacket copy asks, “What do these events signify? And does this power survive childhood?” In its starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it “an astounding meditation on time, space, mental illness, and family.” (Edan)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson: The author of The Warmth of Other Suns, the epic history of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the Southern states to the cities of the North and West, turns her attention to the history of discrimination by caste in the U.S. and around the world. In this timely book, Wilkerson links the American caste system to those in India and Nazi Germany, tracing the hidden costs of systemic inequality on our health and on our political and cultural lives. (Michael)

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)

It is Wood, It is Stone by Gabriella Burnham: A well-told second person book feels like an especial treat—the narrative form welcomes us in as much as it reveals the skill of its artifice—and Burnham’s debut manages both with evocative prose. Similes surprise: “The traffic sprawled for hours, barely moving, like a snake that had swallowed a calf.” Setting stretches with tension: “Even after my mind compiled the pieces and located my body in space—here, São Paulo, Brazil, and you, probably in the kitchen—the dread remained. It expanded inside my chest cavity. Mornings in our bedroom back home floated in front of my eyes. Dust particles hovering in the rays of sunlight.” (Nick R.)

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes: When Hart’s father — an Irish farmer whom Hart and his older brother Cormac call “the Chief” — falls terminally ill, Hart discovers that the old man has fallen deeply into debt because of a bad property investment. The Chief always disdained Hart in favor of Cormac, the golden child who left the farm to found a series of successful startups. Now the old man’s death and tangled finances brings Hart into open conflict with his brother and his mother Nóra, a former nun with an icy affect. As the family navigates the humiliation of debt, Hart and his brother try to accommodate their father’s wish for an assisted suicide, which is illegal under Irish law. Hughes, whose 2018 debut novel Orchid & The Wasp explored similar themes of downward economic mobility, delivers a memorable family drama replete with vivid characters who occupy different poles of the economic landscape in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown. (Ismail)

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)

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova: In her most recent book, the acclaimed Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kassabova wrote that a border is a place where “You call into the chasm where one side is sunny, the other in darkness, and the echo multiplies your wish, distorts your voice, takes it away to a distant land where you might have been once.” To the Lake considers more complex distortions of self, as Kassabova reveals the stories and shadows of Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, two ancient lakes in Macedonia and Albania. Kassabova has said that she feels as if her new book has “taken a lifetime,” and in some ways, it has–as the book traces her maternal line in a land that predates us all. (Nick R.)

The World Doesn’t Work That Way, But it Could by Yxta Maya Murray: Stories of life and bureaucracy intertwine in the wake of historic disasters, from the western wildfires to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Murray’s stories feature the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and the lives of regular people caught up in the all-too-familiar dystopian currents of the day. (Lydia)

What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron: Calling forth the ghosts of both Franz Kafka and Stefan Zweig, with their depictions of the faded glory of a central Europe about to devour itself as well as the innate absurdity of being a human in such a place (or any place), Peter Cameron’s What Happens at Night provides a distinctly American gloss to the tradition of disorienting and disturbing high Modernism. Checking into the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel in a surreal and unnamed European capital, an American couple who has come to adopt a foreign baby in a desperate attempt to salvage their failing marriage encounter a cast of characters who could have come out of The Trial. (Ed Simon)

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook : Following a cracking collection of stories, Man v. Nature, which was short-listed for Guardian First Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Prize, The New Wilderness is Cook’s debut novel. It’s a speculative tale about Bea who can’t stay in a ravaged, wasting city, but her only alternative is the untamed Wilderness State. She takes her daughter, Agnes, to live there and the result is a survival story told from the perspective of a person best placed to understand the subject—a mother. “Cook observes humanity as a zoologist might,” says Rachel Khong, “seeing us exactly as the strange animals we really are.” (Claire Cameron)

Via Negativa by Daniel Hornsby: What is the path to personal redemption? The key to restorative justice? For Father Dan, recently booted from his priestly station in his conservative diocese, the path leads west and the key involves a Toyota Camry, a wounded coyote, a bone-handled pistol, and countless hours for silent contemplation of the two-millennia-distant teaching of the Desert Fathers. These and the vistas of the wide-open road to Seattle make for a truly transcendent road novel. (Il’ja)

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun (translated by Lizzie Buehler): A satirical novel about the “disaster tourism” industry sees its protagonist going undercover as a tourist to run QA for her tour company specializing in macabre visits to places devastated by natural and other disasters. Publishers Weekly writes “Yun cleverly combines absurdity with legitimate horror and mounting dread. With its arresting, nightmarish island scenario, this work speaks volumes about the human cost of tourism in developing countries.” (Lydia)

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg: You might be tempted to race through all 11 stories in Van Den Berg’s new collection, her first since Isle of Youth in 2013. This would be unwise, because haste and haunting are incompatible, and you really need to live with these ghosts, to slow your eyes over their uncanny weirdness until you’re both unsettled and seen—the hallmark quality of van den Berg’s writing. (Nick M.)

Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear by Matthew Salesses: A hotly anticipated new novel from the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. Protagonist Matt Kim is having a hard time in every aspect of his life when he hears that somewhere out in the world people have been crossing paths with a better version of him, one who excels on all fronts only to eventually go missing. Publishers Weekly writes “Salesses’s tale on the nature of existence triumphs with literary trickery.” (Lydia)

Must I Go by Yiyun Li: Lilia Liska is a survivor. She’s lasted through multiple husbands and raised five kids. She has seen those kids give her many grandchildren. Now, though, with all of her responsibilities fulfilled, she trains her attention on the diary of former lover. Reading and annotating the lover’s diary, she leads us into an intimate and stunning history of passion, loss, and resilience, a novel that moves with all of the unpredictability that makes a life. (Ismail)

Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall: Randall’s novel is filtered through Detroit-born Joe “Ziggy” Johnson, who Jet Magazine described in his 1968 obituary as “veteran news columnist, nightclub impresario, and dance instructor.” Detroit-born herself, Randall, an accomplished songwriter and author of the provocative parody The Wind Done Gone, offers a spirited tale of Ziggy’s life and friendships, creating a document of Detroit itself. Randall has said this new book “has everything to do with my origin story”: Randall herself attended Johnson’s own School of Dance: “I realized that Ziggy was not teaching anybody to dance in that school. It was a citizenship school for black girls…It taught us how to be resilient.” (Nick R.)

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey: Margot Livesey, bestselling author of such novels as The House on Fortune Street and The Flight of Gemma Hardy, brings us a story about three teenage siblings who rescue a boy they find in a field, bloody and near-death. The intervention changes the courses of their lives in three distinctive ways. Lily King says Livesey writes “with intelligence, tenderness, and a shrewd understanding of all our mercurial human impulse” and Publishers Weekly reports that the book “serves up a distinctive blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller.” (Edan)

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud: Secrets, “electrifying” prose, family bonds broken and remade, and a richly rendered setting—Persaud’s native Trinidad—make this an exciting and anticipated debut from the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC Short Story Award in 2018. Marlon James describes the novel as “dazzlingly told,” and André Aciman praises it as “Restless, heartbreaking, and intensely spellbinding.” With starred reviews from both Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. (Sonya)

Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak: Evelyn is in her late 30s struggling with an existential crisis, driving Californian freeways and avoiding her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband. As the novel unfolds, she decides to work with terminally ill patients, and the work allows her to grapple with her grief and pushes her to confront her past. Lydia Kiesling says, “Life Events is a hypnotic novel that beautifully grapples with fundamental questions about how to die and how to live. Karolina Waclawiak transports the reader into the streets of Los Angeles, the deserts of the southwest, the apartments of the dying, and a woman’s life at a moment of profound change.” (Zoë)

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy This is a page-turner that Emily St. John Mandel says is, “as beautiful and as wrenching as anything I’ve ever read…” Migrations is set in a world on the brink of catastrophe. Franny Stone arrives in Greenland to find the world’s last flock of Arctic terns and track their final migration. She secures the help of a captain and his crew, who hope the birds will lead them to fish. It’s a dangerous mission and soon the crew understand the true risk to their survival lies inside Franny and her dark history. (Claire Cameron)

The New American by Micheline Aharonian Marcom: Emilio didn’t know he was undocumented until he was well into college – his parents, immigrants from Guatemala, hadn’t told him. But after a car accident draws the attention of the police and then ICE, Emilio finds himself in a country he’s never known, desperate to make his way back to his home in California. His story is interwoven with lyrical descriptions, partly inspired by interviews with Central American refugees, of the journeys of unnamed others who make their way across the border. (Kaulie)

Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss: If the subtitle “A Lucille Ball Story” doesn’t pique your interest, perhaps the blessing of Colson Whitehead, who calls this book “a gorgeous, Technicolor take on America,” will convince you to give it a look. Beginning with the conceit that the author’s grandfather may have been involved with Lucille Ball, the author weaves a hybrid memoir-and-novel around the TV star’s life, drawing on known biographical facts (as well as what he knows of his grandfather) to shed new light on a very well-known figure. (Thom)

Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms: 10-year-old Misty can hear things; her empathic ability lets her talk to the crawdads, the creek, everything around her. But after she’s cornered in the barn by a neighbor, she doesn’t want to listen. Meanwhile, strange objects start appearing around her family’s Appalachian home – a statue in the yard, a green light in their trailer – bringing the community’s dark past to the surface. The debut novel from Blooms, Every Bone a Prayer is, as Kiese Laymon puts it, “wonderfully terrifying, intimate and magical.” (Kaulie)

The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (translated by Elizabeth Jaquette): A finalist for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Wannous’s novel takes place in contemporary Syria, where a woman named Suleima starts an affair with a novelist who flees Assad’s regime for Germany and uses Suleima as an unwilling muse for his work. (Lydia)

A House is a Body by Shruti Swamy: In this  story collection that hops back and forth between India and the U.S., Shruti Swamy delivers a meticulous investigation of the pleasures, pains, and confusions that bodies afford — especially when those bodies belong to people of color. In the hypnotic, almost Lynchian title story (which previously appeared in the Paris Review), a Californian woman watches as a wildfire steadily advances on her home. These are closely observed stories that often turn into provocative studies about the absurdity of our entanglement with others. (Ismail)

If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan: A new collection of short stories by the author of A Visitation of Spirits takes the reader to the vivid fictional world of Tims Creek, North Carolina. Tayari Jones raves, “Randall Kenan is an American master and If I Had Two Wings is his latest gift to us. These unforgettable characters cannot be confined to a page. They are real; they are flawed; they are beautifully human. Each gorgeous story contains a world in miniature and a human spirit in full flower.” (Lydia)

In the Valley by Ron Rash: Short stories and a novella follow Serena Pemberton, the heroine of Rash’s earlier breakout novel Serena, as she returns to the North Carolina wilderness to seek revenge. The New York Times has called Rash “One of the great American authors at work today.” (Lydia)

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: 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)

little scratch by Rebecca Watson: Watson’s debut novel explores every single thought of a young woman over the course of a single day. Formally daring and unique, the novel’s structure mirrors the ways the woman’s mind jumps from mundane moments (worrying about being late to work) to the life-changing ones (avoiding the fact that she was raped). Sophie Mackintosh says the book “captures beautifully a rhythm not just of trauma, but also of the small, defiant, everyday happinesses that push through and against it.” (Carolyn)

Talking Animals by Joni Murphy: Joni 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’sPuttermesser Papers and implores, “Read it; after all, the sky is falling.” (Anne)

Summer by Ali Smith: Ali 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 by 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)

Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall: A new thriller from the author of Our Kind of Cruelty, follows a group of women in the aftermath of a murder. Gillian Flynn says “This is simply one of the most disturbing thrillers I’ve read in years. In short: I loved it, right down to the utterly chilling final line.” (Lydia)


Printed in Utopia by Ed Simon: New from Millions staffer Ed 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)

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) 

Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women by Lyz Lenz: 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)

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)

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim: In Kim’s debut novel, 26-year-old Margot Lee returns to her childhood apartment for an unannounced visit and finds her mother, Mina, dead. Her mother’s untimely (and, perhaps, suspicious) death sends Margot on a journey of discovery: to figure out who her mother truly was and what happened to her. Told in two timelines, the novel also explores Mina’s story—from her relocation to Los Angeles from Korea, to falling in love, to the truth of her death. Ingrid Rojas Contreras says, “Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes with brilliant exactitude about the anxious topographies of being a mother and a daughter, and the choices that lead to migration.” (Carolyn)

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)

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 Namwali Serpell examines the literary, cultural, mythological, and biological nature of that very window to the soul which. 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)

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)

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: 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)

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden: A thriller set on a reservation in South Dakota where the drug trade has taken hold and the protagonist turns to vigilantism to protect his loved ones. Tommy Orange writes “Winter Counts is a marvel. It’s a thriller with a beating heart and jagged teeth. This book is a brilliant meditation on power and violence, and a testament to just how much a crime novel can achieve. Weiden is a powerful new voice. I couldn’t put it down.” (Lydia)

Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa: The third novel from Susan Abulhawa, Against the Loveless World finds Nahr living in an Israeli prison called the Cube, spending her time reflecting on the life that brought her there. The daughter of Palestinian refugees, she was abandoned by her husband, forced into prostitution, and made a refugee by the US invasion of Iraq before making her way to Palestine and joining an escalating resistance. A powerful and subversive story of trauma and survival for fans of My Sister, The Serial Killer and Her Body and Other Parties, Fatima Bhutto writes that Against the Loveless World “reads as a riot act against oppression, misogyny, and shame.” (Kaulie)

Daddy by Emma Cline: Cline follows her bestselling and critically acclaimed debut novel The Girls with this collection of ten stories, which the jacket copy promises, 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)

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.)

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, Daisy Johnson, the youngest author to be short-listed 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)

Like a Bird by Fariha Róisín: A young woman dealing with the aftermath of a violent assault creates her own community with the living and the dead. Tanaïs says of the novel, “Like a Bird pulses brilliantly, bright as a fresh wound as it seals and heals itself, as we bear witness to the travails and trauma of our wise young narrator, Taylia. In Fariha Róisín’s delicate, deft prose, the heartbreak of violence and familial estrangement compel a journey―rife with mistakes we all know well― towards a found, motley of mothers and lovers. Róisín’s imagination ruptures narratives about the aftermath of trauma. We are not left scarred, but permanently imprinted with Taylia’s resolute will to find her own way in the world.” (Lydia)

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen: A major new contribution to the literature of sexuality and desire, Chen uses deep reporting and personal experience to explore the many ways that people navigate asexual identity in a society that emphasizes the importance of sex and romantic attachment at every turn. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman say of the book, “Angela Chen’s tenacious search for the precise language to describe her experiences is deeply moving and relatable. This book will inspire you to interrogate every assumption you’ve made about yourself, your sexuality, and your relationships. Ace is a revelation. We can’t stop thinking about it.” (Lydia)

Silence is My Mother Tongue by Sulaiman Addonia: When Saba and her mute brother, Hagos, are brought into a refugee camp, they face the loss of everything that constitutes a home and a future. Saba is uprooted from her previous school, while Hagos has to rely on his sister to communicate with an unfamiliar and more hostile environment. The fragmented form Addonia adopts feels organic to this story. On the one hand, the form does justice to the traumatic nature of refugees’ life experiences. On the other hand, the vignette structure speaks to many readers’ exposure to refugees’ lives; that is, as beholders, we can only observe them through bits and pieces, and we may never get to know the entirety of their suffering. Still, as Addonia shows us, so long as we are willing to listen and see, we may come to share some of their most intimate feelings. (Jianan Qian)

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang: How many ways are there to tell a family’s migratory history? K-Ming 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 and 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)

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: The lives of three women from different eras living in view of a rock off the Scottish mainland are woven together by this Granta Best Young British Novelist and author of All the Birds, Singing. Max Porter writes “The Bass Rock is a multi-generational modern gothic triumph. It is spectacularly well-observed, profoundly disquieting, and utterly riveting. Like all Evie Wyld’s work it is startlingly insightful about psychological and physical abuse. It is a haunting, masterful novel.” (Lydia)

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)

Out of Mesopotamia by Salar Abdoh: A masterful, stylish novel told from the perspective of a disaffected Iranian writer who is drawn to the militias fighting in Syria and Iraq. Abdoh beautifully illustrates the paradoxes of war in the field and on the home front, alternating moments of brutality and comradeship and showing war’s pointless heroisms, its random accidents, its absurdities, and its ongoing human costs. This is at once a probing look at the disaster in Syria and Iraq, and an affectionate yet gimlet-eyed view of masculinity, art, and cultural politics. (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)

Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest edited by Terrion L. Williamson: A vital collection of writings from writers in settings both rural and urban focusing on Black lives and experiences of the Midwest, where Black communities have been hit hardest by the economic decline of a deindustrialized region. The collection features dozens of contributors, including Leslie Barlow, Kim-Marie Walker, and Tamara Winfrey-Harris. (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)

The Last Great Road Bum by Héctor Tobar: In the 1960s, Joe Sanderson left the Midwest to globe-trot and live a life worth writing about. By 1979, he had joined a leftist band of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, fighting against the U.S.-backed military junta. Not long after, Sanderson was dead, becoming one of only two known Americans to have fought and died for this cause. In the late aughts, Tobar acquired a trove of Sanderson’s writings, and has since used them as an outline for this fictionalized account of Sanderson’s life—which turned out to be worth writing about, after all. (Nick M.)

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru: Acclaimed novelist Hari Kunzru returns with Red Pill, the long-awaited follow-up to his PEN/Jean Stein Book Award finalist and much lauded 2017 novel, White Tears. Where White Tears delivered a literary thriller and meditation on art, Red Pill explores our nihilistic modern politics and the alt-right. After winning a prestigious writing fellowship in Wannsee, Germany, the narrator spends most of his time watching a TV show about police called Blue Lives, eventually meeting the show’s creator and becoming convinced they are locked in a cosmic battle between good and evil. In a starred review, Kirkus calls Red Pill, “Razor-sharp . . . as an allegory about how well-meaning liberals have been blindsided by pseudo-intellectual bigots with substantial platforms, it’s bleak but compelling . . . ‘Kafkaesque’ is an overused term, but it’s an apt one for this dark tale of fear and injustice.” (Adam Price)

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (illustrated by Fumi Nakamura): The subtitle of this marvelous book of short essays is “In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” and true to its promise of being a veritable Wunderkammer, the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil turns her attention to disappearing nature in her first book of non-fiction prose. With empathy and humanity, Nezhukumatathil draws upon experiences of nature from Ohio to New York to provide encomium for the splendor of our environment. “What the peacock can do,” she writes, “is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life,” which is not a bad description of our own tenuous existence in this world which we share with so many other creatures. (Ed Simon)   

The Seventh Mansion by Maryse Meijer: Following her recent short story collection, Rag, Meijer’s debut novel follows Xie, a fifteen-year-old vegan environmentalist, who is kicked out of high school after an animal cruelty protest goes awry. He spends his days becoming increasingly obsessed with the woods behind his house and the Catholic relic he finds there. Calling the novel “sharp [and] enjoyable,” Publishers Weekly says “This affecting investigation of ethics in a natural world struggling for survival will appeal to readers of character-driven eco-fiction.” (Carolyn)

White Ivy by Susie Yang: A young woman who spends her adolescence shoplifting and is sent to her parents’ native China returns to America and reconnects with a wealthy peer in this novel about race, class, growing up, and getting by that Lucy Tan calls “dark and delicious. Ivy Lin eviscerates the model minority stereotype with a smile on her lips and a boot on your neck. Cancel your weekend plans, because you won’t be able to take your eyes off Ivy Lin.” (Lydia)

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie: A novel about a Ghanaian seamstress who agrees to marry a man she doesn’t know, only to discover that his family intends for her to win him back from someone else. Wayétu Moore calls it “A hilarious, page-turning, sharply realized portrait of modern womanhood in the most infuriating of circumstances. A gem of a debut.” (Lydia)

Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander: CanAms aren’t the people who live north of Buffalo, at least in Auslander’s mind. They’re actually Cannibal-Americans, and they trace back generations. In this dark comedy, the matriarch of the Seltzer family, on her deathbed, instructs the seventh of her eleven children that her last wish is for them to eat her. The problem is that by now they’ve assimilated, and the old ways are lost—or are they? Another relative might hold the key in this novel that, among other things, is about what family members owe one another, and what we owe our families. (Nick M.)

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie: A young woman struggles to find her place in post-war Japan as the daughter of a Japanese aristocrat and a Black American G.I. Publishers Weekly calls it “[An] epic, twisty debut… Sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful, Lemmie’s heartbreaking story of familial obligations packs an emotional wallop.” (Lydia)

Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: Book number three by the National Book Award finalist and New Yorker 20 Under 40 winner collects nine of the author’s greatest short stories. In settings that range from a Waldorf school fair to the Instagram page of a twelve-year-old, the characters in these stories move through adolescence, childhood, and parenthood, all while dealing with the miseries of life under late capitalism. Take it from Yiyun Li: this book convinces you that “we can live as fully and expansively as these stories.” (Thom)

The Distance by Ivan Vladislavić: The South African writer has written engaging, experimental works over the years, notably The Folly, an absurdist fable about an imaginary construction project and The Exploded View, a fragmented portrait of Johannesburg’s periphery. Here, a blocked novelist, Branko, turns to a scrapbook he compiled some forty years earlier documenting the epic, culturally charged fights between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Aided by his brother Joe, Branko uses the scrapbook to call forth his past: “It was a journal written in code, the most complete record of my teenage life to which I had access, despite the fact that I was not mentioned in it once.” (Nick R.)

Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga (translated by Jordan Stump): From the National Book Award finalist, a new collection of autobiographical stories about Rwanda. “Their resilience is inspiring, while their need to be resilient is a tragic reminder,” says Eileen Gonzalez. In the title story, a five-year-old Colomba tells of the hunger—or igifu—in her stomach, a dizzying abyss that she falls into, only to be saved by her mother who brings her back with a nourishing porridge. It’s one example of how, as Zadie Smith says, Mukasonga’s work, “rescues a million souls from the collective noun genocide.” (Claire Cameron)

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen: You may recognize the title of this book from the viral article that it grew from: in January 2019, Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen published an essay that argued that, contrary to cultural myths about a spoiled generation obsessed with avocados and skincare, millennials are an overworked, overwhelmed and exhausted cohort, worn down by school debt, job instability, and a cult of productivity that extends into social life. Petersen expands her argument with extensive reporting, interviews, and analysis to create what Publishers Weekly calls, “an incisive portrait of a generation primed for revolt.” (Hannah)

David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College by Ed Lin: Award-winning author Ed Lin’s first coming-of-age novel explores cultural norms, class tensions, first-love, bullying, and parental pressures. Marie Myung-Ok Lee describes the novel as “a fast-paced, acid-tongued, hilarious teen drama for our age.” Sheba Karim notes that “Lin writes with a keen sense of character; even the most minor characters spring alive off the page.” (Zoë)

Exposition by Nathalie Léger (translated by Amanda DeMarco); The White Dress by Nathalie Léger (translated by Natasha Lehrer): French author Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden was hailed by Richard Brody in The New Yorker as “a remarkable new book that does everything—biography, criticism, film history, memoir, and even fiction, all at once, all out in front.” It was the second book of a “triptych” whose other two books will be published in English this fall by Dorothy. All three superimpose the story of a female artist against Léger’s own life. In Exposition Léger focuses on the Countess of Castiglione, who lived at the dawn of photography and set out to become the most photographed woman in the world. Long before the ubiquity of the camera and our selfies, this parallel history invites inquiry into beauty and vanity alongside the commodification of the image and self. Léger’s third and final book in the series, The White Dress, considers the life and tragic death of performance artist Pippa Bacca, who was raped and murdered while hitchhiking on a trek from Europe to Jerusalem while wearing a wedding dress. Using Bacca as her muse, Léger questions the risks women are forced to take in both art and life. (Anne)


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)

Jack by Marilynne Robinson: Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson returns to her now-classic fictional world of Gilead, Iowa, with the latest novel, Jack. This time, the story focuses on John Ames Boughton, the self-indulgent son of the town’s Presbyterian minister. His love life with Della Miles sheds visceral light on the then-scorned interracial romance that still reminds us of the failed promises of today’s American life. Like all her previous great novels, Robinson’s Jack is a deep interrogation of what it means to be American, past and present. (Jianan Qian)

The Silence by Don DeLillo: The prerelease literature for Don 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 Hiroko 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)

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)

The Searcher by Tana French: French, who made her name writing six bestselling mysteries starring detectives from the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, has since 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 October 6 when the book comes out. (Michael)

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (translated by Anna Moschovakis): A debut novel about Senegalese soldiers who fought with the French army in World War One, and the winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens student selection in France. (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)

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter: The wait is over! After eight long years, Walter is following up the hilarious and compulsively readable Beautiful Ruins, with a historical novel about the beginnings of the labor movement in Walter’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. Early reviews are rapturous, including this one from Anthony Doerr: “The Cold Millions is a literary unicorn: a book about socio-economic disparity that’s also a page-turner, a postmodern experiment that reads like a potboiler, and a beautiful, lyric hymn to the power of social unrest in American history.” (Michael)

No Heaven for Good Boys by Keisha Bush: This “modern-day Oliver Twist,” as the publisher describes it, is set in Senegal, and features child protagonists Ibrahimah (six years old) and his cousin Etienne. Lured from his rural village to the city of Dakar by a seemingly kind teacher of the Koran, Ibrahimah is soon forced to beg on the streets for money he will never see. He and Etienne must find their way back home through the underbelly of Dakar. This is Bush’s debut, a tale of resilience and survival, after a career in corporate finance and international development in Dakar. (Sonya)

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 Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans: Following the success of her 2010 story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Evans returns with this funny collection whose stories play on the absurdities of race in America. In one story, a white college student is forced to reinvent her entire identity after an embarrassing photo of her sporting a Confederate flag-themed bikini makes the rounds. In the title story, a D.C.-based professor discovers a conspiracy of Pynchon-esque proportions, one that threatens to derail her entire life and to destabilize her understanding of history. These are absurd stories for absurd times. (Ismail)

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey: Following up on the triumph of his historical novel Little, Edward Carey’s latest novel brings a similarly fabulist perspective to the Italian legend of Pinocchio. The author makes clear Pinocchio’s connection to concerns both universal and contemporary, in a story that’s as much about creation and fatherhood as it is about a conscious marionette who wishes that he was a real boy. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish,” writes that marionette, and Carey proves once again how there is a magic in that archetypal familiarity of the perennial fairy tale. (Ed Simon)

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem: Something’s happened between apocalypse and inconvenience, and that something is The Arrest. Put simply, business as usual has stopped working. Guns don’t fire, computers don’t work, and cars don’t drive. For everyone, this poses problems. For Sandy Duplessis, a Hollywood screenwriter, it necessitates change, so he’s moved to rural Maine to try to make a new life for himself with his sister—that is, until the day his former associate shows up with a nuclear-powered supercar capable of smashing its way across the continental US. Hijinks ensue. (Nick M.)

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood: In this sparkling debut novel, Anvar Farvis wants out of 1990s Karachi, where gangs of fundamentalist zealots prowl the streets. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in war-torn Baghdad, a girl named Safwa is being suffocated by life with her grief-stricken father. Anvar’s and Safwa’s very different paths converge in San Francisco in 2016, where their very different personalities intertwine in ways that will rock the city’s immigrant communities. Gary Shteyngart has called this “one of the bravest and most eye-opening novels of the year, a future classic.” (Bill)

To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: How many men can a woman’s life hold? By weaving stories about aging parents, generations gaps, newborn babies, and coming of age, Krauss’s new collection looks the lives of women at the point where the forces of sex, power and violence come together—in a couple. Krauss is a National Book Award finalist and New York Times–bestselling author of The History of Love and Great House, among others. The stories in this book mirror each other and provide a balance that makes the collection, as the publisher says, “feels like a novel.” (Claire Cameron)

Eartheater by Dolores Reyes, (translated by Julia Sanches): This debut from an Argentinian teacher and activist tells the story of a young girl with a strange desire to eat dirt. Her compulsion leads to a powerful clairvoyant gift: eating earth allows her to find the bodies of people who have gone missing, and to know the circumstances of their murders. Her first taste of dirt teaches her the truth about her mother’s death. She tries to keep her visions secret but when people hear of her gift, they beg for help in finding their own loved ones. (Hannah)

Khalil by Yasmina Khadra (translated by John Cullen): In this first-person thriller by Yasmina Khadra, the pseudonym of former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, Khalil, a young Belgian man of Moroccan descent, tries to detonate a suicide vest outside the Stade de France in Paris – and fails. Fraternel Solidarity, an ISIS affiliate, has other plans for Khalil. He returns to Belgium, but must hide the truth both from the authorities and his own family, anticipating all the time his next mission. What follows is the story of a man struggling with questions of religion, politics, and family. (Jacqueline)

The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter: It’s been a while since we’ve seen a novel from Charles Baxter—though the past decade has brought two short story collections; he’s one of those writers who can do both, superbly. Now, in his sixth novel, he tells the story of intersecting lives in Minneapolis: a missing actor, the actor’s desperate mother, a young woman addicted to a drug that gives a feeling of “blessedness,” and a quasi-religious community group, The Sun Collective. (Hannah)

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan: Crossan’s first novel for adult readers opens on a now three-year-old heady affair between two people, Ana and Connor. When Connor dies, Ana finds herself trapped in a grief she cannot share, for someone whose connection to her is unknown to anyone else in the world. Rather than vilifying Connor’s wife, Rebecca, the “shadowy figure who has always stood just beyond her reach,” Ana seeks her out. A gripping exploration of obsession, risk, and loss. (Jacqueline)

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han: Simon Han’s literary debut introduces us to the Cheng family of Dallas, living successful personal and professional lives while helping to support extended relatives in China. Nights When Nothing Happened received high praise from Lorrie Moore, who called it a “tender, spiky family saga about love in all its mysterious incarnations.” Han’s novel explores what belonging means, both in terms of a family and a nation, as Nights when Nothing Happened brings texture, nuance, and subtlety to the reductionist condescension of the “model minority” trope.    (Ed Simon)

Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)

Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino by Julián Herbert (translated by Christina MacSweeney): Who could resist a story collection with a title like this? In the deliriously pulpy title story, a Mexican drug lord who could pass for Quentin Tarantino’s twin kidnaps a film critic so he can discuss Tarantino’s films while he sends a squad of goons to kill the doppelgänger who has colonized his consciousness. The collection’s other stories, ranging from antic to dire, dissect the violence and corruption that plague Mexico today. The raffish cast includes a cokehead, a ghost, a personal memories coach, and a man who discovers music in his teeth. Collectively, they ask the question: How much violence can a person, and a country, take? (Bill)

The Age of Skin by Dubravka Ugrešić (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac): A new book from Dubravka Ugrešić, one of Europe’s foremost critics and most influential writers, is always worthy of celebration. Exiled from her native Croatia after the fall of Yugoslavia, Ugrešić brings a wisdom and vision and dark humor that’s particularly pertinent in our turbulent times. In The Age of Skin she touches on vast and varied cultural references, “from La La Land and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to tattoos and body modification, World Cup chants, and the preservation of Lenin’s corpse—takes on the dreams, hopes, and fears of modern life.” (Anne)

Lord the One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton: This debut novel in the form of linked stories is an unflinching look at the dark truths that dwell just beneath the sunny surface of small southern towns. The fictional Bethany, set somewhere in the author’s native North Carolina, is “like a nice Persian rug that had been stapled into place over a damp floor for a hundred years. Peel up a corner and see what you find.” What we find in the collection’s opening story is a young man dying from a drug overdose, which has rippling fallout for his mother, his gay agoraphobic brother, his best friend, his best friend’s wife – in the end, just about everybody in Bethany. The writing is assured, understated yet propulsive. Kasey Thornton is a writer to watch. (Bill)


The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: In The Freezer Door, award-winning author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore meditates on connection, loneliness, sex, social conformity, trauma, and more. Wayne Koestenbaum describes this new work as “a book that defies borders and uses language to dive directly into mystery.” And, Maggie Nelson declares, “I really love Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door…I stand deeply inspired and instructed by its great wit, candor, inventiveness, and majesty.” (Zoë)

Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley: The “Perestroika” in Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s new novel refers not to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Soviet liberalization, but rather a spunky French racehorse who is the center of a group of animal friends in her beast fable. Author of the King Lear adaptation A Thousand Acres and of the immaculate campus novel Moo, Smiley has always had a talent for animal representations both charming and truthful (perhaps reflecting those years spent at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). Perestroika in Paris features not just the titular equine, but also the horse’s friend, a German shorthaired pointer named Frieda, while recounting their lives in the City of Light. (Ed Simon)


The Millions Top Ten: June 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 June.

This Month
Last Month

On List


The Glass Hotel
4 months


The City We Became
4 months


Night Boat to Tangier
6 months


Interior Chinatown

5 months


The Resisters
5 months


Tell It Slant

2 months


All My Mother’s Lovers
2 months


Death in Her Hands
1 month


The Mirror & the Light
4 months


Sharks in the Time of Saviors
1 month

As expected, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror capped off a solid six months on our list with ascension into our site’s Hall of Fame. This freed up one spot on our list, but another was opened by Madeleine L’Engle’s The Moment of Tenderness moving from the 10th position last month to off the list entirely now. What has 2020 been if not divided?

Filling those spots are Ottessa Moshfegh, whose latest novel, Death in Her Hands ,debuts in the eighth position, and Kawai Strong Washburn, whose Sharks in the Time of Saviors moves up from last month’s “Near Misses” into the varsity line-up of the Top Ten.

In our Great First-Half 2020 Book Preview, published last January, which feels approximately seven decades ago, our own Il’ja Rákoš described Moshfegh’s latest as an “atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat.” Now that we’ve all basically been homebound, that sounds relatable—although that “sylvan” descriptor might be aspirational for most.

Washburn’s rise meanwhile could, if I were to toot my own horn, be ascribed to the way I wrote about his novel in the May edition of our Millions member newsletter:
I’ve worked 18-hour days nonstop since February because of my day job at a certain university with a very popular pandemic tracking map, so I’ve had precious few opportunities to read books. I also have a nine-month-old, so ditto. But people are right when they say life finds a way, and in pre-dawn hours while standing at the kitchen counter, or late night as I linger a moment or two longer than I should in my workspace, I’ve snatched bleary-eyed bits of Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, and its viscerally rendered Hawaiian setting, interwoven with themes of new and old traditions, has been exactly the jolt I’ve needed. I’m not done yet but when I do finish, when the world settles, when the pandemic subsides, I’ll be thinking about it still.
Now that I’ve finished it, I can confirm: I’ve thought about this book almost daily since then. Now that we’re in July, I can also confirm: the virus is still here. Wear a mask.

Among the near misses we must highlight Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which has become ubiquitous on reading lists the past few months. Although the circumstances of the book’s growing popularity are tragic, the fact that a book is newly popular makes it no less essential, and that new readers are interested in it should be celebrated—even if many of them are coming to it later than one would like, and even if the act of reading a book (or any number of books) alone will not make right what is wrong. Still, we ought to see the good where it is: this is a start for many people, even if it is overdue. Let’s all get to work.

This month’s near misses included: Disappearing Earth, A Luminous Republic, How to Be an Antiracist, and Fleishman Is in Trouble. See Also: Last month’s list.

Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis

An excellent collection that leads with her new poems, finely attuned to the body and aging. “Bed-Bound” begins: “I live in the seam of stitches and throb.” The narrator wakes to hear the “insistent / ceiling fan above, dull blade / covered with detritus, spinning / to a vague thunder.” Mathis knows the power of pacing and line breaks. “Time creeps”: a phrase stabbed in the middle ground of the poem. “The storm of tiny bugs / the heat brought in, hovering / over the skin of pockmarked fruit.” The narrator quarantined, with “nothing but pain to consider.” Time will pass. Bodies will age. Yet: “it is patient— / so patient, pain is.” The theme returns in “After Chemo,” when mice “took the house” because they “never expected me back.” “My house is a sieve. In and out they go / with sunflower hulls, cartilage bits, / nesting, nesting.” Mathis considers aging further in “Not Myself”: “For the first time, I could see a link / between me and all the other / impossibly dead, or the one who had gripped the dead / in their arms.” There is an elegiac strain to these new poems: a mother bemoaning the passing of her elders, lamenting the turn of her own body, hoping for a long life for the young. Readers new to Mathis will appreciate her selected work that follows the more recent material. “The Perfect Service” is one of several great poems about parenting: “The truth is, the child protects me, takes away / the obligation to be someone other than myself.” The narrator watches her child move in the spring, “his clumsy feet / hidden in the grass, his fat palms in the thick / clumps of narcissus, everything’s naked.” She wonders how “he might disappear / if I turn my back.” Her child would enfold into the world, escape, but “what about me, / how could I face all this beauty in his absence?” Other selected pieces ponder nature and death—inevitable processes. “In Lent”: a deer dies near a gate. “Do I have to watch it be eaten? Do I have to see / who comes first, who quarrels, who stays?” She wonders “which flesh preferred by which creature— / which sinew and fat, the organs, the eyes.” Mathis suggests that we are surrounded by ferocious appetites. “And I hear the crows, complaint, complaint / splitting the morning, hunched over the skull. / They know their offices.”

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald

A hazy, mysterious, transporting book by the Oxford professor. Oswald’s epigraph notes that when Agamemnon journeyed to Troy, he paid a poet to watch his wife, but the poet was rowed to a stony island. The bard has drifted, off-course and forgotten: left “as a lump of food for the birds.” The book is suffused with a shifty, macabre feel of disembodied spirits and chants, an ingenious method of capturing the eerie sea. Oswald captures the feel in her lines: “As the mind flutters in a man who has travelled widely / and his quick-winged eyes land everywhere.” Even stories “flutter about / as fast as torchlight.” Fate speaks of the poet stranded on a stony island, where “he paces there as dry as an ashtray,” blithering errant poems, watched skeptically by the sea-crows: “what does it matter what he sings.” Oswald’s description sings throughout. Seals breathe out “the sea’s bad breath / snuffle about all afternoon in sleeping bags.” A little dazed ourselves, we can easily imagine “hundreds of these broken and dropped-open mouths / sulking and full of silt on the seabed.” Among this ancient world, Oswald drops prescient lines: “there are people still going about their work / unfurling sails and loosening knots / it’s as if they didn’t know they were drowned.” A purgatorial sense pervades the poem, capturing the terrible and magnificent sea: “a man is a nobody underneath a big wave / his loneliness expands his hair floats out like seaweed / and when he surfaces his head full of green water / sitting alone on his raft in the middle of death.” I can’t help but think of Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi here, a wild vastness beyond us: “Let me tell you what the sea does / to those who live by it first it shrinks then it / hardens and simplifies and half-buries us / and sometimes you find us shivering in museums.”

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie

“In terms of poetics and philosophy,” Solie has said during an interview, “I do find the limit of language a profound and powerful zone. It’s where failure becomes energy.” The Caiplie Caves ponders that zone of linguistic border and failure, especially what happens when we see the progression of a narrator’s ruminations. The collection begins with a prefatory note that tells the story of Ethernan, a 7th-century Irish monk who went to the Caiplie Caves in Scotland “in order to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island. This choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active.’” Framed and interspersed with these monastic contemplations, many poems in the collection are anchored in the contemporary. The interplay between imagined past and literary present creates a rich effect. The contemporary sections are rife with great lines: “My many regrets have become the great passion of my life.” Others stir with their figurative language: “but for the banks of wild roses, the poppies you loved // parked like an ambulance by the barley field.” Solie’s verse feels operatic at points: “Our culture is best described as heroic. / Courageous in self-promotion, noble / in the circulation of others’ disgrace, // its preoccupation with death in a context of immortal glory / truly epic, and the task becomes to keep / the particulars in motion // lest they settle into categories whose opera / is bad infinity.” Among these present concerns, Ethernan continues to contemplate, often with wit: “In this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape // thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice.” He is not the type of person “who leads others into battle // or inspires love.” The devil is in the discernment: “if one asks for a sign // must one accept what’s given?” After all, “I wanted an answer, not a choice.” Ethernan’s life is long gone, but his spirit allows Solie to make contemplation a form of haunting: “I have outlived my future, why invite its ghosts // to bother me where I sleep?”

Code by Charlotte Pence

A book suffused with genuine optimism—without sentimentality. An early poem in the collection, “The Weight of the Sun,” sets the pensive stage. The narrator is “tilting / the rocking chair back and forth / with my toes,” a rhythm that carries her through a 4 a.m. feeding. She looks outside, and wonders if “everyone on this block” is “wishing for sleep, / for peace, for the coming day to be better // than the last.  She stares at the blades of grass; realizes that a red fox “is the one who / flattens the path through the lawn.” Her mind wanders: “Behind every square of light flipped on, / someone is standing or slouching, // stretching of sighing, covering / or uncovering her face.” Other poems, like “While Reading About Semiotics,” deliver sharp moments of dread, as when a cottonmouth seethes, rushing toward her “with its wide ghost of throat.” It’s a great, odd image. Pence often has a pleasantly sideways manner of looking and layering, as in “Lightening,” which plays with the multiple connotations of the word. “You are dropping, / my baby. Twisting / your way down.” The word, the narrator notes, is also used to describe “the moment before / death. Another release.” Yet there’s no etymological explanation “for such a linguistic hike.” She wonders this wordplay while walking “these brown woods / where deer thin / to vines.” Similar playfulness exists in the meandering “Zwerp”: “Three mud- / puddle frogs // leap-flee / from me.” The frogs “take light — / blur it, bold it — / with long, slick / legs, all muscle // memory / of place and space.” One late poem, “I’m Thinking Again of That Lone Boxer,” reveals her range in subject and style. The narrator watches a man boxing in Baltimore’s Herring Run Park: “City gridlock stood / beside him as he slipped and bobbed, countered / and angled.” She thinks for a moment about herself, about motherhood, but is drawn to the man’s precise swings. She won’t call him a dancer; he’s “a man fighting in an empty / field against himself,” and the sight stirs her: despite him being ready to land or receive a punch, “how / can I not believe in the possibility of peace?”

An Anti-Racist Graphic Novel Reading List

In tribute to the memory of George Floyd, who died at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and in support of the worldwide outcry over his death, we present this list—compiled by the comics editors at Publishers Weekly —of graphic titles about African American life and history.
The titles here are primarily nonfiction graphic works that address topics including the Civil Rights Movement, hip-hop, gentrification, white supremacy, the criminal justice system, police brutality, and the lives of black women. Additionally, the list also offers several works of fiction that offer insights into similar topics via their settings and skillful characterizations.
Black Life and History

A Black Woman Did That by Malaika Adero and Chanté Timothy
A lively compilation of illustrated biographical profiles of 42 dynamic black women whose accomplishments have transformed the world, including figures such as Michelle Obama, Ida B. Wells, Serena Williams, Ava DuVernay, and Stacey Adams. For young readers.
Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge
Hazel and Mari, two black teen girls, meet at a bingo hall in 1963 and fall in love but must hide their feelings and go separate ways, only to accidentally reunite decades later—after marriage and raising children—in a lovingly rendered fictional tale about second-chance queer love.
Black History in Its Own Words by Ronald Wimberly
A collection of inspirational quotations from black leaders and artists throughout American history accompanied by Wimberly’s evocative drawings.

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada, with art by Jamar Nicholas
This vivid graphic adaptation of Canada’s acclaimed memoir marks his emotional evolution as he moves through escalating levels of neighborhood violence while growing up poor in the Bronx.
Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker by Julian Voloj, with art by Claudia Ahlering
The true story of Bronx legend Benjy Melendez, the son of Puerto-Rican immigrants who founded the notorious Ghetto Brothers gang in the 1960s before establishing peace between warring gangs in the 1970s in what was a prelude to the hip-hop era.
Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor
This massive four-volume graphic history of hip-hop begins in the 1970s in the Bronx and covers four decades of musical, visual, and literary innovation that transformed music and youth culture around the world.

Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers
Flowers offers a series of poignant and insightful graphic stories that explore the lives of black women, the cultural complexities around their hair, and issues of race and class in the U.S. and Africa.
Kindred by Octavia Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings 
Recreated graphically, Butler’s acclaimed 1979 novel tells the story of an African American woman from the 1970s who travels back in time to slavery and meets an unlikely ancestor.
Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
Baker’s powerful graphic work depicts the life and times of Nat Turner, the self-educated African American preacher who led a slave revolt in Southampton County, Va., in 1831, believing that God wanted him to free the slaves.

Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm by Percy Carey and art by Ron Wimberly
The true story of the life of legendary hip hop MC Percy “MF Grimm” Carey from his time as child actor on Sesame Street, to his days as a drug dealer who uses a wheelchair after a murder attempt, to his eventual rise as an underground rap star.
Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater by Ted Fox and James Otis Smith
Fox’s history of the famous venue surveys the personalities and social issues that have impacted the theater and the Harlem neighborhood that surrounds it, over the course of 85 years.
Six Days in Cincinnati: A Graphic Account of the Riots That Shook the Nation a Decade Before Black Lives Matter by Dan Mendez Moore
An account of an uprising that engulfed Cincinnati in 2001 after 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was killed by the police, as told from the viewpoint of a participant in the civil disobedience.

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill
The lives of little known figures in black American history such as Box Brown and Bass Reeves are featured in biographical stories that all but bring them back to life.
Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse
A pioneering queer/civil rights graphic novel based in part on Cruse’s life, Stuck Rubber Baby is the story of a young gay white man growing up in the Jim Crow south and his complex relationships with queer and straight members of the African American community in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Randy Duburke 
A YA graphic novel based on the life and death of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, an 11-year-old gang member from Chicago’s Southside who was killed by members of his own gang.
Civil Rights Movement
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
These three volumes covering the life of Rep. John Lewis offer a gripping narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and Lewis’s heroic social activism and public service.

King: A Comics Biography by Ho Che Anderson
This final deluxe hardcover compilation of a pioneering and critically acclaimed graphic biography of Martin Luther King Jr. has been praised for its expansive and creative depiction of King’s life.
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story by Fellowship of Reconciliation, Alfred Hassler, and Benton Resnick
The landmark 16-page 1957 comic book account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Rosa Parks details the philosophy of nonviolence as well as the tactics used to battle Jim Crow segregation on city buses.
Criminal Justice

Big Black: Stand at Attica by Frank “Big Black” Smith and Jared Reinmuth, art by Améziane
A graphic memoir by the late Frank “Big Black” Smith, a former Attica prison inmate turned prisoners-rights advocate, who was an inmate leader during the four-day 1971 Attica prison uprising, a landmark event in the history of mass incarceration.
Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer, with art by Sabrina Jones
Maurer and Jones adapt Maurer’s landmark examination of four decades of the socially corrosive expansion of the American prison population into a graphic work.
The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, edited by Lois Ahrens
This anthology of comics looks at the economics, racial disparity, and racist social impact of financing and building prisons.
Race and Social Justice
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet by Ta-Nehesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze
The classic Marvel black superhero, the Black Panther T’Challa, king of the Afrofuturist African domain of Wakanda, has been reimagined for a new generation by National Book Award–winner Coates.

BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore
An irresistible combination of satire and horror and a quirky graphic exploration of urban gentrification, racial tropes, and class among the young and insufferably hip in a former working class Chicago neighborhood.
I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Media, with art by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings
This complex and inspirational graphic novel is aimed at young adults and memorializes a number of victims of police violence (among them Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, and writer Henry Dumas), while also probing the issues surrounding police brutality and Black Lives Matter.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers by Ben Passmore
These thoughtful and dazzlingly illustrated short stories and graphic essays focus on contemporary responses to race, prisons, police brutality, gentrification, radical politics, and more.
Bonus Links:
— An Anti-Racist Reading List
— An Anti-Racist Poetry Reading List
An Anti-Racist Fiction Reading List
— A Social Justice Resources List
Panel Mania: ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’
Panel Mania: ‘Big Black: Stand at Attica’
Panel Mania: ‘BTTM FDRS’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

An Anti-Racist Fiction Reading List

Amidst the weeks of worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, we’ve been reflecting on the fiction from recent years that speaks to the ongoing legacy of racism in the United States.
The books highlighted here—featuring quotes from Publishers Weekly reviews—employ a variety of forms to unequivocally confront slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racial bias in the workplace, wrongful conviction and imprisonment, police brutality, and the anger felt by people living under racist oppression, from literary novels and short story collections to mysteries, speculative fiction, and satire.

American Histories by John Edgar Wideman
“Each story feels new, challenging, and exhilarating, beguilingly combining American history with personal history,” as Wideman rhetorically asks the U.S. President if we “need another Harper’s Ferry” to address the country’s persistent slavery.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
“Jones lays bare the devastating effects of wrongful imprisonment” of black men in the U.S. “to explore simmering class tensions and reverberating racial injustice in the contemporary South.”

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Wilkinson “combines the espionage novels of John le Carré with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man” in a story about “a black woman stultified by institutional prejudice.”

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
A Texas Ranger investigates the murder of a black lawyer from Chicago and a white woman while he “struggles for justice in this tale of racism [and] hatred.”
Charcoal Joe: An Easy Rollins Mystery by Walter Mosley 
“As always in this series, racism in all its insidious forms is central. As Easy observes, ‘Life was like a bruise for us [black men] back then, and today too.’”

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
Hannaham delves into modern slavery, highlighting “the realities of racial injustice, human trafficking, drug abuse, and exploitation.”
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin follows up her essay critiquing the racist worldbuilding of many white fantasy writers with this collection of Afrofuturist tales, in which “themes of defiance, feminism, and self-acceptance shine through no matter what the setting or premise.”

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
“Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.”

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
“As a teenager in New York, Kev is brutally assaulted by police and arrested for no crime but being black; he spends the next eight years incarcerated” in Onyebuchi’s tale of “political speculative fiction.”

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Beatty draws on the heritage of satire as protest in this “wildly funny but deadly serious” rant from a protagonist who’s mad as hell about racial oppression, and whose “damning social critique carries the day.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
“When Jojo’s and Kayla’s father is released from prison, Leonie takes the kids with her, hoping for a loving reunion, but what she gets instead is a harrowing drive across a muggy landscape haunted by hatred.”
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
“Reid excels at depicting subtle variations and manifestations of self-doubt, and astutely illustrates how, when coupled with unrecognized white privilege, this emotional and professional insecurity can result in unintended—as well as willfully unseen—consequences.”
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
“Bennett explores a Louisiana family’s navigation of race, from the Jim Crow era through the 1980s, in this impressive work.”

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Hiram yearns for a life beyond ‘the unending night of slavery.’ But when his plans to escape with Sophia, the woman he loves, are dashed by betrayal and violence, Hiram is inducted into the Underground, the secret network of agents working to liberate slaves.”

The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott
Scott imagines an alternate history around the contemporary site of a successful slave revolt, surrounded by “the more hostile ground of the once-segregated towns.”
Bonus Links:
— An Anti-Racist Reading List
An Anti-Racist Poetry Reading List
— A Social Justice Resources List

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Millions Top Ten: May 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 May.

This Month
Last Month

On List


The Glass Hotel
3 months


The City We Became
3 months


Trick Mirror
6 months


Night Boat to Tangier

5 months


Interior Chinatown
4 months


Tell It Slant

1 month


The Resisters
4 months


The Mirror & the Light
3 months


All My Mother’s Lovers
1 month


The Moment of Tenderness
1 month

Rejoice, Millions faithful! Our own Adam O’Fallon Price has reached our site’s Hall of Fame thanks to six strong monthly showings for The Hotel Neversink. O’Fallon Price is now the fifth Millions staffer to reach the Hall—he joins site founder C. Max Magee (The Late American Novel), along with Mark O’Connell (Epic Fail), Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), and Garth Risk Hallberg (City on Fire). It also looks like St. John Mandel may become the first Millions staffer to reach the Hall twice, as she notches yet another month atop our Top Ten with her latest novel, The Glass Hotel.

At the same time, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous both dropped out of the running this month, continuing the on-again, off-again trend they’ve maintained for a couple months.

Combined, these departures made way for three arrivals.

Tell It Slant, a ubiquitous craft mainstay, which had most recently been referenced on our site in a 2018 piece by Vivian Wagner, burst up to the sixth position on our list after a month or two among our “near misses.” Likewise, The Moment of Tenderness moved from the same group into our 10th spot. Then, All My Mother’s Lovers, which was featured recently in a Tuesday New Release Day post, made it into the ninth position.

See y’all next month as Jia Tolentino jettisons into our Hall of Fame, and who knows what else happens.

This month’s near misses included: A Luminous Republic, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and Sharks in the Time of Saviors. See Also: Last month’s list.

An Anti-Racist Poetry Reading List

These recent poetry collections—featuring quotes from Publishers Weekly reviews—offer poignant narratives and snapshots of racial injustice in America, from lasting testaments of systemic violence to a public appeal for the vital work that remains to be done as the country confront its legacy of racism and exploitation.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
“Hayes…addresses this marvelous series of 70 free-verse sonnets to his potential assassin: a nameless, faceless embodiment of America’s penchant for racially motivated violence.”

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine 
“In this trenchant new work about racism in the 21st century, Rankine…extends the innovative formal techniques and painfully clear-sighted vision she established in her landmark Don’t Let Me Be Lonely…. Rankine’s poetics capture the urgency of her subject matter.”

Homie by Danez Smith
“These poems are a celebration of black culture and experience, and a condemnation of white supremacy and its effects.”
Hybrida by Tina Chang
“Primarily…this is a book about the speaker’s son: her love for him, and how she and he negotiate his blackness in the world.”

Magical Negro by Morgan Parker 
“Parker writes of the black experience not as an antidote or opposite to whiteness, but a culture and community where irreplicable nuances are created in spite of, not because of, pain and trauma.”
Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
“Phillips explores social ills while celebrating poetry’s ability to provide solace and sense during times of upheaval.”

Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts by Nikky Finney
Finney…returns with her first collection in a decade, artfully interweaving memories from her life with episodes from throughout black history.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown
“Brown’s book offers its readers a communion of defiant survival, but only ‘Once you’ve lived enough to not believe in heaven.’”
We Inherit What the Fires Left by William Evans
“Evans recounts the mundane moments of pride and learning that come with fatherhood, as well as the larger systemic threats and legacies of violence that underlie his experience as a black American.”
White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino
“In this deeply felt fourth collection, Petrosino investigates her family tree—especially its roots in Virginia—and reports back on this exploration and its gaps…. This is an important and remarkable exploration of heritage.”
Bonus Links:
An Anti-Racist Reading List
A Social Justice Resources List

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Must-Read Poetry: June 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison

A unique and memorable collaboration that considers friendship, compassion, and the vulnerability and resiliency of our bodies. Nevison and Brown have collaborated on meaningful prose pieces for The New York Times and Image, and this new book is a collection of verse letters between the two poets. “I am always writing from within my body and with my body,” Nevison has said in an interview. “When I write about disability, I’m trying to render the body in new and exciting ways. I seek to place disability at the center and not at the margins.” In this book, the alternating addresses appear as “Dear M” and “Dear S,” appearing without writer names (although implying Molly and Susannah), creating the effect of this conversation being something other than letters passed and more like a shared catharsis. Among all else, there is love in these letters. Nevison writes “The dream where I’m legless / isn’t a nightmare, and I’m not / afraid.” Brown responds “Let’s go / back to wherever it is / we were made for first,” ending her first response: “Sister, take my hand.” These poetic epistles of friendship are beautiful in their compassion, but the poets remain honest about their bodies. “Half the nights / I don’t know my body when I wake to it,” Brown writes, “and there’s grief in the returning, remembering / pain, familiar as a fist I know.” Later she admits: “Sometimes I think it’s true that nothing’s ours / to keep: no version of ourselves and / not the near-eruption of another heart / beating in sleep, so vigilant with dreaming / you can almost see it.” Nevison’s wavering narratives feel authentic. She longs “to go back to before / I knew my body as shrapnel / and shred,” but also acknowledges her truth: “It’s impossible to go back, / but I want it anyway, endlessly, / the moment I’m a small and tender / beast, the fur of me still matted / by birth’s strange coincidence.” Each section of the book ends with a few poems addressed to “Dear Maker”; here the poets collapse into each other, offering a single proclamation. In lines that capture the sentiment of the entire collection, they write: “Under my body’s din, / a hum that won’t quiet, / I still hear what you’ve hidden / in all the waves of sound.” The field between them, ultimately, is lessened by compassion and understanding. In the end, they proclaim together to their maker: “Even if it’s true that my body’s / just a transitory letter, a note / you sent, a piece of paper / covered with your writing, / I’d like to know what it is / you meant.” 

Tertulia by Vincent Toro

Toro’s book encapsulates an entire tertulia in print, capturing what Ramón Gómez de la Serna called an artistic “place and event” in the early 20th century. As Louie Dean Valencia-García notes, the Spanish incarnation of the café—as opposed to the French salon—was “held in the public sphere,” where the avant-garde could break established forms (Gómez de la Serna said he chose Café Pombo in Madrid as his tertulia “because there was no better place to sound out our ideas of modernity than in that old cellar”). Toro’s book successfully captures this spirit; it arrives with different shades and sections, unified by his risks (and successes) with poetic language. In poems like “Core Curriculum Standards: PS 137” and “Human Instamatic,” phrases are wrought and wrangled. In the former, there are lists, patterns, objects, and almost tiles of phrases, capturing a dilapidated school: “ambling through unkempt / hallways fissure fresco / of soda stains.” In the latter poem, extreme focus and concision creates new visions: “Handball / court liturgies.” “Expired hydrants / mimic Cepheus, wait to be // rezoned.” “Gas mask revelation, paper lamps / bequeathed to repo lots.” The poem “Puerto Rico Is Burning Its Dead” documents how, after Hurricane Maria, funeral homes cremated bodies. A powerful poem in its own right, the piece is revelatory to revisit during the collective pain of the pandemic: “The grief-stricken ashes are expelled data / offering contrition to the brass. Crippled / funeral parlors obliterate forensics, the sky / replete with muted quarter tones of lamenting / townsfolk destined to live as smoke.” Death tolls blurred for bureaucratic reasons. The dead, metaphorically, go back into the world: “Oxygen is put on the black market. Bones are used / to hold up infected roofs. Unidentified remains / get poured like concrete into jilted lungs.” “On Appropriation,” an equally complex piece, is one of the finest in the collection. The narrator thinks back to his youth: “We were owning the bleachers at our school / basketball game, ignoring the score, the raucous boilerplate / pageant of male bravado was a flu caught from our fathers’ / garages and sports highlight reels.” In the midst of the jostling, the narrator uses a slur—in jest, but the damage is apparent. He looks to his friend “for backup,” but the lack of support is “a frigid reminder that being spawned / from the same archipelago did not mean I could claim / ownership of their blackness, for I would never be placed / into a lower track at school before even being tested. My tint / had never provoked purse clutching.” Awareness and vulnerability in this collection are complemented by empathy, as in the playful but sincere “Ofrenda for Tom the Janitor.” “If no one else // will sing for you, Tom, I will,” the narrator writes. “Tom, with a paunch like a cast-iron stove and hair receding // like coastal banks, old leather shoes clomping through unkempt / stairwells. I will speak of you.”   

More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems edited by Lisa Russ Spaar

For me, an anthology is impressive when something about it feels very particular—theme, subject, style—and yet the book as a whole feels expansive and universal. Spaar accomplishes both here in a well-selected presentation of poems that investigate the self. In her introduction to the collection, she posits that “twenty-first-century proliferation of self-portraiture is so rampant that it’s possible for viewers and readers to become inured to its magic, craft, and power.” In her view, it was not until “the appearance of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror that the practice of writing deliberately identified self-portrait poems appears to burgeon in America.” This collection is the opposite of empty gazes; the pieces are steeped in self-doubt and vulnerability. From “Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror” by Mary Jo Bang: “My eye repeats horizontally what I by this time already know: there is no turning back to be someone I might have been.” Resignation and acceptance are countered with the lack of agency captured in “Self-Portrait with Demons” by James Tate: “I am / sorry my car is wavering. // It hauls me. I am not / in control anymore.” To live, perhaps, is to accept that we are here for the ride, as in “Self-Portrait at Treeline” by Anna V. Q. Ross. “My body moves ahead of me / into underbrush,” she writes. “I am shadow, / fern, ripple.” Then there’s “Written by Himself” by the always-wonderful Gregory Pardlo. He delivers grandness in his voice and reach; the self becomes almost infinite. “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” “I was born” is a refrain in the poem: an affirmation that yes, for some time, we exist.

The Clearing by Allison Adair

The opening poem in the collection feels like a fable and nightmare; a scene out of time. “We’ll write this story again and again, // how her mouth blooms to its raw venous throat—that tunnel / of marbled wetness, beefy, muted, new, pillow for our star // sapphire, our sluggish prospecting—and how dark birds come / after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.” We leave the poem a little scared, a little curious, and certainly more aware: The Clearing meditates on what is asked of women, and what is taken from them. The prose poem “Letter to my Niece, in Silverton, Colorado” ponders the years of our lives that are gone forever: “Someday you will watch your mother lean on the rim of the sink to wash dishes in a way she never has before and you will wonder if she was ever young.” The narrator recalls that “It used to be that idling cars might have stopped for the tide, to watch it slide its wet hands up the day’s sand line. But dusk grew tired of resisting, I guess.” A similar glimpse into a forgotten time—of youth, and perhaps of risk—arrives in “Hitching”: “Hoops pierced into high cartilage because we weren’t afraid // at twelve to get into a stranger’s Chevette.” The narrator tells us the story “as if there were grace— / ful streetlamps craning toward us, as if nostalgia drips like a willow / from my mouth. As if you, Reader, and I, have no reason to regret.” Regret plays a complicated role in “Crown Cinquain for the Tattooed Man I Refused,” a powerful piece about how what is refused is not necessarily forgotten. She remembers his “thick, bruised Hebrew, scripture-stung skin,” and wonders: “What would have sung in us, / what prayer worthy of the temple / we were?”