The Millions Top Ten: December 2020

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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

White Ivy
2 months

2.
3.

Utopia Avenue
6 months

3.
2.

The Silence
5 months

4.
8.

What Are You Going Through
3 months

5.
5.

The Vanishing Half
5 months

6.
9.

Dune: Book 1

2 months

7.
4.

Cuyahoga
3 months

8.


Vesper Flights
1 month

9.
10.

All My Mother’s Lovers
2 months

10.


22 Minutes of Unconditional Love
1 month

For the second month in a row, Susie Yang’s White Ivy tops our list. In the Great Second-Half 2020 Book Preview, Lydia Kiesling called Yang’s debut a “novel about race, class, growing up, and getting by,” and shared a lovely blurb from Lucy Tan. Going back even earlier: in her entry for our 2018 Year in Reading series, Tan wrote that Yang’s book was “a novel remarkable in both scope and substance.” Millions readers were enticed.

Fast forward six months and we’ve now published our Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview, stuffed with 152 titles publishing between now and next summer. (Has there ever been a more anticipated summer than our next?) We’ll likely see books from our Preview make the Top Ten starting next month.
Meanwhile, we big adieu to Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, which both graduated to our site’s Hall of Fame. It’s Moshfegh’s third time in our Hall; she’d previously reached with both Homesick for Another World and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
For Strong Washburn, though, the route to the Hall of Fame was less direct. Sharks published on March 3, roughly two weeks before California issued its first stay-at-home order related to the pandemic—a move followed by many other jurisdictions across the country soon afterwards. The book hung around the “Near Misses” section of our lists at first, but popped up once or twice before really establishing itself in the past four months. In other words, the book’s been with our list since our way of life really changed, and it’s easy read the timing of its ascendance to the Hall as the demarcation of a new age. I wrote above that next summer is anticipated. I think we all sense better days ahead.

This month’s near misses included: The Office of Historical Corrections, Drinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Apéritifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 Recipes, The Cold Millions, Missionaries and Just Like You. See Also: Last month’s list.

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview

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Folks, we made it to 2021—and, frankly, it looks a lot like last year. We’re still dealing with the pandemic, on-going civil unrest, and general malaise, but thankfully there are books. So many books. In fact, at 152 titles, this is the longest, most indulgent Millions preview ever. We could say we’re sorry but we all need some joy right now. Our list includes debut novels from Robert Jones, Jr., Gabriela Garcia, and Patricia Lockwood. New novels from literary powerhouses like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Richard Flanagan. New books by two Millions staffers: Ed Simon and Nick Ripatrazone. And short stories, memoirs, and essay collections too. No matter what you’re in the mood for, we think you’ll find a book or two to usher in the new year. As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Let us know in the comments what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!

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January

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu: Owusu’s childhood was marked by a series of departures, as her father, a United Nations official, moved the family from Europe to Africa and back. Her debut memoir is both a personal account of family upheaval and loss—her mother was an inconstant, flickering presence; her father died when Owusu was thirteen—and a meditation on race, identity, and the promise and pitfalls of growing up in multiple cultures; an experience, she writes, that “deepened my ability to hold multiple truths at once, to practice and nurture empathy. But it has also meant that I have no resting place. I have perpetually been a them rather than an us.” (Emily M.)

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: In his new collection, modern America’s foremost short story writer shares a master class on the Russian short story with the reader. This delightful book of criticism and craft pairs short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, with seven essays on how short fiction works and why it remains a vital art form for asking the big questions about life. As Saunders puts it in his introduction, “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” (Adam Price)

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol: The nineteenth-century Filipino writer José Rizal denounced the cruelties of Spanish colonialism, and for that the colonial government put him to death in 1896. Now Filipina-American novelist Gina Apostol explores the father of Filipino literature and the movement for independence which he embodied in her darkly comic new novel. Apostol’s novel is written in the form of a memoir by the titular fictional character, a fellow revolutionary and devoted reader of Rizal. With shades of Roberto Bolaño and Vladimir Nabokov, she writes that her novel was “planned as a puzzle: traps for the reader, dead end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of the tongue.” (Ed S.)

The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.: Isaiah and Samuel, two enslaved men on a plantation, find solace as each other’s’ beloveds as they resist the brutality which they endure, until their uncomplicated love is challenged by an older enslaved man who arrives and begins to preach the master’s Christianity. Jones excavates the tangled histories of race and gender which mark a profoundly resonant narrative, where the oppressors “stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.” (Ed S.)

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: Audiences and readers have long thrilled to the lilt of a brogue, the so-called gift of the gab, and an often constructed illusion of Irishness. For the real thing, readers can turn to the eleven short stories that make up Irish writer Kevin Barry’s new collection. Eschewing both unearned romance and maudlin sentimentality, Barry roots his collection in the barren soil of western Ireland, where the “winter bleeds us out here,” where people are defined by “the clay of the place.” (Ed S.)

Outlawed by Anna North: A feminist western set in an alternative nineteenth-century America, Outlawed has been billed as True Grit meets The Crucible. Sign me up! The novel’s heroine is 17-year-old Ada, newly married and an apprentice to her midwife mother. After a year passes without a pregnancy, she gets involved with the Hole in the Wall Gang, and Kid, its charismatic leader. North, who is also a senior reporter at Vox, has received praise from Esmé Weijun Wang, who calls Outlawed a “grand, unforgettable tale,” and from Alexis Coe, who writes, “Fans of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy finally get the Western they deserve.” (Edan)

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: The endorsements for Peter Ho Davies’ latest novel—his fifth work of fiction, and his follow-up to The Fortunes—are pretty dazzling. Sigrid Nunez calls it “achingly honest, searingly comic,” and Elizabeth McCracken writes: “Peter Ho Davies has written a brilliant book about modern marriage and parenthood.” From what I can gather, the novel is about a couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy and their experience with parenthood after that decision. In its starred review, Kirkus writes that this short, spare novel is “perfectly observed and tremendously moving. This will strike a resonant chord with parents everywhere.” (Edan)

Hades, Argentina by Daniel Lodel: In 1978, Daniel Loedel’s half-sister was disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina. His first novel, Hades, Argentina, was inspired by this unspeakable event. In the novel, a young student is drawn into Argentina’s deadly politics; years later, having established himself in New York City, he’s pulled back to Buenos Aires and forced to confront literal and figurative ghosts of his past. Publishers Weekly is calling it “a revelatory new chapter to South American Cold War literature.” (Emily M.)

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: “I love trans women,” Torrey Peters once told an interviewer, “but they drive me fucking crazy. Trans women are fucked up and flawed, and I’m very interested in the ways in which trans women are fucked up and flawed.” In Torrey’s debut novel, a trio of New Yorkers—Reese, a trans woman; Ames, a man who used to live as a woman but decided to return to living as a man, and in so doing broke Reese’s heart; Katrina, Ames’s lover and boss—grapple with the decision of how and whether to raise a baby together. (Emily M.)

The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard: Beginning in 1914, Hubbard’s latest (following The Talented Ribkins) tells the story of August Sitwell, a Black groundskeeper who works for a wealthy white Southern family. After taking an interest in three apprentices of the house cook, Miss Mamie Price, Sitwell learns that the family’s patriarch, Mr. Barclay, intends to use his likeness to sell Miss Price’s coveted meat sauce. As time goes on and Sitwell sees none of the profits from Barclay’s sales, he grows resentful of his employer, leading to a shocking retaliation. (Thom)

In the Land of the Cyclops by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken): Knausgaard has set aside making toast and hunting for a lost set of keys for the moment to present us with startling proof that art and the everyday are of the same lineage. Essays on “art, literature, culture, and philosophy” including probing takes on Ingmar Bergman and the Northern Lights, and color reproductions of some worthy contemporary art. (Il’ja)

Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez: Scholar and essayist (read this piece, or this one) Gonsalez now publishes a work of memoir and cultural analysis that explores the lives of the many “Pedros” of America (taken from the character of the same name from the movie Napoleon Dynamite) as well as his own life as the child of immigrants, asking “what of the little queer and fat and feminine and neurodivergent child of color”? ” In a starred review, Kirkus calls this “a searching memoir . . . A subtle, expertly written repudiation of the American dream in favor of something more inclusive and more realistic.” (Lydia)

The Divines by Ellie Eaton: In Eaton’s Dark-Academia-meets-serious-questions-of-selfhood debut, St John the Divine, an elite English boarding school for girls, has been closed for fifteen years following a hushed-up scandal. Josephine, a newly married writer with a promising career, hasn’t spoken to her former friends and classmates — former “Divines” — since. But after revisiting the school, Josephine begins to remember more and more about what happened in the weeks before it shuttered — the Divines’ snobbery, her own cruelty, the violent events that brought the school low — and her growing obsession with the past threatens to derail her adult life and self. (Kaulie)

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing versus Workshopping by Matthew Salesses: The MFA workshop experience is famously awful, to the point where it can crush enthusiasm and derail careers. This new craft book by novelist and teacher Salesses is a critical addition to the pedagogical canon, laying out how the traditional workshop form and many ideas about “craft” have been envisioned largely by and for white male writers. The book includes exercises and advice for revision and editing and guiding teachers through reimagining what it is to teach and encourage writers. (Lydia)

Summerwater by Sarah Moss: Moss’s Ghost Wall was a sinister, boggy tale of overzealous Iron Age reenactors, and Moss’s latest looks to tap into a similar eeriness. Here, the story involves a community of vacationers in a Scottish resort observing one another warily. Mountains, ceaseless rain, and an ominous loch set the scene for elemental violence. “I was thinking of it almost as a relay race—that each time there’s an interaction across households, the narrative baton passes on,” says Moss in an interview about this dark, choral work. (Matt S.)

Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: In this wonderful first novel, a young woman endures a “splendid conflagration of emergency” in the midst of a boiling Australian summer. Recently graduated, she takes a job as a dispatcher at an emergency call center, jotting down snippets in her notebook as she is “dropped into emergencies and pulled out, hearing only pieces of whatever the story was, up to fifty times an hour.” The novel revolves around catastrophes of various scales, personal and global but also historical: the narrator’s ancestor, John Oxley, was a “feckless imperialist” who sought to locate an inland sea deep within the “drought-ridden ancientness” which British colonizers had “stolen and didn’t understand.” (Matt S.)

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour: Black Buck begins with an address that lays out the implicit contract between writer and reader: “You’re likely asking yourself why you should trust me. The good thing is that you already bought this book, so you trusted me enough to part with $26. I won’t let you down.” In the satirical novel that follows, which is sprinkled throughout with pithy tips for closing deals, a charismatic Black man, Darren, is recruited to join the sales team of a noxious, mostly white startup in Manhattan. “He reeked of privilege, Rohypnol, and tax breaks,” says Darren of one of his new colleagues. Sold! (Matt S.)

Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks: Caitlin Horrocks’s newest short story collection will please those who like sci-fi, surrealism, and the strange. Claire Vaye Watkins writes that “It’s been a very long time since I’ve come across stories as brilliant, bold, odd, and incandescent as these.” The language dazzles as it entices readers into unfamiliar worlds. Marie-Helene Bertino praises, “I marvel at the language…which expands, varies, and never slips.” (Zoë)

The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura: Nimura’s biography explores the relationship between two sisters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, and their journey into medicine in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth became the first women in America to receive an M.D., and together these determined and forward-thinking sisters founded the first hospital staffed entirely by women. Their story is a must-read for those who practice medicine and for readers interested in making connections between America’s past and present. As Pulitzer Prize winner Megan Marshall argues, “That the Blackwells arrived in the United States during a cholera epidemic and made it their mission to provide medical care to the underserved, while also promoting the twin causes of women’s rights and abolition, brings this narrative hurtling into the twenty-first century, demanding our attention today.” (Zoë)

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey: Following up on the triumph of his historical novel Little, Edward Carey’s latest novel The Swallowed Man 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 S.)

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez (translated by Megan McDowell): Mariana Enríquez returns with a collection of stories that have been likened to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges. Kirsty Logan states that “each of these stories is a luscious, bewitching nightmare.” There are ghosts, bones, the disappeared who return home, and witches in this literary horror collection of stories that are sure to disturb as well as provoke questions about politics and society. Lauren Groff promises that ­­­­“after you’ve lived in Mariana Enríquez’s marvelous brain for the time it takes to read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the known world feels ratcheted a few degrees off-center.” (Zoë)

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally): A resurgence on par with the stories of Clarice Lispector or Lucia Berlin, these searing books from the 1960s — available individually in paper or as a hardcover omnibus — are milestones in the development of the life writing we’ve come to call (sigh) “autofiction.” Tracing the author’s struggles with drugs, family, men, and writing — not necessarily in that order — they’ve been brought into English by Tiina Nunnally, one of the most gifted translators at work today. (Garth)

Consent by Annabel Lyon: From the author of The Golden Mean, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Consent is about Sara who, after forcing an annulment of what Sara sees as a hasty marriage to a man targeting an inheritance, becomes a caregiver to her intellectually challenged sister, Mattie. After a tragedy, their lives converge with the second set of sisters. Saskia has put her life on hold to be caregiver for her twin, Jenny, who has been severely injured in an accident. The intersection of the stories, says Steven Beattie in the Quill and Quire, “comes as a shock.” (Claire)

The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus by Allan Gurganus: A new collection of previously unpublished work by the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and a writer Ann Patchett called “one of the best writers of our time.” (Lydia)

February

The Removed by Brandon Hobson: Watch out for Brandon Hobson’s first novel since his National Book Award Finalist, Where the Dead Sit Talking. The novel convenes as a Cherokee family prepares for a bonfire to celebrate the Cherokee National Holiday and, dually, to commemorate the death of fifteen-year-old son Ray-Ray, who was killed by police. Steeped in memory and Cherokee myth, The Removed is “spirited, droll, and as quietly devastating as rain lifting from earth to sky,” per Tommy Orange. (Anne)

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri: The first novel in nearly a decade from the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, the story is centered on a woman who moves through a year in her life. Veering from exuberance and dread to attachment and estrangement, she passes over bridges, through shops, pools, and bars, as one season moves into the next until one day at the sea her perspective changes forever. The novel was first written in Lahiri’s acquired language, Italian. (She describes writing in Italian like, “falling in love.”) Lahiri then translated the novel into English herself. (Claire)

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler: By most accounts, literary critic and Tweeter extraordinaire Lauren Oyler’s debut novel Fake Accounts is set to hit high highbrow on the hypemeter for its “savage and shrewd” account of a young millennial’s mediation of life via the internet. It begins with her discovery, while snooping, that her boyfriend is a popular conspiracy theorist, and not so long after she flees to Berlin to embark on her own cycles of internet-fueled manipulation. Heidi Julavits calls the novel, “a dopamine experiment of social media realism” a genre that Oyler has pioneered, and careens forward while appropriating and skewering various forms, including fragmented novels and a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends. (Anne)

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith: The newest novel by Cross-Smith (who was recently longlisted for the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize) explores one life-changing weekend in the lives of two strangers. When divorced therapist Tallie Clark sees a man standing on the edge of a bridge, she talks him down—and brings him to her home where they slowly reveal their selves (and secrets) to each other. The Millions’ Lydia Kiesling writes, “This is a heartfelt and moving novel about grief, love, second chances, and the coincidences that change lives.” (Carolyn)

Milk, Blood, Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz: A debut collection that takes a look at the lives of Floridians who find themselves confronted by moments of personal reckoning, among them a woman recovering from a miscarriage, a teenager resisting her family’s church, and two estranged siblings taking a road-trip with their father’s ashes. The publisher describes the stories as, “Wise and subversive, spiritual and seductive.” Lauren Groff calls the collection “a gorgeous debut.” Danielle Evans says the “characters that drive them are like lightning—spectacular, beautiful, and carrying a hint of danger.” (Claire)

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: One of the most exciting writers these days is also one of the most Online, as longtime fans of Patricia Lockwood all agree. In her debut novel, written in a fragmented style as excerpted in the New Yorker, an unnamed narrator comes home to help her younger pregnant sister through complications. Like the internet itself, what follows is as ecstatically humorous as it is heartbreakingly sad. (Nick M.)

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell: American literature has been a bit too polite for the past few decades. Gone are the thrilling and seedy transgressions of a William S. Burroughs or a “J.T. LeRoy.” Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends rectifies that in its tales about nymphomaniac men looking for transcendence in a fuck. Recalling Samuel Delany’s queer classic Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the writer, musician, dancer, and director Purnell presents a jaundiced yet often hopeful vision about sex and meaning, asking “What else is a boyfriend for but to share in mutual epiphany?” (Ed S.)

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee: Tiller, the main character, is an ordinary American college student who has little ambitions. But after Pong Lou, an adventurous Chinese American businessman, takes Tiller as his mentee and brings him on a wild trip around Asia. Tiller blossoms into a young talent. From the award-winning author of Native Speaker, My Year Abroad promises to widen our horizons of a range of contemporary issues—cultural stereotypes, globalization, mental health—by introducing us to kaleidoscopic, surprising, and transformative life experiences. (Jianan Qian)

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder: I’ll never forget the steamy and emotionally complex sex scenes in Broder’s first novel, The Pisces—and not only because they co-starred a dreamy merman. Broder’s latest novel, about a calorie-counting twenty-something who cuts communication from her diet-obsessed mother for ninety days, only to become obsessed with a large-breasted Orthodox Jewish woman who peddles frozen yogurt, sounds wonderful and wonderfully weird. Carmen Maria Machado calls it “luscious” and “heartbreaking,” and Samantha Irby says it’s “deeply hilarious and embarrassingly relatable.” (Edan)

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel: I could praise Infinite Country and recommend it and then praise some more, but others have already done it, and better: R.O. Kwon says Infinite Country “is a wonder, and Patricia Engel is a magician”; Lauren Groff writes that the novel “speaks into the present moment with an oracle’s devastating coolness and clarity.” The fourth book from prize-winning Colombian-American author Patricia Engel, Infinite Country, is a story of immigration and diaspora that’s both brutal and hopeful, blending Andean myth with the lives of an undocumented family spread across two continents and fighting for reconnection. (Kaulie)

Rabbit Island by Elvira Navarro (translated by Christina MacSweeney): Elvira Navarro’s dark, weird fabulist tales have garnered comparisons to Lynch and Lispector, Walser, and Leonora Carrington alike. Her short stories collected in Rabbit Island—if one can even summarize—take “alien landscapes and turn them into eerily apt mirrors of our most secret realities,” per Maryse Meijer. Perhaps this is why Enrique Villa Matas called Navarro the “true avant-gardist of her generation.” This latest collection gathers psychogeographies of dingy hotel rooms, shape-shifting cities, and graveyards. The overall effect? It’s “like spending a week at an abandoned hotel with rooms inhabited by haunted bunnies and levitating grandmothers,” says Sandra Newman. I say, sign me up! (Anne)

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, more than a thousand 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 community. Gary Shteyngart has called this “one of the bravest and most eye-opening novels of the year, a future classic.” (Bill)

U UP? by Catie Disabato: In Disabato’s sophomore novel, social-media-loving slacker Eve is still mourning her friend Miggy when her best friend Ezra goes missing. Over the course of one weekend bender, Eve searches for clues to Ezra’s disappearance, fends off ghosts, and discovers that everything is not as it seems. Our own Edan Lepucki says, “Disabato’s writing is at once so smooth and sharp that you don’t immediately realize it’s cut you—and deeply.” (Carolyn)

Kink, edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon: An anthology of fifteen stories edited by two celebrated authors who promise to “take kink seriously.” The list of contributors includes Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, and Brandon Taylor, and stories are about love, desire, BDSM, and other kinks. “The true power of these stories lies,” says the publisher blurb,” in their beautiful, moving dispatches from across the sexual spectrum of interest and desires.” (Claire)

The Delivery by Peter Mendelsund: Like a millennial Franz Kafka, writer and graphic designer Peter Mendelsund plumbs the absurdities of our society, but rather than focusing on the incipient authoritarianism of crumbling central Europe, he examines the existential despair (and bleak funniness) of the gig economy. The Delivery takes place in an unnamed city where refugees must earn their right to sanctuary as workers delivering food to the ruling class through an app with shades of Uber Eats. Evoking J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, if it was about GrubHub rather than colonialism, The Delivery understands that there is no such thing as a free lunch. (Ed S.)

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar: For all of this nation’s stated belief in welcoming outsiders, America is often cruel to any demographic that is not white, Christian, straight, and male. As such, when the queer, Arab American Muslim writer Randa Jarrar sets off on a road-trip across the United States in her travelogue Love is an Ex-Country, the resulting narrative is simultaneously a dirge and an encomium. A survivor of both domestic abuse and doxxing, Jarrar’s book is not a simplistic paeon to an imaginary America, but nor does it entirely stop searching for the possibility of some sort of better, hidden country. (Ed S.)

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson: In this debut novel set in Chicago’s South Side and blue-collar Indiana following President Obama’s election, a woman with a settled upper-middle-class existence confronts her difficult past, discovering that the issues of race, class, and identity in America rarely fall along neatly defined parameters; complexity abounds in the makeup of our nation, our families, and ourselves. (Il’ja)

My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim (translated by Chi-Young Kim): Areum, the main character, suffers from an accelerated-aging disorder. Only at sixteen, he looks like an 80-year-old. Even though the family faces his imminent death, they still try to stay positive and live life to its fullest. My Brilliant Life is a breath-taking, heart-felt exploration of the possibility of joy even in the hardest moments of life. (Jianan Qian)

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida: In pre-tech boom San Francisco, teenagers Eulabee and Maria Fabiola are inseparable. They know every house, every cliff, every tide surrounding their wealthy neighborhood, until there’s a car and a man they don’t recognize. Then Maria Fabiola disappears. Publishers Weekly describes the novel as “channel[ing] the girlish effervescence of Nora Johnson’s The World of Henry Orient while updating Cyra McFadden’s classic satire The Serial;” Kirkus calls it “a novel of youth and not-quite-innocence,” a story of female friendship with all its strengths, betrayals, confusion, and changes. (Kaulie)

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen: From the Wall Street Journal reporter whose first-hand observations of contemporary China converge into this stunning debut collection. In the ten stories, we can see how the recent economic boom has impacted and transformed people’s lives in China: the division of values among family members, the unchanging bureaucratic systems, and the request for recognition from marginalized groups. Chen’s fiction is a satisfying literary read as well as precise cultural criticism. (Jianan Qian)

Zorrie by Laird Hunt: Hunt’s eighth novel tells the life story of a woman in rural Indiana, from her early days as an orphan who takes a job in a factory to marriage, widowhood, and a hardscrabble farm life. Hernán Diaz raves of the novel, “This is not a just book you are holding in your hands; it is a life. Laird Hunt gives us here the portrait of a woman painted with the finest brush imaginable, while also rendering great historical shifts with bold single strokes. A poignant, unforgettable novel.” (Lydia)

Blood Grove by Walter Mosely: The breathtakingly prolific Mosely brings back Easy Rawlins, his most famous literary creation, for a moody mystery set in late-sixties Los Angeles beset by protest and the after-effects of an unpopular war. Rawlins, whose small private detective agency finally has opened its own office, must solve the mystery of a white Vietnam vet who lost his lover and his dog in a violent attack in a citrus grove at the city’s outskirts. But, really, who cares about the plot? It’s Easy Rawlins, so it will be smart, funny, and impossible to put down. (Michael)

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer): A trio of novellas by the late Chilean poet and novelist depict socialist upheaval, underground magical realism abroad, and love in the face of fascist violence. (Nick M.)

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones: Trained as an attorney, Jones sets this tale of social class clashes and interconnections in a resort town in her native Barbados. Hailed as “Most Anticipated of 2021” and a “searing debut” by O Magazine; “hard hitting and unflinching” and “unforgettable” say her blurbers Bernardine Evaristo and Naomi Jackson. (Sonya)

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day: In the latest by the author of If, Then, a young girl named June finds out that her uncle, an aerospace engineer, developed a faulty fuel cell intended for use on a space mission, causing a shuttle to lose power near Saturn and strand the crew indefinitely. Obsessed with finding a way to rescue the far-flung crew, June enrolls in astronaut training, where she performs well enough to earn a placement aboard a space station. Eventually, she fixes the fuel cell, which gives her and her team the ability to stage a rescue mission. (Thom)

Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih: Salih’s debut offers a thoughtful meditation on the evolving landscape of gay male life in America. When gay marriage is legalized in 2015, high school teacher Sebastian Mote finds the occasion unexpectedly bittersweet, since he just broke up with his boyfriend of three years. He pours his energy into nurturing his students, particularly Arthur, a 17-year-old whose openness about his own sexuality is a source of envy for Sebastian. Then he runs into a childhood friend at a wedding—and learns that he’s not alone in his ambivalence towards the new rules of dating. (Thom)

American Delirium by Betina González (translated by Heather Cleary): In her English language debut, award-winning author Betina González interweaves the lives of three characters in a mid-Western city that is unraveling. Deer are attacking people, a squad of retirees trains to hunt them down, and protestors decide to abandon society, including their own children, and live in the woods. Anjali Sachdeva notes, “As González’s characters navigate a world where plants inspire revolution and animals are possessed by homicidal rage, they ask us to consider whether human beings are perhaps the least natural creatures this planet has to offer.” (Zoë)

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine: This high-concept novel involves the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, the renowned children’s author of the classic bedtime story, Good Night Moon. New mother and Phd student Megan Weiler discovers that the famous author is haunting her house, waiting, apparently, for her estranged lover, the actress Michael Strange. As Megan becomes more drawn into ghostly interpersonal drama, she feels herself losing her grip on reality. Meanwhile, there’s a dissertation to finish and a newborn to care for. Publishers Weekly calls this sophomore effort “a white-knuckle description of the essential scariness of new motherhood.” (Hannah)

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba: In this compilation of essays and interviews, Mariame Kaba reflects on abolition and struggle and explores justice, freedom, and hope. Eve Ewing notes, “This is a classic in the vein of Sister Outsider, a book that will spark countless radical imaginations.” Inspirational and practical, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us offers insights on grassroots movements and collective strategies, and examines the prison industrial complex. Alisa Bierria writes, “This remarkable collection is a powerful map for anyone who longs for a future built on safety, community, and joy, and an intellectual home for those who are creating new pathways to get us there.” (Zoë)

March

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: The citation for the 2017 Novel Prize in Literature says Ishiguro has “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” This new novel, his first published since the win, follows Klara, who is an Artificial Friend. While she’s an older model, she also has exceptional observational qualities. The storyline, according to the publisher, asks a fundamental question, “What does it mean to love?” The result sounds like the perfect blend of Ishiguro’s much loved books, Never Let Me Go and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day. (Claire)

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen: The much anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, entertains as much as it offers cultural analysis. Set in 1980s Paris, the main character of The Sympathizer sells drugs, attends dinner parties with left-wing intellectuals, and turns his attention towards French culture, considering capitalism and colonization. Paul Beatty says, “Think of The Committed as the declaration of the 20th ½ Arrondissement. A squatter’s paradise for those with one foot in the grave and the other shoved halfway up Western civilization’s ass.” Sharply and humorously written, Ocean Vuong notes that the sequel asks: “How do we live in the wake of seismic loss and betrayal? And, perhaps even more critically, How do we laugh?” (Zoë)

Red Island House by Andrea Lee: It’s been almost fifteen years since Andrea Lee published a book (Lost Hearts in Italy) and I’ve been sitting here waiting for it. Her fiction and memoirs often center on Black characters living abroad, and she writes with such lush and observant precision that you feel you are traveling with her. Her newest novel is set in a small village in Madagascar, where Shay, a Black professor of literature, and her wealthy Italian husband Senna, build a lavish vacation home. Unfolding over two decades, Lee’s new novel explores themes of race, class, and gender, as Shay reluctantly takes on the role of matriarch, learning to manage a household staff and estate. Kirkus calls it “a highly critical vision of how the one percent live in neocolonial paradise.” (Hannah)

The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter: Winter follows her well-received debut (2016’s Break in Case of Emergency) with a multi-generational story of love, family, obligation, and guilt. The novel follows Jane from a miserable 1970s adolescence to an unexpected high school pregnancy and marriage, through the sweetness of early parenthood to the fraught complications of ideology, adoption, and life with a teenaged daughter. (Emily M.)

Mona by Pola Oloixarac (translated by Adam Morris): Mona, Pola Oloixarac’s third novel, seems a fitting book for all of us to read while looking back on 2020: the eponymous narrator is a drug-addled and sardonic, albeit much admired and Peruvian writer based in California. After she’s nominated for Europe’s most important literary prize, Mona flees to a small town near the Arctic Circle to escape her demons in a way that seems not unlike David Bowie’s fleeing LA for bombed-out Berlin. She soon finds she hasn’t escaped hers as much as she’s locked herself up with them. According to Andrew Martin, Mona “reads as though Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy was thrown in a blender with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and then lightly seasoned with the bitter flavor of Horacio Castellanos Moya.” (Anne)

Girlhood by Melissa Febos: Fusing memoir, cultural commentary, and research, critically-acclaimed writer Febos explores the beauty and discomfort of girlhood (and womanhood) in her newest essay collection. With her signature lyricism and haunting honesty, the essays explore the ways girls inherit, create, interrogate, and rewrite the narratives of their lives. Kirkus’ starred review calls the collection “consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.” (Carolyn)

The Recent East by Thomas Grattan: Macmillan describes this debut novel as a “spellbinding…multigenerational epic that illuminates what it means to leave home, and what it means to return.” In a combination that works for me, this story of “a family upended by displacement and loss” also has an old family manse, neo-Nazis, and a setting in the wilds of what was once East Germany. (Il’ja)

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan: Alyan’s varied talents never cease to amaze. The award-winning author of four collections of poetry and one novel, Alyan also works as a clinical psychologist. Her newest novel touches on themes and locales familiar to those who’ve read her work including family, war, Brooklyn, and the Middle East. The Nasr family has spread across the world, but remains rooted in their ancestral home in Beirut. When the family’s new patriarch decides to sell, all must reunite to save the house and confront their secrets in a city still reeling from the impact of its past and ongoing tensions. (Jacqueline)

Abundance by Jakob Guanzon: This debut novel centers around a struggling Filipino-American father and son, Henry and Junior. Evicted from their trailer, they now live in their truck and are trying to scramble a life back together. The book’s formal innovation lies in its structure, which is organized around money: each chapter tallies the duo’s debit and credit, in a gesture toward the profound anxieties and inequalities around debt, work, and addiction in contemporary America. (Jacqueline)

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster: From the author of the acclaimed novel Halsey Street (finalist for a Kirkus Prize) comes a story of family, race, and friendship. Opening in the 1990s and extending to the present, the book follows two families in Piedmont, NC, one white, one Black. Living on separate sides of town, they live separate lives until the local school’s integration efforts set off a chain of events that will bond the families to each other in profound and unexpected ways. (Jacqueline)

The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson: After her father doesn’t return from checking his traps near their home, Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakota girl who’s grown up surrounded by the woods and stories of plants, is sent to live with a foster family. Decades later, widowed and grieving, she returns to her childhood home to confront the past and find identity and community — and a cache of seeds, passed down from one generation of women to the next. The first novel from Dakota writer Diane Wilson, “The Seed Keeper invokes the strength that women, land, and plants have shared with one another through the generations,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer. (Kaulie)

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia: The debut novel from Garcia, Of Women and Salt, follows three generations of Cuban women from 19th-century cigar factories to contemporary ICE detention centers and meditates on the difficult choices and legacies of mothers. In present-day Miami, Jeanette is struggling with addiction but wants to learn more about her family from her secretive mother, Carmen, who’s still processing her difficult relationship with her own mother back in Cuba. Then Jeanette decides to visit her grandmother for herself. “Gabriela Garcia captures the lives of Cuban women in a world to which they refuse to surrender,” writes Roxane Gay, “and she does so with precision and generosity and beauty.” (Kaulie)

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: In a follow-up to Mbue’s celebrated Behold the Dreamers, winner of the 2017 PEN/Faulkner award, How Beautiful We Were tells a story of environmental exploitation and a fictional African village’s fight to save itself. An American oil company’s leaking pipelines are poisoning the land and children of Kosawa, and in the face of government inaction the villagers strike back, sparking a series of small revolutions with outsized impact. Kosawa’s story is told by the family of Thula, a village girl who grows into a charismatic revolutionary and who Sigrid Nunez calls “a heroine for our time.” (Kaulie)

Sarahland by Sam Cohen: Cohen’s debut short story collection centers around a unique premise: almost all the protagonists are named Sarah. Whether it’s a Buffy-loving Sarah, a lonely college student Sarah, or a Sarah-turned-tree, the playful yet serious stories explore identity, transformation, and queerness. “Sam Cohen’s stories re-wire the brain,” writes Andrea Lawlor. “Sarahland is satisfyingly queer, dirty, insightful, disarmingly generous, astonishing in its craftsmanship and so funny.” (Carolyn)

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman: From the editor in chief of Electric Literature, this cultural analysis re-examines eleven female monsters from Greek mythology, including Medusa and the Sphinx. By taking a critical look at the current social construction of monsters, Zimmerman suggests that the traits we’ve been told make us dangerous and undesirable might actually be our greatest strengths. Scaachi Koul says of the book, “I ate it up, and it felt a little like it devoured me right back.” (Claire)

Eat the Mouth that Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza: Fragoza’s surreal and gothic stories, focused on Latinx, Chicanx, and immigrant women’s voices, are sure to surprise and move readers. Natalia Sylvester states, “Like the Chicanx women whose voices she centers, Carribean Fragoza’s writing doesn’t flinch. It is sharp and dream-like, tender-hearted and brutal, carved from the violence and resilience of generations past and present.” Eat the Mouth That Feeds You explores themes of lineage, motherhood, violence, and much more. Héctor Tobar writes that this short story collection “establishes Fragoza as an essential and important new voice in American fiction.” (Zoë)

The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Anyone who has spent any time with the startling beauty that is theoretical physics, all of those quarks and neutrinos, quasars and singularities, knows that there is a poetry threaded through the fabric of our strange reality. Cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein conveys the sublimity of physics in The Disordered Cosmos. Science, Prescod-Weinstein emphasizes, can never be totally dispassionate or separate from what makes us human. One of fewer than a hundred Black women with a PhD in physics in the United States, she doesn’t just explain the Standard Model of Particle Physics, but also how institutional racism limits who works in the discipline. (Ed S.)

The Scapegoat by Sarah Davis: California is a place that’s been written over and rewritten over, the sunny environs belying the dark histories of colonialism which define the place. Sarah Davis’ debut novel The Scapegoat dramatizes such issues of memory, both personal and historical, in its post-modern noir account of a university professor simply named N who must investigate his own father’s death, related as it seems to the former’s own historical study of California’s past. The result is a surreal, experimental, hallucinatory, and lyrical meditation on how the past constitutes the present. (Ed S.)

Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness: In this debut essay collection by the 2018 winner of the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, Zoffness explores subjects as diverse (and overlapping) as faith and belief, parenthood, justice, notions of safety and risk, and who our mothers were before we came along. Zoffness writes with such charm and sincerity, and I zipped through these smart essays in a day, delighting in Zoffness’s honesty and wry intelligence. Mary Gaitskill clearly agrees; she writes: “Gentle, playful and laced with subtle wit, these essays are a welcome balm in an insane and un-gentle time.” (Edan)

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (translated by Frank Wynne): A newly translated work by the French novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. The novel follows a French woman as she explores the Algerian roots of her grandparents, her family’s secrets, and the legacies of colonialism. (Lydia)

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood: Smallwood is a book and culture critic for The New York Times Magazine and Harper’s, and her first novel is an academic bildungsroman about an adjunct professor with as many shrinks as degrees. This being an academic novel, acerbic satire, existential crises, and self-loathing abound. Here, the professor’s recent miscarriage occasions reflections on the body’s role in the life of the mind. Publishers Weekly called this debut “the glorious lovechild of Otessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney.” (Matt S.)

The Vietri Project by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye: In a LitHub essay, DeRobertis-Theye wrote about novels of “biographical detection” (like Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy) in which “a person, usually only tangentially related to the subject…becomes engrossed in the discovery of this person’s life.” She herself contributes to the genre with her first novel, in which a Berkeley bookseller becomes fascinated with a Roman customer with rather recherché tastes. Some time later, the narrator is living in Italy, where she has extended family, and decides to track the customer down. (This is the kind of personalized service Amazon can’t provide.) A sinuous bibliophilic mystery of self-discovery. (Matt S.)

Foregone by Russell Banks: Banks, author of Affliction and the epic Cloudsplitter, is now 80 and appears to be slowing down from the breakneck pace of his earlier career. Foregone, his first novel in a decade, follows a famous filmmaker dying of cancer who turns the camera on himself to tell the tale of his misspent youth. But since a side-effect of his medications is “confabulation,” only some of his final confessions may be true. Publishers Weekly calls the book “uneven,” but says that, despite some windy digressions, “Banks keeps the audience rapt.” (Michael)

Brood by Jackie Polzin: One year, four chickens, isolation, and advance praise from Joy Williams: what pleasant alchemy is this novel? Polzin’s debut conjures humors and sadness in Minnesota, where the narrator ponders the potential of motherhood, a pending move, and the strangeness of raising animals who force us to consider the world in a new, slower, sideways perspective (which leads us to wonder: maybe the strangeness is us?). (Nick R.)

Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard: Nine pieces from one of our finest essayists, who has once said that “one loss always brings up another”—a sentiment that perfectly captures her style, down to her syntax. She writes of the loss of her dog, how they had become close as a stay against absence: “We were used to being alone.” Essays like “Maybe It Happened” capture the porous nature of her genre; how memories that shape our lives might be created or crafted by our hearts: “Maybe on those hot summer afternoons, when coffee made women languid, when the scent of trellis roses mixed with the scent of ammonia, when girls pretended they were mothers while mother pretended something else entirely, perhaps anything could happen.” (Nick R.)

Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter: A dystopian novel about fortune-telling and rape culture set in a world where women’s fates are inscribed on their bodies. Of the novel Anne Valente writes, “Through the lens of dystopia, this incandescent debut novel holds a critical mirror up to our world’s limitations on gender and the violence of those restraints, while it also forges a bold vision for agency, self-determination and freedom. Through and through, this is a powerful and luminous book.” (Lydia)

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton): Tsumura’s novel begins with an unnamed narrator constantly watching someone. It is her job, and she’d been given a rule “not to fast-forward the footage,” except if her target is sleeping. She ponders how much money she spends on eye drops from having to keep her gaze fixed. “It was weird,” she thinks, “because I worked such long hours, and yet, even while working, I was basically doing nothing. I’d come to the conclusion that there were very few jobs in the world that ate up as much time and as little brainpower as watching over the life of a novelist who lived alone and worked from home.” A nearly hypnotic book that shifts between despair and transcendence. (Nick R.)

Brother Sister Mother Explorer by Jamie Figueroa: Set in the fictional tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, a reckless brother and his concerned sister who’ve just lost their mother make a bet: if the brother loses, he has to buy a plane ticket, leave the place, and get his life together. Ghosts, angels, and other hauntings infuse this debut which reviewers are describing as “utterly original” and “utterly new.” (Sonya)

Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar: Kuwaiti writer AlAmmar explores trauma and voicelessness through fragmented narrative form and a mute protagonist who has survived the war in Syria and is now living in isolation in the UK. She begins writing under a pseudonym to express herself, but must decide eventually whether to rejoin the human community as an embodied participant. “Fierce, beguiling, visceral,” writes Booker finalist Fiona Mozley. (Sonya)

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan: Nolan, a columnist and writer for The New Statesman, Vice, and other places, depicts a young couple’s dysfunctional relationship and its aftermath in her debut. In 2012, the unnamed narrator becomes infatuated with an art critic named Ciaran, who seems “undeniably whole” in contrast to the people around him. The two begin dating, and things quickly become toxic, with Ciaran insulting the narrator’s friends and peppering her with cruel remarks. Throughout, we see glimpses of the narrator in 2019, when she’s reflecting on her past and working to move on from Ciaran. (Thom)

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes: Schanoes debuts a dreamy short story collection that plays with genre, combining literary fiction, fairy tales, and fantasy. Catherynne M. Valente writes, “Her work effortlessly blends the modern with the archetypal. It is constantly surprising, endlessly rich, and terribly needed.” Her haunting tales of revenge and anger and her fierce protagonists will enthrall readers. Karen Joy Fowler describes Burning Girls as a “beautifully written, sharply imaginative collection.” (Zoë)

April

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Inspired by the true story of one of the first Black female doctors in America, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel tells the story of Libertie Sampson coming of age in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn. Libertie’s mother, a physician, wants her daughter to attend medical school and practice alongside her but, unlike her mother who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. After accepting an offer of marriage from a young Haitian man promising equality on the island, Libertie finds she is still considered inferior to her husband, and all men. In the words of Brandon Taylor, author of Booker short-listed Real Life, “In this singular novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge confronts the anonymizing forces of history with her formidable gifts. Libertie is a glorious, piercing song for the ages—fierce, brilliant, and utterly free.” (Adam Price)

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi: Following 2019’s “Hansel and Gretel”-inspired Gingerbread, Oyeyemi brings her readers on a surreal, inspired journey, beginning with hypnotist Otto Shin going off on a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his longtime boyfriend, Xavier. A train trip, their honeymoon takes an odd turn Ava Kapoor, the train’s owner, reveals that she’s set to receive a large inheritance. And when a mysterious passenger threatens that inheritance—and a young man named Yuri begins intervening in their lives—Otto and Xavier find their trip becoming more and more stressful. (Thom)

An Alternative History of Pittsburgh by Ed Simon: Pittsburgh native Ed Simon, erudite staff writer at The Millions, has written an idiosyncratic and predictably brainy book about his hometown, to be published by the inspiring independent house, Belt Publishing. Pennsylvania is Simon’s clay, as witnessed by this passage from a post-election essay that appeared in Belt Magazine: “Far more capable tyrants than Trump have been felled by Pennsylvania. This vanquishing feels like George Meade turning back Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It makes me want to ring the Liberty Bell until its crack breaks the whole thing apart and the light can get in.” The light got in. This book will help you understand how and why. (Bill)

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon: J Robert Lennon, one of our most reliably interesting and adventurous novelists, returns in 2021 with Subdivision, an offering both darker and more whimsical than his critically lauded 2017 foray into crime fiction, Broken River. Subdivision continues Lennon’s fascinating career-long exploration of perception and memory, as an unnamed narrator finds herself in, well, the Subdivision, a mysterious locale where the unsettling and inexplicable routinely occur. Accompanied by an Alexa-like digital assistant named Cylvia, the narrator explores the maze-like neighborhood, and as the jigsaw puzzle in the guest house where the narrator is staying nears completion, the Subdivision’s true character begins to emerge. (Adam Price)

The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler): It seems that New Directions releases a new translation of Lispector’s work at least every few years, and thank goodness, I can never get enough of her writing. This latest volume is a translation of what has been called Lispector’s “most accessible” book. A surprise when considering that this is the work that follows The Passion According to GH, and need I remind you, much of that wondrous novel consists of the narrator crossing a room to kill and consume a cockroach (and well, so much more). When Lispector was asked why she wrote something so straightforward, she replied, “I humanized myself.” (Anne)

You Made Me Love You by John Edgar Wideman: This collection of 35 stories from the four-decade career of an American master is also a summation of his literary mission: “To deconstruct the given formulas of African American culture and life.” Ranging from the Homewood neighborhood of his native Pittsburgh to small Wyoming towns to historic Philadelphia, spanning time from the ancient world to the present day, these collected stories will cement Wideman’s status as one of the great writers at work in America today. (Bill)

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade: “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” Someone has been hearing my prayers: Quade has taken one of the finest short stories from her debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, and revisited the tale to create a masterful novel of family, faith, doubt. Quade’s storytelling gift is her ability to capture the mysterious pulse of belief and ground them in visceral ritual on the page. She begins with Amadeo’s dream role for Holy Week—no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus. Amadeo pines for meaning his life: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion. How many people can say they’ve done that for God?” Yet his plans are strained when his daughter reveals her secret. It turns out that the Lord and great storytellers work in mysterious ways. (Nick R.)

White Magic by Elissa Washuta: From Tin House, Washuta’s third book is a “collection of intertwined essays … about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch.” At 432 pages, this one promises to be an innovative and deeply felt work to sink into. (Sonya)

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken: There’s good reason a new Elizabeth McCracken book is cause for celebration: everything she writes—her short stories, her novels, and, hey, also a memoir—is consistently brilliant. Her work is the perfect amount of odd, witty, tender, and deceptively heart-splitting. This latest is a short story collection that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “sly” and “emotionally complex.” There are twelve stories in all, including one about a mother who gorges on challah because she longs for her kids, and another about an actress who plays a villain on a children’s show and her loser brother. I can’t wait. (Edan)

The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright: A Black man is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct, where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn’t commit. After signing a confession, he escapes from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers beneath the streets of the city. Sound familiar? No, this didn’t happen last week. It’s the premise of the previously unpublished novel from the 1940s, The Man Who Lived Underground, by the immortal Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy. This novel cut close to the author’s heart. As he put it: “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from pure inspiration.” (Bill)

First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel): The eight stories in this new collection by Murakami are all told in the first person singular voice. This narrator shares a lot of passions with the author: nostalgia of young love and sex, ruminations on Jazz music, and the enthusiasm in baseball. Like Murakami’s previous stories, the charm of magical realism is always sustained by a philosophical meditation on love, loneliness, and memory. (Jianan Qian)

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley: Set in present-day London, Mozley’s anticipated follow-up to Elmet—her Booker Prize shortlisted debut—follows the struggle between the haves and the have-nots over a building. Agatha, a young millionaire, wants to turn the building into luxury condos, while brothel workers Precious and Tabitha want to save the place where they live and work. Mozley’s newest novel explores themes like wealth, gentrification, power, and gender dynamics. (Carolyn)

Paradise, Nevada by Dario Diofebi: “Vegas has been right there forever, waiting for a great novelist,” says Darin Strauss. This debut centers around a bomb that detonates in a luxury hotel. Six months prior, the story follows four transplants, a professional poker player, a clinically depressed cocktail waitress, a tourist from Italy, and a Mormon journalist, who are trying to navigate the self-reinventing city of Las Vegas. Diofebi’s brilliant comic voice and deep compassion make for a debut from a voice that, says David Lipsky, “is going to be around for a long time.” (Claire)

My Good Son by Yang Huang: The winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, My Good Son is about a tailor named Mr. Cai in post-Tiananmen China and the dreams he holds for his only son, Feng. Mr. Cai schemes with one of his clients, Jude, a gay American expat, to get his son to the States, and the novel, about parental expectations, social class, and sexuality, highlights both the similarities and differences between Chinese and American cultures. Huang, who has previously published a novel and a collection of linked stories, grew up in China and moved to the states to study computer science—only to also pursue writing. She says, “In writing I can let down my walls, suspend my moral judgment, and pour my deepest compassion into the written words.” (Edan)

Astrid Sees All by Natalie Standiford: If New York’s bad old ‘70s are at this point well-mined novelistic territory, the salad days of the ‘80s have received comparatively little scrutiny…at least since the heyday of a certain Jay. Here Natalie Standiford attempts to correct the oversight, guiding readers on a descent into clubland…with the gusto of a certain Musto. (Garth)

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson: Two young, struggling artists are looking to live, love, and create in a time and place that seems set on allowing them anything but that. From Penguin: “Caleb Aumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.” (Il’ja)

A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus: From Metonymy Press, a gripping collection of short stories flush with alternative histories, horror, and magic realism set in the kinds of towns we all think we know well, a collection that, according to the publisher, “disrupts the notion that trans people can only have one transformation.” (Il’ja)

Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki (various translators): According to Penguin Random House: “At turns nonchalantly hip and charmingly deranged.” I’m about two-thirds of the way through these short stories and according to me: “that sounds about right.” If you’re into Kōbō Abe and prefer Ryū Murakami to Haruki you’ll not (as the title of this inaugural translation of Suzuki into English suggests), be bored. (Il’ja)

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features an ambitious literary structure that is rarely seen in contemporary writing. On the surface, it is a complex oral history conducted by a music journalist about her beloved rock ‘n’ roll duo. But as the interview touches deeper, we see more unexpected layers of the story that will threaten to reverse any established narratives. The unique storytelling matches the depth of the theme that the novel aspires to explore: Black women who dare to tell the truth but whose voices are too often repressed. (Jianan Qian)

The Secret Talker by Geling Yan (translated by Jeremy Tiang): Hongmei lives a happy, peaceful life in Northern California with her husband Glen, a university professor, until an anonymous person starts to stalk her, threatening to reveal her dark past in China. Desperate and helpless, Hongmei tries to switch her role in the predator-prey game by debunking the stalker’s secret past. The Secret Talker is a suspenseful, intriguing tale of a woman in her psychological crisis. (Jianan Qian)

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode: A Nigerian crime drama with wide-ranging sociological and political implications, Lightseekers introduces the unusual detective Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist more interested in why than how. After an angry mob beats and then burns three undergraduate students in a Nigerian border town and the killings are widely shared on social media, the powerful father of one victim hires Taiwo to figure out what really happened. The police can’t find a motive for the murders, but Taiwo (with the help of his streetwise driver, Chika) faces a dangerous conspiracy to reveal the private violence behind the public attack. (Kaulie)

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian: A comic surreal novel about a young man growing up in the Atlanta burbs, a scheme of his neighbor’s that goes awry, and his adulthood as a history grad student surrounded by the new gold rush of Silicon Valley. Celeste Ng says of the novel “In a perfect alchemical blend of familiar and un-, Gold Diggers takes a wincingly hilarious coming-of-age story, laces it with magical realism and a trace of satire, and creates a world that’s both achingly familiar and marvelously inventive. Written with such assurance it’s hard to believe it’s Sanjena Sathian’s debut, this is a dizzyingly original, fiercely funny, deeply wise novel about the seductive powers—and dangers—of borrowed ambition.” (Lydia)

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins: The bestselling essayist’s debut novel centers on a woman named Laila, whose efforts to conceive a child have ended in frustration. In desperation, Laila turns to a well-known Harlem family, the Melancons, for help—the Melancons are known for their “caul,” an epidermal layer that blesses their family with healing powers. After trying to get a caul for herself, Laila delivers a stillborn child, which leaves her emotionally devastated. But then her niece, Amara, delivers a baby with a caul, and Laila becomes embroiled in the Melancons’ long-running power struggle. (Thom)

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer: The master of ecological surrealism—which paradoxically imparts lessons on our unfolding reality—takes a stab at a tightly wound thriller. It starts when a security consultant receives an envelope of clues. Then things get weird. Some of the most riveting portions of Annihilation were the uncanny depictions of office paranoia, so it’ll be exciting to see VanderMeer run farther in that direction. (Nick M.)

Southbound by Anjali Enjeti: For generations, portraits of race relations in the American South have been painted only in Black and white. But as more Asian and Latinx people settle south of the Mason-Dixon line, that picture has grown more complex – and more interesting. In her debut essay collection, Enjeti, an election activist and former attorney, tackles a wide range of topics spanning from voter suppression to the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the South and the whitewashing of Southern literature. (Michael)

Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson: The latest in the novelist’s fascinating career—in addition to novels like Le Divorce, she co-wrote the script for The Shining with Stanley Kubrick (“Kubrick and I would work in the morning, face to face across a table in a big workroom.”). Here, Lorna Mott Dumas ends her 20-year marriage and leaves France for San Francisco—to reinvent herself in a place that she once called home. (Nick R.)

Popisho by Leone Ross: Leone Ross “lives in London, but intends to retire near water.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, her fourth novel takes place on a fictional, magical archipelago called Popisho, “a place of stunning beauty and incorrigible mischief, destiny and mystery.” The publisher described the novel as “uproarious and sensual,” and “inflected with rhythms and textures of an amalgam of languages,” comparing it to the work of Garcia-Marquez and Arundhati Roy. I’m in. (Sonya)

Leaving isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough: Lauren Hough had a memorable super-viral essay about her experience working as a cable guy, and this memoir details not only her experiences of life in the working class, but her peripatetic upbringing as a childhood member of a cult called Children of God. Elizabeth McCracken raves about this debut, “Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is so brilliant, so humane and pissed off and hysterically funny and thought-provoking, and so beautifully written it’s hard to describe except to say that it’s a book that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people, and it might cause some fights, and you better read it so you can have the pleasure of reading it and the pleasure of talking about it with everyone.” (Lydia)

Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal: The French author’s latest, a bildungsroman about a young painter, follows the apprenticeship of Paula Karst, a student at the prestigious Institute de Peinture in Brussels. Unlike her peers, Paula is more interested in material craftsmanship than abstraction, and the novel depicts her all-night work sessions painstaking detail and care. After she graduates, Paula moves on to Paris, Moscow, and Italy, where she continues making her art. Eventually, she lands a job working on Lascaux IV, a reproduction of the world’s most famous prehistoric cave art. (Thom)

May

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: At the outset of this marvelous novel, Flora Mancini finds her husband’s wedding ring—the one he told her he lost over a decade ago—and the discovery leads her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about their life together. I read Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s follow-up to her bestselling debut The Nest in two breathless days, eager to find out what would happen next in this elegantly depicted story about marriage, friendship, loyalty, and the intersections of art and commerce, love and secrets. When I was finished, I was plunged into the kind of sweet melancholy that only the end of a good book brings. (Edan)

Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness by Nick Ripatrazone: This is the second book by my fellow contributing editor Ripatrazone, whose first book, Longing for An Absent God, investigated Catholicism in American fiction and its influence on storytelling. Wild Belief continues Nick’s scholarship on spirituality—this time, considering how the spiritual tradition sees nature as a site for renewal and wonder. He synthesizes the work of philosophers, poets, and even saints, to understand why we are drawn to nature even as we fear it, and how it enriches our lives. (Edan)

Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Now that her Outline trilogy is complete, we get to see where Cusk, winner of the Whitbread Award and one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists, travels next. When a woman invites a famous artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, she hopes that his gaze will penetrate the mysteries of the landscape and of her life. The publisher describes it as a novel that examines, “the possibility that art can both save and destroy us.” (Claire)

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon: Who was it that said dystopian science fiction couldn’t be gothic? They forgot to tell Rivers Solomon who has given the mythology of American rugged individualism a twist that its staunchest devotees might not see coming. Early readers have called it “searing,” “challenging,” and “hopeful.” (Il’ja)

Pop Songs by Larissa Pham: Larissa Pham has been writing about love and loss for a long time, starting at least with her blogging days. Now, the artist and writer’s debut work of nonfiction brings together a series of meditations on distance, discussing Anne Carson and Frank Ocean, travels to New Mexico and Shanghai, and past experiences with sex, drugs, and art. Esmé Weijun Wang calls it an “endlessly inventive, intimate, and provocative memoir-in-essays that celebrates the strange and exquisite state of falling in love — whether with a painting or a person.” (Jacqueline)

The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy: Pundits always feel the need to draw upon past masters like Franz Kafka or George Orwell to explain our dystopian present, but in the future it may very well be Alex McElroy and their debut novel The Atmospherians which best elucidates our panopticon-surveyed, late capitalist hellscape epoch. In the novel, doxxed influencer Sasha Marcus must reconstitute her brand after her woman’s wellness venture was destroyed by men’s rights activists, and so she founds a rehabilitation institute to cure men of their toxic masculinity. A trenchant picture of our world right now, The Atmospherians is equal parts perceptive and prescient. (Ed S.)

Cheat Day by Liv Stratman: In Stratman’s funny and sharp debut, college sweethearts Kit and David are still together—but their relationship is falling apart. As the couple embarks on an intense fad diet together, Kit finds herself beginning an affair with someone she met at work. As Kit gives into her carnal desire, she begins to diet more severely. Jami Attenberg writes, “Sexy, witty and down-to-earth, Cheat Day tackles the truths about our modern occupations with wellness, relationships and what it means to be happy.” (Carolyn)

In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan: Social distancing marked the lonely horror that was this year; paradoxically a demonstration of how affection and empathy for our fellow humans required us to retreat into ourselves, connection now defined by the absence of contact. Ethel Rohan’s book of short stories examines something similar in his evocation of what lack of connection can do to us. With a diversity of characters ranging from a childless immigrant daughter justifying her decision to her parents, a grumpy crossing guard honoring the time he got hit by a truck, a demented priest looking for redemption, and a plucky teen detective, In the Event of Contact is a loving homage to humanity in all of its complexity. (Ed S.)

The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Al Aswany (translated by S.R. Fellowes): The celebrated author of The Yacoubian Building tackles the events of the Arab Spring — and of Tahrir Square in particular — offering a cyclotron of storylines ranging from military circles to revolutionary ones to the various lives pulled inexorably in one direction or the other. (Garth)

Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes: It’s hard to know why the Vernon Subutex trilogy, an unlikely cocktail of Wolfish satire, Houellebecqesque pessimism, and Ferrantean range and rage, hasn’t kicked up more of a fuss here in the U.S. (though maybe I just answered my own question). Still, it’s easy to see why Nell Zink’s a fan. This third installment concludes the adventures of our titular hero, a peripatetic and intermittently visionary ex-record store owner cut loose on the streets of Paris. (Garth)

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado: A debut short story collection with elements of the fantastic, surreal, and speculative—flying children, strange creatures on the roof—that the publisher compares to work from Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. (Lydia)

Phase Six by Jim Shepard: This uncomfortably timely novel imagines our next pandemic, unleashed by thawing permafrost. Set in Greenland, it follows 11-year-old Aleq, who unwittingly brings back a virus from an open mining site and survives a devastating outbreak. CDC epidemiologists are then dispatched to study the virus and prevent a global pandemic. They take Aleq into their care, and the novel follows multiple points of view as the catastrophe unfolds. (Hannah)

Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber: Silber’s ninth work of fiction is the story of a young New York lawyer who discovers that his father has a secret family in Queens: a Thai wife and two young children. Ethan’s mother leaves the country in the wake of the revelation, while Ethan becomes involved in a love triangle of his own. This complex, intergenerational novel spans three continents as it reveals the connection between the two families, no longer secret to each other. (Hannah)

Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng: A young girl in China hears from her long-emigrated parents that they will collect her soon and bring her to America. While she fights to stay in the place she knows, her parents are working through their own crises as they navigate the past and the future. Of the novel Garth Greenwell raves, “Everything in this gorgeously orchestrated novel surprises, everything outraces expectation. Swimming Back to Trout River is one of the most beautiful debuts I have read in years.” (Lydia)

A Lonely Man by Chris Power: In this first novel from Power, who writes a keen column on short stories for the Guardian and published the well-received collection Mothers, two professional fabulists circle each other in Berlin. Both are writers, one who claims to have been ghostwriting the autobiography of a murdered Russian oligarch, the other a stuck novelist tempted to energize his own work by cannibalizing his new friend’s tale. This is a slippery tale of writer-on-writer crime set against the backdrop of international conspiracy. (Matt S.)

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (translated by Robin Moger): “Sometimes art imposes its form,” said the Egyptian poet, journalist, and novelist Kheir in an interview, and his latest takes the shape of a journalist’s enchanted tour of Egypt. His guide is a “source” who provides unusual scoops, shepherding the journalist to various sites where the mundane is infused with magic (for example, a “cinema of private visions” projected onto a cave wall). This hallucinatory portrait of modern Egypt, translated by Robin Moger, is Kheir first full-length work to appear in English. (Matt S.)

The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti: In August 1947, as talk of Partition swirls on the streets of New Delhi, 16-year-old Deepa trades messages encoded in intricate origami with her boyfriend Amir. Seventy years later, in Atlanta, Georgia, Deepa’s granddaughter, reeling from marital troubles and the recent loss of a pregnancy, begins to search for her estranged grandmother and in the process piece together the history of her family shattered by the violent separation of India and Pakistan. Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars, calls The Parted Earth, the second of two books by Enjeti out this spring, “a devastating portrayal of Partition and the trauma it wreaked in the generations that followed.” (Michael)

The Living See of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Everything is vanishing, or so it appears to Anna, the protagonist in Flanagan’s new novel that is “one part elegy, one part dream, one part hope.” Hailed as the Booker Prize winner’s greatest novel yet, the new work tackles climate change, family ties, and resilience in the Anthropocene. (Nick M.)

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen: A debut novel about a Vietnamese immigrant family in New Orleans — a mother coping with what becomes permanent separation from her husband back in Vietnam, and two fatherless boys who make their way in different “lanes.” Then the hurricane hits. Havoc, we presume, ensues; but also that human spirit thing that all tragedies, real and fictional, evoke and stir. (Sonya)

June

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor: In this series of linked stories, young creative people in the Midwest navigate loneliness, intimacy, and violence. In many ways, the book is a continuation of Taylor’s highly acclaimed debut novel, Real Life, which follows Wallace, a Black queer biochemistry PhD student in the Midwest, as he explores failure, grief, and confusing straight men. In other ways, it is a departure — and offers a glimpse into Taylor’s true literary love, the short story form. (Jacqueline)

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella is the only Black woman at her publishing company until another Black woman is hired and quickly becomes a favorite in the office–just as Nella starts receiving threatening notes at work. Attica Locke raves, “Zakiya Dalila Harris has pulled back the curtain on the publishing industry, but in doing so, she has also perfectly captured a social dynamic that exists in job cultures as varied as tech, finance, academia, or hell, even retail and fast food. Oh, beware of the “OBGs”—Other Black Girls—y’all. As we should all be aware of the psychic cost to Black women of making ourselves palatable to institutions that use our cultural cache for their own ends while disregarding any part of our hearts and minds that they either can’t or won’t understand.” (Lydia)

Bewilderness by Karen Tucker: The stress of Covid-19 has, according to the CDC, escalated opioid usage, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to drive OD fatalities, which are 10% higher than 12 months ago. In her debut novel, Bewilderness, Karen Tucker puts a human face on this ongoing public health catastrophe, as she tells the story of Irene and Luce, pill-addicts and best friends. More than merely evoking the desperation of opioid abuse, Bewilderness provides a funny and touching story of female friendship—as Rufi Thorpe says, “Karen Tucker has the chaotic truth-telling energy of a sage and a lack of sentimentality that would give Hunter S. Thompson stomach cramps. This is the novel the opiate epidemic needs.” (Adam Price)

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti: In her genre-bending debut story collection, the Cameroonian-American writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Nana Nkweti mixes realism with clever inversions of numerous genres, including horror, mystery, myth, young adult, and science fiction. You’ll meet linguistic anthropologists, comic book enthusiasts, a PR pro trying to spin a zombie outbreak in West Africa, a graphic novelist, a pregnant pastor’s wife, a mermaid. This dazzler of a debut shines a spotlight on lives that bridge the divide between the cultures of Cameroon and America. Nkweti has said she hopes her stories entertain readers while also offering them a counterpoint to prevalent “heart of darkness” writing that too often depicts a singular African experience. (Bill)

Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang: If you follow a certain subset of millennial professionals on Twitter, then you’ve come to understand that few maladies bedevil that overeducated cohort like “imposter syndrome” – the sneaking suspicion that despite your academic credentials you’re still woefully out of your depth. Kathy Wang dramatizes this condition, along with a dollop of cyber paranoia, in her satire Imposter Syndrome, which recounts the travails of Julia Lerner, accomplished computer scientist, COO of Tangerin (one of Silicon Valley’s most promising tech corporations), and Russian intelligence operative. Julia’s position is threatened when Alice, a first-generation Chinese American programmer at Tangerine, begins to discover how deep the company’s disloyalties lay. Like John le Carré filtered through Tom Wolfe, Imposter Syndrome encapsulates our Facebook anxieties perfectly. (Ed S.)

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen: For the title alone, I’m in, no matter who wrote it. But then it’s also Rivka Galchen? Trying her hand at historical fiction? I’m hitting preorder. Based in 1618 Germany at the start of the 30 Years War it tells the story of Katherina Kepler, an illiterate woman known for her herbal remedies. When a neighbor accuses Katherina of poisoning her, Katherina’s brilliant son, an Imperial Mathematician, must defend her. Galchen, known for her fiction and journalism, drew on real historical documents to write her tale of a family threatened by superstitious fears. (Hannah)

Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn: A little knowledge, they say, can be a dangerous thing. But is there such a thing as too much knowledge? Of the world we live in? Of the people we live with? In St. Aubyn’s seventh novel the sacred and the profane, the rough and the refined are set against each other as the passionate and the rational play out in the lives of three close friends. No one comes out unscathed, or unenlightened. (Il’ja)

All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques: Life is change, and nowhere is that more potently illustrated than in a life confronted by its past. When Daniel Henriquez travels from New York to his old stomping grounds in the American South for the funeral of a girl he once loved, he is confronted by the tension, the true challenge, of owning our identities and owning up to them with those who know us well. On friendship, love, and the rough bite of life on the margins. (Il’ja)

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: The publisher has laid some tripwires in describing this latest novel from the author of High Dive: “New York…turn of the twentieth century…fortune…murder.” A private man deeply invested in the public welfare of one of the world’s great cities has his privacy shredded even as his life is ended, in a novel Katy Simpson Smith compares to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and John Williams’ Stoner. (Il’ja)

Everything Now by Rosecrans Baldwin: Baldwin’s new book charts Los Angeles’s literary canon, its landscapes, spiritual practices, history, and cuisines, and ultimately makes the argument that Los Angeles is best understood—“functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically”—as a city-state. (Emily M.)

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung: Following the death of her father, a young woman is haunted by the unspoken history of her family and looks to put a voice to it. A daunting task “if your family doesn’t talk about feelings.” A valuable addition to the growing canon of work providing fresh views on the North American immigrant experience. (Il’ja)

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford: In this memoir, writer, podcaster, and educator Ashley Ford tells the story of her upbringing. Amid struggles with poverty, rape, and her father’s incarceration, Ford describes the process through which she ultimately came to better understand herself, her surroundings, and her family. Glennon Doyle writes, “The gravity and urgency of Somebody’s Daughter anchored me to my chair and slowed my heartbeat—like no book has since Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” (Jacqueline)

Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich: The debut collection of Clare Sestanovich invites us to a fictional world where women’s most intimate fear, needs, and wants are told. A wife confronts the disturbing fact that everything in her marriage is laid bare. An office lady tries to escape a world of ambitious and demanding men surrounding her. Sestanovich’s writing shines with dark humor and sharp observations. It is a joyful read. (Jianan Qian)

The Natural Mother of the Child by Krys Malcolm Belc: This is a beautiful memoir of parenthood and selfhood that promises to expand the canon of literary writing on caregiving and identity. Belc is a nonbinary, transmasculine parent whose family story is here interwoven with revelations of the bureaucratic processes that are inharmoniously bound up with people’s real lives. (Lydia)

Revival Season by Monica West: A spectacular coming-of-age novel. Miriam’s father, one of the most famous preachers in the South, uses his healing powers to cure people of their diseases. But one summer, the fifteen-year-old Miriam starts to doubt her father’s powers and her faith after witnessing an incident. In the following year and through her painful exploration, Miriam has to confront and resolve the tension between feminism and faith. Revival Season is not only an inner journey of the becoming of a young lady in the South, but also a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family. (Jianan Qian)

Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles: A collection of stories about the rural American west, from Nevada to Colorado, from the 70s to the near future, covering the environmental degradation that in the West, like everywhere, marries ecology, governance, and ideology. (Lydia)

Future Feeling by Joss Lake: With perhaps the most perfect marketing copy of all time, this debut novel brings the saga of “an embittered dog walker obsessed with a social media influencer inadvertently puts a curse on a young man–and must adventure into mysterious dimension in order to save him–in this wildly inventive, delightfully subversive, genre-nonconforming debut novel about illusion, magic, technology, kinship, and the emergent future.” Ben Marcus says of the author, “like every ambitious literary visionary, Lake uses his delirious imagination and potent narrative gifts to sharpen the mirror on how we live and feel now.” (Lydia)

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith: The power of an itinerant narrator—Smith journeys to Monticello, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and downtown Manhattan—is that it reveals slavery’s expansive, geographical legacy. Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator. Smith’s ambitious book is fueled by a humble sense of duty: he sought the wisdom of those who tell of slavery’s legacy “outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks”; public historians who “have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others.” Smith channels the spirit of Toni Morrison here; the writer as one to pass on the word so that it is never forgotten. (Nick R.)

Last Comes the Raven by Italo Calvino (translated by Ann Goldstein): Calvino’s early stories shine here, as with the titular tale, originally published in The Paris Review in 1954: “The stream was a net of limpid, delicate ripples, with the water running through the mesh. From time to time, like a fluttering of silver wings, the dorsum of a trout flashed on the surface, the fish at once plunging zigzag down into the water.” Readers of Calvino know his mercurial ability to move from mimesis to mystery, his syntax full of glorious surprises. (Nick R.)

Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I’m a sucker for both “late-blooming” life stories and plucky protagonists. Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s official bio tells us that she “was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer” before sitting down to write, and her jacket copy describes the Millennial protagonist of her debut novel as “the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes.” Also she’s been both a Pushcart and Glimmer Train story nominee, which to my mind is still mad cred. I’m sold. (Sonya)

Animal by Lisa Taddeo: Following her bestselling Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has written a story of female rage, a novel that illustrates one woman’s evolution from prey to predator. When Joan, the protagonist, sees a man commit violence in front of her, she flees her New York City home, searching for the only person who can help her understand her past. As she unravels the traumatic events of her childhood that shaped her adult life, she starts developing the power to exact revenge. (Thom)

Must-Read Poetry: January 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich 

The book’s first poem, a jaunty etymological journey through the poet’s last name, establishes a folkloric tone to the collection: imagine a trickster who has come from the cold forest one evening to knock on a cabin door. There’s a darkness here foretold by the book’s title, which calls to mind complexity: a God of nothingness, no-thing, absence as an eerie poetic presence. In “Haunted House,” the narrator moves into a home and “gutted it to the bones.” He tore up the floor “to uncover a floor, // sanded tulip poplar to a sheen.” Perhaps that was what stirred the house to “wake,” and its stories came to him: “Now I live here alone with the spirits I cannot see.” Rilke and Roethke haunt this wonderfully melancholic book: “I wanted more—not of summer, // with its swampy air and the nightmare / amphibian whir, but of autumn // with its metallic skies swept with clouds, of the promise of something about to end, // but not yet taken away.” Incantatory, Wunderlich’s poems are perfect for journeying elsewhere—as with “Proposition”: “That the smell of cows drifting in the open window is, indeed, that of a living beast. // That I too am a living beast.” Later: “That we were born suffering, but that we are not meant to suffer.” But what of the title? Where is the no-thing? Everywhere, Wunderlich suggests: “I watch at the edge of the grove, the bees flung out / into the sun. My only life is being spent—today— // the longest day of the year, here on a hill looking out / for a moment and feeling my body unearthed.” Take this book to a silent place, and let yourself go.  

Pretty Tripwire by Alessandra Lynch

Lynch can quickly and effectively render uncomfortable moments. In the long first poem, the narrator considers her fractured childhood, how “Not eating was a sign / of grief / in our house.” Her mother “stunned / thin as a rake draped / with her wedding veil, bruised eye / staring out.” Meanwhile, “mouth / stuffed with a fist / lest someone hear,” she recoils in her bedroom. Soon, checked into the hospital with a “yellow wrist ID for the children’s ward,” she sees that “lovers sailed past, / arm-in-arm, ample with flowers.” Lynch’s usage of ample here reveals her instinct for juxtaposition: the world opening beyond a moment of suffering. This sense returns in “Hymnal”: “Book in my hands—thin / & sleek” and “Whelk of syllable, / silk against my cheek, the book is / ballast.” Again, in the poem “Worry”: a hummingbird’s “tiny body throbbed with sound, fast-heaving, clacking / music.” And yet: was the bird “restless prisoner of air or pioneer?” Can any of us ever know?

The Sunflower Cast A Spell to Save Us From the Void by Jackie Wang

Wang’s debut collection, formally diverse and marked with a sardonic tinge, suggests a porous border between the dream and waking worlds. “Who is the woman lurking in the woods?” she wonders in an early poem, recognizing that she is a “fellow traveler,” for “She is lost and I am lost.” Wang drifts between the real and unreal, documenting an almost Yeatsian interest in that third space, a poetic place between, where the absurd is necessary. She imbues her lines with this hypnotic sense: “In the rain, in her head, an elegy for the not-quite-dead.” Among sentences from Cixous, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and others, Wang outlines a poetics perhaps best captured by her reference to Anne Carson, and her translation of Sappho when “brackets appear in the poems where the papyrus has disintegrated, as papyrus is the structure of dreams. Never intact.”

Stay Safe by Emma Hine 

One particular poem that stayed with me from this nice debut was “A Circling,” an understated tale of a man who was attacked by a shark, a “bite of thigh missing, skin like a spider tried / to stop the hole with web.” The narrator can barely look at her great-uncle after seeing his wound, but she becomes so attached to his presence: “By the time he’d died, I’d memorized his shape in the recliner, / the pattern of beer bottles across his floor. Mapping / his aftermath like a frontier.” I’ve been thinking about that dissonance, that looking but not looking, and it is an apt way to consider Hine’s method: a catalogue of bodies spent and passed, of sisters, of those who “want to say that together / we could be two words / the sort that hold hands / but still keep their original meanings.” Hine often returns to shared scars, body markings; in “Still,” the narrator thinks about how her great-grandmother, while nursing her grandmother, saw a foot-long centipede “falling toward her / from a branch, its back-plates twisting.” She moves away the baby, and the centipede, “segmented and heavy, / landed on her exposed breast.” It left a scar that never vanished; Hine’s collection captures that feeling.

Not for Luck by Derek Sheffield 

Sheffield is very adept at finely crafting scenes as the spaces for poems (they expand beyond the time and place of these scenes, but they feel syntactically rooted and united, one by one in the book). An early poem in the collection, “The Scientists Gather at Mount St. Helens,” opens with a question—“What does it mean?”—asked by one of the scientists amid “the wind / of a gray plain” while they look at the “crater’s living steam.” The patchwork of “shrubby trees” among “the clean white spikes / of the countless dead” stand behind them. The poem’s structure suggests a theme and method for Sheffield: what does it mean to be within a world that exists beyond us, longer than us? Melancholy pieces live among heartfelt moments, as in “Daughter and Father in Winter”: “we clap the stuttering // snaps of the kindling / coming to life in the stove.” Later: “More river than daughter / her arms fill with treasures” of rocks, “her pockets // already clack-and-bristle.” Poetry to make you long for moments in the wild. 

The Visible Woman by Allison Funk 

Funk’s newest collection begins with a statement against vanishing; the narrator summons a woman “rib by rib, scapula, tibia,” but “she turns and speeds away / like someone fleeing fire.” The poem establishes an immediate and lasting paradox of body and spirit, request and rejection. In “The Visible Woman,” she affirms: “Mine, too, is a story / of how we disappear” as she considers her childhood assembly kit for an anatomical model of a woman. It was a woman fully revealed, and she now longs “to go back to when I was ten, / to start all over with the bones, / the brain, the heart in two parts / I’m trying to glue together.” Funk often returns to the body as a source of wonder, fear, and possibility. The narrator’s father in “Blood” goes pale at the sight of any of the titular fluid, “so I learned / to hide my wounds—scraped knees, / little playground injuries, even gashes / that needed stitching.” In “Vespers,” she partially laments: “This late I’m still not in the body / I’m trying to occupy.” This sense comes back in “A Nun’s Prayer,” a revision from Psalm 22: “My God my God,” she calls, “I am poured out // bones heart breast // they stare and gloat over me.” Women are forever revealed in these poems. 

A Year in Reading: Anthony Veasna So

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Editor’s note: The writer Anthony Veasna So passed away unexpectedly on December 8. We are publishing his Year in Reading entry with this note from his partner, Alex Torres. Anthony’s friends and family have created a memorial fund to establish scholarships in Anthony’s name.

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When I met Anthony in college, back in 2014, he was taking a class on Moby Dick. In between making penis jokes (his not-so-subtle way of flirting), he’d go on about the beauty of individual sentences and words, like “portentous.” He’d say that nothing was more beautiful than Melville’s images of squeezing sperm. 

Anthony thought it was “beyond stupid” (his words, not mine) to read the entire book, so he read the Cetology chapter (the one where Ishmael goes on and on about the zoology of whales) about 20 times instead. He loved details and tangents; he had faith in digressions. He never finished Moby Dick, but if I’m being honest I doubt that Anthony finished any book, except of course for the books that formed his teaching load.

The reading habit that he talks about in this essay started with Moby Dick. Instead of finishing our required reading that quarter, we’d stay up late, watch the first season of Broad City, and talk about Moby Dick during the commercials. (“So is Ishmael more of an Abbi or Ilana?” I remember asking.)

Last February, Anthony and I started fine-tuning the plot of his new novel while eating vegan sushi. I suggested that he read a few passages from some of my favorite books: Orlando Furioso, Invisible Man, and The Savage Detectives. For fun, he recommended that I read The Friend, which I devoured in one sitting. (“How can you binge read like that?” he’d always ask me). Anthony never finished the books I recommended to him, but he’d read my favorite passages–covered in pencil marks and pretentious sticky notes–over and over again, until he was ready to start writing.  

It feels strange to me that Anthony’s “Year in Reading” is the last essay I watched him write, that it’s the last essay he will ever write. He wrote individual paragraphs in between baking a Thanksgiving vegetable tart and completing an ab regimen he learned from Crossfit. The morning before he finished the essay, as we were walking to pick up cold brews from the French cafe around the corner from our apartment in the Mission, he told me that he was going to include his favorite Gatsby anecdote in the essay. “The one from high school?” I asked, confirming what I already knew. 

Now as I read the essay I think back to Anthony, the 21-year-old hopeless romantic who would text me flirty “Mobius Penis” jokes while he was supposed to be reading hundreds of pages of Moby Dick.

I like to think that Anthony couldn’t finish Moby Dick because he was falling hopelessly in love with me. But if you asked him, he’d probably say he never finished the book–or any book–because I wouldn’t shut up. 

-Alex Torres, December 23, 2020

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This year I have started almost a hundred books and finished none of them. It’s not a terrible way to live as a writer with political and aesthetic aims of the lofty, masochistic variety, whose first novel draft will definitely push the limits of digestible length. Call it reading not as binge-worthy commitment, not proof of literary engagement—indulgent showboating, at its worst—but instead as a mode of aesthetic encountering. I actually recommend everyone to stop taking books so seriously, so monogamously, as though the price of hardcovers were only justified through the number of titles logged into Goodreads. Never have I been more productive as a lover of prose.

Before I continue, I do want to say: maybe not entirely my fault! I did attend a crowded public high school where teachers assigned few novels or full-length plays a year. During sophomore year, my English class spent two months on The Great Gatsby but never chewed on the tragic death of its eponymous schmuck, as the library recalled our copies to give to another class of forty students. (Our teacher, making up for this glaring hole in our Western cultural education, later devoted a week’s worth of instruction to watching the 1974 film adaptation; somehow, our class was denied, yet again, the epiphanic experience of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ending, however diluted by David Merrick’s sterile and wack direction. The next semester our teacher resigned herself to sending our class off into the SSR woods. As in silent sustained reading. As in the educational cornerstone of elementary language arts, of second graders learning to concentrate and sit frozen with stoic obedience.) Even my AP Literature seminar of college-bound seniors focused on just two books: Hamlet and Invisible Man. While I remember this teacher somewhat fondly, she was not equipped to riff on Black characters and the failures of white-centered Marxism.

And before I self-incriminate any further: I swear (as a courtesy to my editor and agent and public-facing persona, as well as the privacy of my literary group chats, not to forget the boyfriend who hates how far-reaching my dumb, petty mouth often stretches), truly, emphatically, that these past months of noncommittal reading have little to do with hot takes on big four publishing conglomerates. Or the nihilism of overeducated, philosophy queer bros I sometimes, unfortunately, find myself guilty of affecting.

Anyway, it’s true! My mushy quarantine brain has been commandeered by a fuck-boy approach to literature. I remain incapable of finishing novels and poetry collections, memoirs and nonfiction books and academic monographs, or, at my most scattered, single short stories, even those written by dear friends. At any given moment, thirty to fifty tabs—usually the preview pages of books I’ve marked to buy or borrow from the library, which land on my radar at the recommendation of peers and mentors whose literary tastes I adore—are left open in Google Chrome for weeks on end, maybe months. I also sabotaged four book clubs, one of them organized by yours truly.


Through a number of these books I made a not insignificant, not not respectable, headway, having consumed a chunk of their words before dropping their characters and speakers like I did a majority of my high school graduating class—with zero notions of ill-will. Hopefully, someday, I will finish every book I started. Perhaps when I write to the ending of my novel. While tinkering with my opening pages, I read so many first pages while stoned in my neighborhood bookstore. Several weeks later, when I got stranded in the gulf between chapters two and three, I proceeded to the next fifty pages of half of these same books. Each time my dialogue comes out stilted I read bangers from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. All I want is for my characters to speak like Frank O’Hara.


To formulate my novel’s voice, the narrator’s range of telling, I hopped through Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Danez Smith’s Homie, James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. Its structure: I got a third of the way into those collected interviews of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Its ancestors: a combined thirty pages of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, before I realized how hopeless it was to locate heirs for my stoner novel about queer Khmer Americans. Might as well be my own daddy.


Okay, I misrepresented. I trekked to the endings of a few novels. Right as I was passing the ten-year mark for my high school graduation, I reread Invisible Man and finally understood just how little I had learned in AP Literature. How the fuck did I miss so much of Ellison’s genius? I asked myself, overwhelmed by this epic I’ve always thought to be a favorite of mine. I guess understanding has nothing on profound impact.


Then I read The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It’s absurd to me that I’ve cast aside dozens of novels and somehow finished two dense behemoths. Maybe I just vibe with lost narrators full of hope. Like Ellison’s narrator, I want to believe that “when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Like Augie, I haplessly take wisdom from those who cannot guide me. Too bad over 1.5 million people died in the Cambodian genocide.


I did love Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Or maybe I loved knowing the characters of this kaleidoscopic novel. Maybe I need to record the lives of as many archetypal Khmer queers I can imagine.


I should return to the books I have yet to finish! The first story of David Means’s collection Instructions for a Funeral, “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950,” dazzled me with its slow hypnotic recursion, its dilation of time that ebbs and flows with every sucker punch, every decline and uptick of glorious, pathetic testosterone. I don’t understand how others can so easily open this collection without spending all their time basking, cheering, stepping inside those fighting passages. And I felt a similar sensation, this devotion for swaggering, cocky syntax, while immersed within Luster. That breathless account of delivery gigs and mishaps, it dead-ass bullied me into dropping Raven Leilani’s debut novel and working on my own. I was slapped by that whirlwind of manic energy and meaning-making the protagonist, Edie, conveys from one drop-off spot to the next until she slams hard against the guarded stony walls of her fuck buddy.


Speaking of sentences, I’m stuck on the first line of Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House. I’m a love-sick idiot. I can’t break from this absurd romantic loop. The cosmic movement from aerial shots to the home address that Broom knows best—that “scab of green” where her brother, Rabbit, her brother, Carl, can be found sitting “poised on an ice chest,” this lone man of two names always searching and fishing for wonder—was enough to plant the seeds of my own essay collection that’s now already germinating.

I admit I am a selfish reader. I consume literature for the sustenance of my own writing. Maybe I should be more respectful of these stories and their authors and take them all on their own terms of understanding. I should lock my feet into those proverbial shoes of others not myself the way my sophomore English teacher, for the betterment of our society, dictated my class to do.


Still, I’ve always thought of total empathy as overrated. That it teaches one to care, sure, but never to build intimacy that accommodates for unknowability. At least not without bleaching nuance with bloated universal ideas. Plus I try not to befriend those who seek listeners and nothing else—not collaborators, not intellectual and cultural exchange—because I love dialogue! How awesome to witness Sigrid Nunez match the genius of The Friend with What Are You Going Through? Thank god Nunez granted her narrator the freedom of generous interiority, emotional responses, visceral thinking. Pretty sadistic if the narrator were forced to comfort a dying, suicidal friend with her inner voice gagged and duct-taped into silence.

Fuck, what the hell do I know? I’ve been on page 130 for months. Of course—I hate to say—that didn’t stop me from praising this novel to everyone I could.

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A Year in Reading: Martha Anne Toll

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Pandemic, Uprisings, Election. 300,000 senseless deaths and
untold senseless misery, Black America demanding to be heard and honored, The
Election. I got COVID, was sick for a couple of months, recovered, and leaned
into audiobooks—blessedly available from our shuttered libraries—as I tried to
regain stamina. In 2020, as in all other years, books were tonic and balm,
escape, and lifeblood. I tend to group them in categories, even as categories
are both useless and limiting.

OBITUARY READS. I find gems reading writers’ obits, which I see as carrying on their legacy rather than a morbid fascination with death. A standout this year was Tunisian-French-Jewish-Arab writer Albert Memmi, who died at age 99. His autobiographical novel The Pillar of Salt (translated by Edouard Roditi) is a rich mélange of growing up poor and Jewish in the heart of a thriving polyglot city, the smells and tastes of Tunisian cooking, a young man’s thirst for education, and an interrogation of colonial oppression. I read my first Harold Bloom (I’d been avoiding him for years)—Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine—a fascinating exploration of cultural appropriation (Christianity appropriating Judaism). And while these do not qualify as Obit Reads, I’ll lump them here: The House of Childhood by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (translated by Anni Whissen), a weird and wonderful dreamlike visit to childhood, and Animal Farm by George Orwell (uncomfortably prescient).

GRIEF. This year, there was plenty to go around. I loved Grief’s Country: A Memoir in Pieces by Gail Griffin, a blunt and searing look at widowhood; Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a deeply humanitarian approach to treating trauma through identifying how the body holds it; The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir by Sara Seager, a renowned astrophysicist who weaves her journey to find life in the outer reaches of the universe with her trail through marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and beyond.

MUSIC. I caught up with Stanley Crouch’s gorgeously written Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. I loved the short, insightful essays in concert pianist Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, and the shimmering writing in Wolf Wondratschek’s Self Portrait with Russian Piano (translated by Marshall Yarbrough). I was curious to learn about iconic twentieth century pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s young male lover in Lea Singer’s novel The Piano Student (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) and I luxuriated in the beauty of Philip Kennicott’s Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning.

MEMOIR. I found Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers an elegantly composed, intense and important memoir about child sexual abuse, growing up Filipino in America, and so much more. I was struck by the craft and power in Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, fragmented essays about injured family and love relationships and the strains of stereotype and career. Written in fast paced, accessible prose, Sopan Deb’s Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me is a world-spanning effort to understand the parents he couldn’t know as a child. I adored poet Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, a heartrending revisiting of her mother’s murder; essayist Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, a loving and eloquent look back at the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and poet Mark Doty’s What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, a gorgeously written memoir organized around Doty’s lifelong adoration of America’s troubadour.

NONFICTION. I was riveted by Karen Armstrong’s deep dive into the development, role, and meaning of scriptural interpretation across the world’s major religions in The Lost Art of Scripture, and astounded by the complex communications amongst trees explored in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World (translated by Jane Billinghurst). Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures is a gripping, turn-your-world-upside-down-and-inside-out examination of some of earth’s smallest life forms. As a scientific neophyte, I appreciated Neil deGrasse Tyson’s clear explanations in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. And Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, a must-read for we white people grappling with our own racism.

NOVELS [mostly]. There are too many to do justice here, but here are some I found memorable: André Aciman’s beautifully written Call Me by Your Name (gay coming of age story, movie about same) and Mitchell James Kaplan’s Into the Unbounded Night (a sweeping and absorbing investigation into early Roman Christianity as it split off from Judaism). Donna Miscolta’s linked short story collection, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, manages to be both light and serious in its treatment of a young Mexican immigrant facing prejudice that threatens her dreams. I was totally taken in by Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (critical insights into the pain surrounding the act of passing); and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (in lovely prose, a scientist probes race and drug addiction and the meaning of family). Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a marvelous celebration of Black womanhood and love; Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is a brilliantly structured takedown of Chinese stereotypes, Andrew Krivak’s stark and stunning The Bear follows the last girl on earth; Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue covers life in an East African refugee camp, replete with societal taboos, sibling bonds, and the mysteries of language and silence. I listened to Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels which he reads in laugh-out-loud-while-you-cry astonishing family storytelling that I hated to finish. My introduction to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula were also through listening. In an incredibly generous gift to her readers, Morrison narrates these novels herself. I hope I can hold onto the sound of her voice forever. And finally, I read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss for the first time. The drama! The agony! The misogyny! The biting social commentary! The pathos! Maybe I needed to wait this long to begin my love affair with her. I’m already infatuated with Daniel Deronda and I’ve only just begun.

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A Year in Reading: Mamta Chaudhry

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Coronavirus has changed our lives in many ways and it has surely transformed our notion of time, as hours and days blend into each other like the melting timepieces in Dalí’s famous painting, intriguingly titled The Persistence of Memory. Both time and memory are central to my novel, Haunting Paris, where the ghost narrator measures time by a spectral clock, an unearthly calendar, and since we tend to read through the prism of our own preoccupations (okay, obsessions), that inevitably colored much of my reading and re-reading this year.

Naturally I turned once more to Marcel Proust’s iconic work on time and memory, and though I usually pick up the first volume, Swann’s Way, this time I began with the last, Time Regained. It’s interesting how the two different translations of the title—In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past—emphasize time in the first instance, and memory in the second. I’ll confess I prefer the second: though not strictly literal, it is sublimely literary, a phrase from a Shakespeare sonnet that I love. And also it signals the ways in which we restore what is lost to time’s depredations, through the associative nature of memory, whether a madeleine dipped in tea, or stumbling on uneven paving stones. At a time when I’m housebound and only my imagination is free to roam, it is head-spinning to read the phrase, “if our life is vagabond our memory is sedentary” and wonder if in our ceaseless rush forward, these are days, too, that will be indelibly etched in our minds.

The Plague by Albert Camus was sold out and on backorder at my local bookstore. When I finally got my copy, I read it in a very different frame of mind from readings past, when a plague of sorts was only theoretical. It clearly resonates with our present situation:  the initial bafflement, official inaction, fearful acceptance, but also a recognition of being cut off not just from the rest of the world, but from a feeling of normalcy in our own lives. The plague brought in its wake to the city of Oran “that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” As Camus describes people longing for the doorbell to ring, for someone to arrive on a train, waiting itself becomes the central action when all comings and goings are curtailed or forbidden.

Although travel is out of the question for the foreseeable future, with my trips to India and France canceled I’ve found myself transported there by books. Two novels set in India gave me a different perspective on the land of my birth, one set in a small fishing village in the coastal south (Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi), a part of India less familiar to me; the other in the teeming city of Calcutta where I was born and brought up (A Burning by Megha Majumdar). The former is a story about family secrets and the long shadow they cast on the present, the latter about how increasingly nationalistic political and social forces can destroy an innocent person caught up in a web of circumstance. Amazing how foreign a familiar place can seem.

It’s equally amazing how a foreign country can sometimes feel like home when you have wonderful writers as traveling companions. I’ve long admired her short stories, but I read the novel Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant for the first time this year (published along with A Fairly Good Time), and it was a wonderful find, a story of an American mother and daughter in Europe and the complicated notions of family whether at home or abroad. As for Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling, if you haven’t yet come across this laugh-out-loud book about food and the French in 1920’s Paris by the legendary writer for The New Yorker, then you’re in for a literary and culinary feast. Every time I read it, I think, c’est délicieux!

Doomscrolling the news left me little time or mental energy to focus on my own writing, but books about books and writers remain catnip to me. My reading list skews more heavily to fiction than non-fiction, but The Library Book by Susan Orlean, about a devastating fire in the Los Angeles public library, reads like fiction, part history, part mystery, but in any case a page-turner, large in sweep and scope. On a smaller scale, an old favorite, Look at Me by Anita Brookner, is also set in a library, and features a librarian whose keen ear and satiric eye turn her into a writer. And I really loved the travails of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, in which the protagonist is stuck and cannot finish the introduction to an anthology of poetry. I know the feeling.

One thing 2020 emphatically was not: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel is titled.  It’s been more like my year of unrest and vexation, so I’ve looked for comfort wherever I could: in a well-worn garment, faded and soft, or in binge-watching the Great British Bake-Off even though I’ve never mixed a batch of cake batter, or in reaching for books that calm my soul. I have always found balm in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. With the arrival of Jack, the Gilead trilogy is now a quartet. We already know from the earlier books how the story ends, yet the love story of Jack and Della, revealed mostly through their long, intimate conversations, is compellingly spotlighted, even though as an interracial couple their love is exiled to the shadows. Jack, who refers to himself as the Prince of Darkness, feels he deserves no forgiveness for his scapegrace past; a minister tells him that punishment is in God’s hands, but if He is “showing you a little grace in the meantime, He probably won’t mind if you enjoy it.” This note of grace, characteristic of Marilynne Robinson, is a welcome reminder that now that the longest night of this year is behind us, we can look towards the light.

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A Year in Reading: Davey Davis

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As trans writers, we are expected to reduce our lives to narratives (“born in the wrong body,”) and practices (gratuitous deadnaming) that maximize cis titillation. This expectation hamstrings all of us, not only cliche-ifying even the best of memoir but precluding other forms of storytelling. If the world had its way, trans writers would only produce journeys, and two of the most interesting books I read in 2020 wouldn’t exist. 

Indie heroine Torrey Peters sidesteps rather than destroys convention with the hotly anticipated Detransition, Baby (One World, 2021), an intelligent and daring subversion of the bourgeois novel about three Brooklynites—cis, trans, and otherwise—trying to create a queer family of their own. Peters’s mastery of her craft is undeniable in that the world she has created recreates the world around it: Baby presupposes the possibility of mainstream conversations about trans people that are almost as sophisticated as the ones we have amongst ourselves. 

“Whip-smart” is just one of the many flattering adjectives and fawning superlatives people are going to overuse for this wise book by a glamorous, fascinating woman, and who can blame them? Its incisive exploration of chasers, divorce, trauma, queer parenting, and detransition itself is going to play a role in defining the literature of 2021 and beyond. 

You’ll have to wait an additional year for Manhunt (Nightfire, 2022), the electrifying debut novel by horror author and critic Gretchen Felker-Martin. At 500+ pages, Manhunt’s breakneck worldbuilding brings to life a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which a viral plague has transformed all cis men into zombies. Following Beth, Fran, and Robbie, trans people fighting to survive (and, in the cases of Beth and Fran, harvest life-saving hormones from zombie testicles), Felker-Martin’s foul-mouthed, operatically visceral writing style foregrounds the gnarly stuff, rendering the occasional glimpses of beauty all the more precious. You’ll feel like you’ve earned every bit of happiness you can wring from its bloodied pages.

Manhunt takes me back to rainy grade-school afternoons at the Butte County Public Library (Raymond Carver branch), where I would curl up in an empty chair and lose time in Stephen King’s own armageddon epic, The Stand, peopled with plague, demons, and desperate humans. Before now, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that imagines people like me in the world that comes next. I definitely haven’t read one by an author with Felker-Martin’s talent for interlacing the terrors that trans people face with the redemption we deserve.

A Year in Reading: Iľja Rákoš

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In contrast to most years and the reassuring ebb and flow of
good fortune and ill—never too good, never too ill—that attends them, this year
produced some honest-to-God awfulness like no other in memory. My life, at least,
had a definable low point: The day I got lost in the neighborhood I’ve lived in
for the better part of two decades.

I’d been out of the hospital following (let’s call it) treatment for COVID-19 about a month. My hospital ward of 50 patients had one oxygen concentrator. Despite my blood-oxygen saturation levels of 90%, that device wasn’t coming my way anytime soon. I checked myself out and went home.

God is good: I got better.

Anyway, I’d been out about a month and had just read a short
interview with the Minister of Health where he claimed that Ukrainian hospitals
had only enough supplemental oxygen for 38% of all hospitalized Covid patients.
(We can argue about this [you will lose], but I maintain there is no more
entertaining or original fiction than that produced by Ministers quoting
statistics.) Rage sufficiently fueled I went out for a walk.

At some point on that walk things went foggy. I found myself
standing on a street I didn’t recognize, shopping in my right hand, on my left a
small boy with an oddly familiar face. We found a bench and sat, the boy
singing the line “do you know the way to San Jose, I’ve been away so long…”
over and over. I dug through the shopping bag. Two bath towels. Half a kilo of
dates and three packages of spices—cumin, berberis, and fennel. A prescription
for eyeglasses.  A kilogram of black
beans. “Black beans won’t aggravate your arthritic knee,” said a voice and the
fog lifted. My five-year-old and I walked home.

The fugue state held no fear, no sense of urgency that I had
to be somewhere other than where I was right at that moment. Since then,
however, things have turned a little shaky. I’ve gotten lost twice more—streets
I’ve walked ten-thousand times rendered into foreign territory—yet it is
difficult to recall other junctures in my life where I had felt that peaceful.
Gone were a head filled with obligations and shattered deadlines. However, just
as gone were a slew of forgotten, crisply imagined paragraphs generated on long
walks, along with all frustration at the weather, the government, the maskless.

Not gone is a kind of fuzzy certainty that I read a lot of
good books this year. My neurologist assures me that I will, in time, remember
them.

That’s the long way around to saying that I can only
recommend, with any confidence seven books that I (re)read this year. I read
more, certainly. The signs are there: Dog-eared pages; old book festival
bookmarks; marginalia in my handwriting, these occasionally in the opaque-to-outsiders
and comforting familiarity of a dead language I’ve battled with for 40-plus
years. The signs are there. It’s the books and any substantive recollection of
what is in most of them them that are obscured.

But the titles below stuck somehow. Others should be on this
list but brainfog (as a friend from back home describes it) prevents
their inclusion. It would be dishonest to say that as I write these paragraphs
that I know why I had thought to recommend them. There is good
news: I get to read them again.

I look forward to that.

*****

The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray – Murray, I have learned, took a lot of heat for this collection of essays first published in 1970. It should take the perceptive reader no more than the length of the first essay to discover why. But if you, like me, are befuddled if not worn down by the “more heat than light” tone of the American socio-cultural dialog and desire some clarity of both thought and prose on the matter, this is your book.

Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen – If Masha Gessen is not on some prohibitive list of leading American public intellectuals then there must not be any such list. Drawing on Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s concept of the “Mafia State” to describe post-Communist regimes, Gessen has given us in this brief volume an essential primer for effective civic engagement in the 2020s. Their critique of western institutions is sharp, their credentials to issue it indisputable, and wow, can they write. Clear, crisp prose from a mind that we should all be glad is on our side. A sample:

In the Trump era, there is no past and no future, no history and no vision—only the anxious present. There can be no hopes, dreams, and ideals where there is no shared reality; and there is no political community where there is only the self-obsessed and endlessly self-referential president.

Missionaries by Phil Klay – They say that organized religion has a lot in common with making war— plodding, chaotic enterprises led by egomaniacs and driven in equal measure by true belief and opportunism. In Missionaries, Klay draws on that characterization and freshens it up with personal insight into the particular and abstract motives that fuel the urge to make war or to be just close enough to it to profit from the carnage. One take: this is a story about war and geopolitics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Venezuela. Another take: This is a hard look at human nature and its attempts at establishing political order—a phenomenon long marked by graphic violence, personal betrayal, and pathetic frailty. Concocted of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, the Old Testament, 21st-century geopolitics, and Rage Against the Machine, Missionaries is that rare kind of muscular fiction that manages to heal even as it wounds.

To Remain Nameless by Brad Fox – This debut novel beautifully navigates the difficulty of telling a thoroughly modern story built on an ancient conceptual superstructure—that of hope, grace, and the urge to do the right thing. Fox’s characters circle the earth in pursuit of a righteous objective whose elusiveness can never supplant its desirability—precisely, the ache to accomplish something meaningful with the time given us. Tess and Laura have seen the world, perhaps too much of it, and have now entered a period of reflection, of reassessment, and of labor pains coming two minutes apart. (There’s nothing quite like the arrival of a baby to help recast the grandest of abstract global ambitions down to the particular.) Told with casual authority and a smart, tension-building economy, Fox has given us a novel for our age: a world of hurt, crushing need all around, and no work more vital than that of keeping hope alive. Thanks to Rescue Press for recognizing the need, and finding the place, for storytelling like this.

Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman – The concept of faith gets a bad shake in contemporary culture. In Europe, they’ve replaced it with naïve empiricism. In the east, it’s buried in self-mystification or impenetrable ritual. In America, they’ve sugared it up and rendered it in soft focus. Inevitabilities, one and all. The good thing is that this has created a place in the world for the verse of Christian Wiman—poetry where spiritual, non-empirical conviction, aka ‘faith’, comes out swinging, raging off the page and reinforcing the homely dignity of just being alive, created in God’s image, and not about to go out without a fight. Not for the faint of heart. One couplet:

O God / Make of my anguish / more than I can make.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – For a collection that “the philosopher king” never wrote as such, in a format he never intended, the marginalia and aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius have stood the test of time. These snippets—their generosity, their foresight, their maturity, their grace—have carried me through Covid recovery. Meditations should be required reading for any person who seeks public office or, really, any sphere of human agency.

Isaiah by Isaiah – When I was a child, my pastor sussed out some ability in me for memorization and began assigning me big chunks of the Old Book. Whole chapters of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms for recitation. That was 47 years ago. This October, COVID hit me particularly hard and I was shuttled off to a Ukrainian triage hospital for treatment in conditions I wouldn’t subject a rabid dog to. In the place I was assigned to there was no prospect of receiving timely medical care, but there was no alternative—no other available beds anywhere. I was in a room with four more sick, hacking men, all of us over 50. There were no plastic barriers, masks, or other precautions taken. Just lie there, (try to) breathe each other’s air, eat your cornmeal in the a.m. But Isaiah—poetry of nearly three millennia past of a rigor and beauty that is incomparable—was in my head and on my lips. Its recollection, its recitation, was essential to my return home. Prove me wrong. Better yet, find it in the Authorized Version in English, aka “The King James Bible,” and prove yourself wrong.

+RIP John le Carré, aka David Cornwell+

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A Year in Reading: Vanessa Veselka

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I grew up in New York and all year thought of the library across the street from my childhood with its library flag and librarian who told our four-grade class that Turkish fairytales started with Once there was and twice there wasn’t… This is how I hope we will speak of 2020. I have been lucky where others haven’t, but because I am a human, I don’t feel spared. This may also be because I work at a nursing home workers’ union and the wrongness of what we do to poor people is on full display.

At the height of the pandemic in New
York, I desperately missed the city and wanted to move back, but it is still
true that I cannot afford to live in the city I grew up in. Some of the books I
read this year, I first read there years ago.

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

After several attempts at age twelve, I succeeded in reading all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels over two weeks in my late teens. Reading them altogether they became one novel, full of wide-open-beavers, overlooked-novelists, spree-shooters, spaceships, and a deep and sometimes illustrated critique of patriotism, capitalism, and war.

This year, I reread Slaughterhouse-Five and am finally able to separate it from all others. The novel is drawn from Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war during the fire-bombing of Dresden.

Disorientation is common repeated trauma. The simple fact that someone was alive yesterday and yet is not alive today, was in line at the grocery store Friday talking too loudly on their cell phone, and silent forever today, is uncommunicable. This is probably why there are spacemen shaped like toilet plungers from a planet called Tralfamadore. The wide-open beavers and spree shooters, it seems, are in Breakfast of Champions.

Tamara Shopsin’s, Arbitrary Stupid Goal, is a memoir about growing up in an iconic, family-run restaurant in Greenwich Village. It captures the neighborhood of those years, still sheltered by rent-control, and filled with diverse, aggressively eccentric people. At the memoir’s heart is the world created by Kenny and Eve Shopsin, and Shopsin’s General Store, a place where conversation has always been a contact-sport.

In full disclosure, I was afraid to read Arbitrary Stupid Goal when it came out because I knew the place and people well. It is also part of my childhood. But it was an arbitrary stupid fear. The book is magnificent. Shopsin’s storytelling is disciplined and economical; she pushes right up to the edge of a universal truth then leaves you to throw your own self over the cliff. Kenny Shopsin used to yell across the restaurant, “I’m not a cook! I’m a fucking philosopher!” Tamara Shopsin is as well.  

Along the lines of philosophy and memory and ethics, I was reading The Essential Talmud when its author, rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a revered Talmudic scholar, died. One of the things I find beautiful about the Talmud is its devotion to preserving minority opinions. Its referees, the rabbis and sages, settle disputes, but leave room for arguing over the calls, because you may not have the full view; what’s right in this moment of seeing a situation may turn out not to be right. The Essential Talmud is an elegantly organized overview of the Talmud’s history and the types of disputes it takes up.

I also read The Midrash Says: The Book of Beraishis and others in that collection. Like the Talmud, Midrash is set of Jewish texts that underpin Rabbinic Judaism. While the Talmud takes up arguments over the infinite and the infinitesimal though, Midrash reads more like Torah fanfiction. It fills in back-stories and spends time in weird places with side characters; it repairs holes in the logic and answers nitpicky questions from rabbis. Humanity and humor and everyday bad decisions come to light. Where the Torah describes Abraham giving up idol-worshiping, and the Talmud digs in on the parameters of idolatry, Midrash tells us that Abraham’s father was an idol maker—and as we all know, sons often rebel against fathers. 

When the stories seem the most
reprehensible, Midrash expands into them, adding layers. Abraham simply
misunderstood God and he was never being asked to slaughter his son; Hagar was
not abandoned and ended up back with Abraham. As if tracing a ghostly body of
ethical longing with a human desire to repair and understand, Midrash points
toward the story that should have been. It marks, marking all the places where
we are uncomfortable with what happened, where the stories we tell ourselves,
that we were right, that we did right, don’t add up, responding to generations
of questioners asking: How can that be fair?

Everything else I read this year was a “How-To” book, as in, How-To: withhold Labor and topple the robber barons sucking the life out of the working-class of this country. They were No Short Cuts and A Collective Bargain by Jane McAlevey, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone by Leon Fink, and Confessions of a Union Buster by Martin Jay Levitt.

McAlevey’s work in general focuses on the power of the strike, and how to organize a super-majorities of workers militant enough to transform their relationship to capitalism. She has a great critique of “mobilizing” (as opposed to organizing) and shows how the move to advocacy models within unions cuts workers off from their true base of power. So there.

A Collective Bargain opens with a quote from Confessions of a Union Buster, so I went back and reread that one.  What union-busters do to people’s minds and lives and relationships is hard to explain with the full force of how it is experienced by workers. The author, Martin Jay Levitt, says it best:

The enemy was the collective spirit. I got ahold of that spirit and while it was a seedling I poisoned it; I choked it; I bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united workforce…

When John Lennon started organizing with the 1972 voter-registration drive to take out Nixon, he began to have elaborate fantasize about the FBI following him and tapping his phone. The FBI was behind every tree, putting people around him that weren’t who they said they were, having fake human interactions because they were infiltrators that had no skin in the emotional game (See: Dwayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions). But even Lennon thought might just be on a megalomaniacal bender. After all, he was smoking an enormous amount pot that year, and anyway, he was a frikkin’ Beatle – so come at me, man!

Only everything Lennon was imagining turned out to be true.
And they were setting him up for drug charges. But knowing he was not crazy,
and that what he thought was happening actually was happening, that was worth a
lot.

This is how many union organizers felt when Confessions of a Union Buster came out.

The book the describes what had been only felt, a
coordinated, campaign of psychological warfare inflicted on poor people to keep them
from demanding a $0.25 an hour raise. It demystified the tactics of that only
the FBI, or a million-dollar campaign in the hands of experienced union busters
can provide.

The story of how the book came to be is also great. Levitt, after
decades of crushing the collective spirit wherever he found it, was struggling
with alcoholism and hit bottom. As part of his recovery, he had to make amends
for being a horrible person, so he contacted the ALF-CIO and asked what he
could do to make things right. They didn’t believe him and suspected this was
just another devious attempt to ruin workers’ lives. Write a book, they said.
Do speaking tours. And he did. 

I also skimmed Upheaval in the Quiet Zone this year, which is the story of how the most militant hospital workers’ union in the country began. I reread it because I needed to be reminded that healthcare workers had no collective bargaining rights. They had to strike to get them and all of their strikes were illegal.

In the dreamland between memory and extraction capital, the labor of the workplace and the labor of giving birth, is Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation. In it, there is a plague of sleeplessness. Nightmares scour the psyche of American citizens and people begin to die of sleep deprivation. The nation mobilizes to address the crisis but there seems to be no cure for the horrors plaguing the American unconscious until they figure out how to extract the dreams of babies and inject it into adults. This is where the novella starts. It continues with the genius of all of Russell’s work, weird, original, and offering a deep wisdom into the human experience on every page.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

A Year in Reading: Sejal Shah

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It’s been a hard year to read (for me, to focus) even with many astounding-sounding books and also a challenging year to publish a book (which I also did). In the hardest parts of the pandemic, I retreated to the bathtub with Epsom salts. Reading in the bathtub helped me get through many difficult times and years: since my twenties, it’s been a reliable way to self-soothe.

This
is not comprehensive, but here’s some of what I read, in and out of the tub,
with a focus on nonfiction and essays.

In the beginning of the year, I read Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book. Even though I know a lot of writers, there’s so much I didn’t know about publishing a book. I started an internship at Beacon Press in college, but decided it was too much time to be unpaid. Would it have better prepared me to understand the business? I’ll never know. What I do know is that I’m grateful for this book. Maum’s book dealt with all parts of the process: blurbs, galleys, agents, websites. I especially appreciated the section on handling email (and Paul W. Morris’s contribution to how he deals with email, Boomerang, scheduling, color-coding).

Maum also includes specific advice from and for queer writers, women, and writers of color, all of which I found helpful. In the final chapter, publishing professionals and authors share their best take-aways for debut authors. Julie Buntin, editor of Book Deal (and also my former student from a zillion years ago), wisely noted “It’s a kind of trauma, making that part of yourself public. Being a writer in the world, it’s a privilege, but it’s not gentle. It’s a really heavy experience.” That resonated. If you or someone you love has a book forthcoming, please get this guide!

Also in January, I read Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning in preparation for interviewing Cathy Park Hong–the first interview I’d done in years. I found the range of her essays and their subjects astonishing, invigorating, and inspiring. Like many of us, I was waiting for this book and its fighting words. In the first essay, “United”: “This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk. Our race has nothing to do with this country, even, which is why we’re often listed as “Other” in polls.” And from “The Indebted,” the final essay in the book: “At what cost do I have this life? At what toll have I been granted this safety?”

I
can’t remember what I read in February.

At the start of the pandemic, I fell back on rereading as talisman and comfort. I reread bell hooks’s title essay, ‘”talking back” from her 1989 book, talking back; thinking feminist, thinking black. There is a tradition of women writing and claiming speech, particularly for Black women, that I took refuge in: “in black communities (and diverse ethnic communities), women have not been silent.” hooks’ essay reminded me, through all the various stresses on mind and body, to keep going.

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and looked at the images, the white space. A favorite sentence: “The route is often associative.” And “Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.”

From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, I reread “Stranger in the Village” and  “Autobiographical Notes.” From the latter: “I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” Underlined. This felt helpful to reread this year.

In March or April, I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. There were few continuous narratives I was able to pick up and stay with this year: I loved falling into the structure and world of Machado’s book, fairy tales, prologue, multiple epigraphs. Even though it’s about an abusive relationship, it’s also about how to free ourselves.

I devoured Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community: I’ve been recommending this book to everyone. Oakland activist and author (and former Rochesterian!) Birdsong has written a tremendous guide for how to live more connected lives, investing in friendships and community.

Also, this spring, I read Sopan Deb’s wry and poignant debut, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me, a memoir about family, forgiveness, learning to see our parents as people, and also about depression, trauma, estrangement, comedy, and love.

In June, I read Donovan Hohn’s The Inner Coast: Essays (Norton, 2020). I had read and admired Hohn’s poems many years ago in an anthology that included poems we had written as high school students. This year, we both published books during a pandemic consisting of essays written over twenty years. Hohn’s far-ranging and meditative essays explore landscapes, ecology, friendships, family, and how we come to know ourselves. His introduction notes: “We are born into stories already in progress.” I was struck by how Hohn began his book including the reader–how we locate and make sense of our place in the world.

Sometime this summer, I bought Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alice Wong). I read and kept returning to Ellen Samuels’s “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” maybe because of what time has felt like during the pandemic and also the reality of how exhausted I felt doing even a virtual book tour. Zoom made some events more accessible, but disabilities and neurodiversity don’t disappear just because there’s no travel involved. In a pandemic, so much was harder. Samuels notes, “Disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” I’m looking forward to reading more.

In July, I prepped for my first time teaching graduate students and teaching online for The Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA. For an RWW class, I co-taught Deborah A. Miranda’s Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday Press) with my friend Wendy Call who had previously taught and loved the book. When I read Bad Indians, I thought I didn’t know a book could do this. Miranda created a collage memoir using family photographs, historical documents, real and invented elementary-school assignments, Blood Quantum charts, newspaper articles, lyric essays, oral history, journal entries, poetry, and a table of contents stretching from 1776 to the present. When she came to visit our class, I was star-struck. Miranda’s memoir broke rules in the very best way making me rethink what I wanted to in my writing, how our stories can be a way to counteract lies, to show a culture even through a genocide.

In August, I wrote my first-ever blurb for a slim and gorgeous, prescient book of poetry: Familiars (Alice Greene & Co, 2020), Holly Wren Spaulding’s collection about the natural world. Her poems are reminders to slow down, to look at the world disappearing around us: that we are that world, that we must act. Spaulding’s spare poems are divided into three parts: each part has three sections, each title is one word. Beech, Lark, Vine, Acorn, Heather, Hazel, Sycamore, Ash. Like many, I spend too much time on devices, lost in space. I lose track of the body in space, what it means to walk, what we learn from trees. Reading Familiars brought me back to attention.

In August, I also read Apocalypse, Darling, Barrie Jean Borich’s concise and lyrical meditation on post-industrial landscapes, family, and navigating identities.

In September, I read Heather Lanier’s Raising a Rare Girl: A Memoir about her daughter who is born with a rare genetic syndrome. It’s about navigating life, medicine, family, and our ideas of what our lives might be. I read this book and my heart felt bigger. I felt less alone in my own struggles that are not about raising a rare girl. I felt less alone reading her book and to have some companionship this year was such a comfort. I sent it to my friend Geeta Kothari who echoed my love for it. I didn’t read it a second time to study how the narrative worked: I was just grateful to be able to slip into someone else’s story and learn about their world, another way to travel.

Also, in September, I began poet Jaswinder Bolina’s debut collection, Of Color: a sharp and thoughtful volume of essays. I also listened to some of the essays via audiobook (“Writing Like a White Guy” is one of my favorites.) I have been happy to see the number of essay collections published this year, especially by writers of color.

At various points this year, I read and underlined parts of The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity (Louise DeSalvo). I’m sure my family would say that I don’t need a guide to writing slower. Writing my first book took twenty years! I don’t want to be a slower writer, but I want to better understand, in my writing and in my teaching, how time functions. There are short, accessible chapters on important topics: practice, decisions, game plans, process journals, and managing work. My friend Geeta recommended it as did Wendy.

Another recommendation came from Geeta from earlier in the year: Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Art, capitalism, social media. I found Odell’s book far more persuasive than The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix.

In October, I read Michele Morano’s Like Love: this wonderful essay collection is about love and unconsummated romance, infatuations and other attractions. Part of the sadness in launching a book during a pandemic was the halt of travel plans. Like Love gave me a chance to travel with Morano and through some of my personal histories of love and landscapes.

Around the election I sat in via Zoom, on Wendy’s capstone class in which she was teaching Shailja Patel’s Migritude, a beautiful and complex hybrid text published a decade ago by Kaya Press. I was taken with Migritude’s power to enact how personal and colonial history are intertwined through the composition of the text. Migritude grew out of performance and includes a foreword, poetry, images, a shadow book, a timeline, and interviews, all of which provide context, create meaning. It reminded me of Bad Indians–these two books breaking apart the usual order of things so we can see cracks in that order, in the histories and framing. How the stories we tell implicate us. On the back cover it’s classified as Non-Fiction / Poetry / Performance / African Studies / South Asian Studies. It’s beyond classification in the best way.

Later in November, I read World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed, 2020). So much to love in this book by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, beginning with the subtitle. Her nature essays brought back some of the wonder of childhood for me with her focus on small moments and the specificity of her lens. Some essay titles and subjects: Peacock, Catalpa Tree, Monsoon, Vampire Squid, Dragon Fruit, Ribbon Eel. It’s also beautifully illustrated with whimsical images.

In December, I ended the year with rereading and new-to-me essays for a writing workshop with Kim Chang. We reread Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory,” an essay I first encountered in the nineties; Paisley Rekdal’s “Bad Vacation with Tasaday Tribe or How My Grandfather Acquired the Laundromat” from The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (2002), a couple of essays from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land (2010). New to me was Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route.

Toward solstice, I found solace in returning to Emily Arnason Casey’s collection, Made Holy: Essays (2019), and its focus on love, loss, addiction, interior and exterior landscapes like her childhood one from Minnesota. Casey catalogues what we hold onto from childhood, what we keep, but don’t display, what is in our homes and what we seek out around us. These essays are quiet and powerful.

I’m grateful to have finished my virtual book tour. So many books came out in 2020. Now I just want to read. I hope it gets easier. I’m looking forward to starting or finishing these books of nonfiction in 2021: Just Us; Girlhood; The Body Papers; The Memory Eaters; Pain Studies; Tomboyland; Caste; Notes on a Silencing; Mill Town; The Magical Language of Others; Later; This Way Back; The Unreality of Memory; Having and Being Had; Wow, No Thank You; Brown Album; Words for the Unbearable: A Journey Through Loss. Poetry: Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World & The Galleons. For fiction: Days of Distraction, The Office of Historical Corrections; Real Life; The Secret Lives of Church Ladies; Each of Us Killers; Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories; Death, Desire, and Other Destinations; I Have the Answer; Meet Behind Mars; How Much of These Hills Is Gold; And I Do Not Forgive You.

All I
long for these days are pajamas or baths. It’s time to break up with my social
media accounts and reread How to Do
Nothing. Or maybe just get better at doing nothing.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

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