Must-Read Poetry: April 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Deluge by Leila Chatti

A stunning debut. Chatti enters the Marian tradition of literature with fury, joining Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine as recent works that offer new theory and theology toward the literary Mary. In this God-teeming book, Chatti considers not only herself against Mary—the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an—but all women present and historical against the Marian figure and image. Raised Muslim by her father, her “mother’s family is deeply Catholic,” and she was drawn to the Marian identity across those two faiths, particularly what Mary says in the Qur’an, while giving birth: “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” In Deluge, Chatti emerges from that line with a synthesis of body and spirit, secret and wish, miracle and literal body. “Truth be told,” she starts the first poem, “I like Mary a little better / when I imagine her like this, crouched / and cursing, a boy-God pushing on / her cervix (I like remembering / she had a cervix, her body ordinary / and so like mine).” In other poems, Chatti steps within Mary’s identity, imagining the visitation by Gabriel, “rude / as a dream,” and feeling regret over keeping “my tongue in my mouth.” “Perhaps I’d have been / better off,” she ends the poem, “to be wary, but I’d been waiting so long / to hear God speak—I hadn’t thought to think // of what he might tell me.” In one of several poems titled “Annunciation,” Chatti’s identity folds into Mary as they become one woman who, throughout the book, encounter men (doctors, lovers, more): “I have come to accept the story of my own / obedience.” Each line here a testimony: “You sent a man I could not / look at fully, or touch, he was a flame / which spoke, and I could not / be afraid.”

Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney

McSweeney is one of our most dynamic poets of theme, mood, and syntax, and this new paired collection unifies those ranges in a most powerful fashion. Toxicon examines our necropastoral, digital landscape: “What is it to survive / or lie cossetted in a coma / a bombilation of effects / a thicket of causes—”. McSweeney’s lines and concerns always intersect and interject, as in “Axis”:  “If there is an axis / let it run through my heart / and the heart of my horse // waving this lance like a lancet / toward an abscess in the breast / of the sky, gimlet-eye / into which a planet has just swum.” In ““For Alexandra Negrete,” an elegy for a murdered Mexican worker, she writes  “the sound we call static / is really full of activity / percussing / and injuring itself / and sending the message back / through the sea shell / to the ear canal.” In McSweeney’s poetry, everything surrounding us is active, alive, fervent. Our bodies spasm, jerk, contort: out-of-control, dislocated. Arachne, the second paired text, is a soul-moving song to her daughter, who died so young her spirit rises from these pages: “I who feel so obsolete / An obol and an obelisk / a baffle and a baselisk / With one daughter dead and two living.” McSweeney leaves grief open and breathing: an affirmation that grief can somehow sustain us, give us reason to persevere.


Obit by Victoria Chang

Chang is consistently a poet who resurrects mediums, her work living within surprising spaces and forms, and both exposing and surpassing the possibilities for those structures. In prose poems that channel the obituary style, Chang wonders what death might mean for the living: how lives are filled with passings and grief, and how such pain might remind us what it means to be alive. Chang has the rare poetic talent to follow the edges of dark comedy to find sentiment rather than irony. Her parents loom large here. Her father’s stroke appears in the first poem, and he returns often, as in a voicemail that is poorly documented: “The Transcription Beta could not transcribe dementia. My father really said, I’ll fold the juice, not I love you. Is language the broom or what’s being swept?” In a later poem, she brings her father to an arcade, and, “As if he were visiting his past self in prison, [he touched] the clear glass at his own likeness.” She ends the poem: “He called my dead mother over to see his score, hand waving at me. What happens when the shadow is attached to the wrong object but refuses to let go? I walked over because I wanted to believe him.” When her mother died, and Chang told her children, “the three of us hugged in a circle, burst into tears. As if the tears were already there crying on their own and we, the newly bereaved, exploded into them.” A book that might help us understand the confounding place of loss in our lives.

Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

California: pastoral, urban, suburban—home to myth and magic. Taylor’s book is geologic in concept and theme, both panoramic and particular (her lines are ripe with texture, as in: “Blackberries choke the bike path; / schoolboys squall like gulls or pigeons.”). There’s a self-awareness of identity and place that enables Taylor to write odes that double as measured reflections, as with “Berkeley in the Nineties”: “Too late for hippie heyday / & too young to be yuppies / we wandered creeksides & used bookstores.” Later: “We could say systemic racism / but couldn’t name yet how our lives were implicated.” This youthful freedom and folly is juxtaposed with another California: “In every sale, a list of ways / your home could be destroyed. / Flood, earthquake, fire.” Disruption is inevitable here, and will be watched by the redwoods that “overlook / your fragile real estate.” “Train Through Colma” wonders about the future: “But will anyone teach / the new intelligence to miss / the apricot trees // that bloomed each spring / along these tracks?” Taylor hits the fine note of how nostalgia evolves into worry and lament: “When the robots have souls, / will they feel longing? / When they feel longing, // will they write poems?”

Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres

“Poetry’s slowness,” Metres has written, “its ruminativity, enables us to step back from the distracted and distracting present, to ground ourselves again through language in the realities of our bodies and spirits and their connections to the ecosystems in which we find ourselves.” Metres has emerged as one of the leading Catholic poet-activists. A previous book, Sand Opera, “began as a daily Lenten meditation, working with the testimonies of the tortured at Abu Ghraib, to witness to their suffering; it became an attempt to find a language that would sight (to render visible) and site (to locate in the geographical imagination) the war itself, constantly off-screen.” Shrapnel Maps exists along this continuum as a book that feels itinerant, longing for discovery, and fascinating in its conception of neighbor (close and far). “One Tree,” the first poem, arrives like an introductory parable: “They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year.” The tree shadowed their vegetable patch. “Always the same story,” the narrator observers: “one tree, not enough land or light or love.” In “A Concordance of Leaves,” the first extended sequence of the book, the narrator and his family go to Toura in the West Bank for his sister’s wedding: “sister soon you will be written / alongside your future.” She “will find another way / through rutted olive // orchards & soon new sisters / will soften your feet with oil.” “Theater of Operations,” a sequence of sonnets that consider a hypothetical suicide bombing, jar and illuminate: “My tongue wrestles with new words— // so why do I taste metal, like blood in the mouth? / Why do I feel so alive, this close to death?” A riveting, ambitious book.

Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor by Angela Alaimo O’DonnellO’Connor has a worthy medium in O’Donnell, who has been a perceptive and honest examiner of one of our finest fiction writers (Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor is nicely paired and contrasted with The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor). In this new book, each poem is paired with a line from her letters, stories, or essays. Readers of O’Connor’s correspondence know that she was deft, sarcastic, contemplative, curious: a unique mind that was equally (and paradoxically) at home writing for diocesan publications as she was appearing in Esquire. O’Donnell brings her alive in these pieces. In “Flannery in Iowa,” O’Connor reflects on the “wishes / I brought to that little church. / The swords I laid down on that alter.” In graduate school, “Marooned and alone, I went there in search / of who I needed to become.” The classic line about the Eucharist that O’Connor quipped to Mary McCarthy—”Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”—is dramatized here: “A country and a Catholic girl, I’d come / to the Big City to learn to write, / not to lose the only faith I’d known / and could not live without.” “Compline,” the penultimate section of the book, is melancholy and pensive, and considers O’Connor’s life cut short at 39: “These are my last days, that’s pretty clear— / though sometimes at night I still feel the call / of this life.” A necessary collection for fans of O’Connor, and a welcome introduction to those who want to understand the continuing pull of a truly original writer.

April Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

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

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixotism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)

Mothers Before​ by ​Edan Lepucki, ed.​: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)

Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)

The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of Gary Lutz and Diane Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the latter (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)

The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who is able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness, after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)

What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: When it comes to evoking the jagged edge of contemporary anxiety there might not be a more insightful writer working today than Moshfegh. That is, if the boundless dark potential of the human psyche is your thing. If it’s not, this atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat might not be for you. But, sophisticated reader that you are, you’re not afraid of the dark. Right? (Il’ja)

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)

Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.” (Lydia)

St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles: Following up on her National Book Award finalist News of the World, Jiles returns to post-Civil War Texas with the tale of Simon Boudlin, a 23-year-old fiddle player, and Doris Mary Dillion, the indentured Irish girl he meets as the war comes to an end. The novel follows Simon and Doris as they follow their own post-war paths—and the lengths he will go to reunite with the woman he loves. Kirkus’ starred review calls Jiles a “master storyteller” and the novel “vividly evocative and steeped in American folkways.” (Carolyn)

What You Become in Flight by Ellen O’Connell Whittet: When an injury during rehearsal derails Whittet’s promising ballet career, the 19-year-old turns to writing to work through the loss of the future she’d always envisioned; the years of physical and emotional trauma she suffered (inflicted by herself and others); and the journey she took to heal herself. About the memoir, author Melissa Febos writes: “An elegant and compelling künstlerroman that begins in the body and ends on the page.” (Carolyn)

Everything Is Under Control by Phyllis Grant: Grant’s debut memoir is a pinch of personal, poetic vignettes and a dash of her favorite recipes. The chef and food writer explores her journey from being a dancer at Julliard and working in high-end kitchens in New York City, to marrying her husband and relocating to California after 9/11. Writer Dani Shapiro says, “With raw candor and discipline, Phyllis Grant peels back the layers of her innermost experience and gives us a memoir as rich and nuanced, as delicate as life itself.” (Carolyn)

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut, Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more—in a woman named Phoebe. Kirkus’ starred review calls the novel “poetic and understated” and “complex and resonant.” (Carolyn)

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: In her fourth novel, Kidd—the acclaimed author of The Secret Life of Bees—imagines the life of Ana, a young woman who defies her arranged marriage to marry Jesus of Nazareth. Rebellious and intellectually curious, Ana finds her purpose in recording the secret narratives of silenced women—a pursuit that puts her in danger. A starred review in Publishers Weekly called the novel “a vibrant portrait of a woman striving to preserve and celebrate women’s stories—her own and countless others.” (Carolyn)

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry: The newest novel from two-time Booker Prize finalist Barry focuses on Winona Cole, the Native American adopted daughter of John Cole and Thomas McNulty—whose lives were explored in his previous novel Days Without End. Set in Reconstruction-era Tennessee, a brutal act of violence sends Winona on a journey—toward healing and connection with her Lakota ancestors. The Guardian’s review says Barry’s “work reminds us how much we need these rare gifts of the natural storyteller, for reckoning with our past and present.” (Carolyn)

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige: In Gaige’s fourth novel, a married couple and their two young children take to the sea on a search for adventure and fulfillment. Instead, they find their marriage and lives thrown irreparably and dangerously off course. Claire Messud says, “Taut as a thriller, emotionally precise yet threaded with lyricism, Sea Wife is at once the compelling story of a family’s glorious, misbegotten seafaring adventure and an allegory for life itself.” (Carolyn)

Missed Translations by Sopan Deb: Deb, a New York Times writer and comedian, explores his immigrant roots in this debut memoir. Growing up in suburban (read: white) New Jersey, Deb yearned for a connection to his culture but was ultimately unable to find one after his parent’s marriage imploded and his father returned to India alone. As an adult, he travels to India to reunite with his father, spend time with extended family, and uncover secrets that would otherwise have stayed buried. Booklist says Deb’s writing is “breezy and witty” and that “his earnestness will sweep readers up into this charmer of a memoir.” (Carolyn)

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good: Winner of the 2018 HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, Good’s debut novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie, and Maisie—who are survivors of a church-run residential school. As their lives intersect over the decades, the then teens (now adults) attempt to overcome the trauma inflicted on them and not only survive, but thrive, in downtown Vancouver. (Carolyn)

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2020 Longlists

In its 13th year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards named its 2020 longlists for fiction and poetry.

Announced exclusively here at The Millions, the BTBA longlists feature a diverse group of authors and translators from a variety of publishers, both large and small. The 35 books on this year’s longlists represent 20 different countries and feature authors writing in 18 languages.

No previous BTBA winners were nominated this year, though readers will find familiar translators on both lists, including legends like Geraldine Harcourt; experienced veterans like Erin Mouré, Natasha Wimmer, and Jonathan Wright; and newer stars like Emma Ramadan and Aaron Robertson. The authors on this year’s lists follow suit, with nominees including Daša Drndić, Marie NDiaye, Olga Tokarczuk, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, and Vasily Grossman.

From now until the winners are announced, Three Percent will host arguments for why each nominee deserves to win this year’s award.

Thanks to financial support from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will receive a monetary prize. The shortlists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced by early May.

Best Translated Book Award 2020: Fiction Longlist

The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Argentina, Graywolf)

The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Iraq, Yale University Press)

Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated from the Swedish by Martin Aitken (Sweden, World Editions)

Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (France, Grove)

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (France, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

EEG by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Croatia, New Directions)

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Chile Graywolf)

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler (Russia, New York Review Books)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, translated from the Spanish by Sara Moses and Carolina Orloff (Argentina, Charco Press)

Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Norway, Verso)

Good Will Come From the Sea by Christos Ikonomou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Archipelago Books)

Tentacle by Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (Dominican Republic, And Other Stories)

China Dream by Ma Jian, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (China, Counterpoint)

Parade by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (Japan, Soft Skull)

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Syria, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Boy by Marcus Malte, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge (France, Restless Books)

The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordon Stump (France, Knopf)

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Japan, Pantheon)

A Dream Come True by Juan Carlos Onetti, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Uruguay, Archipelago Books)

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Argentina, Open Letter Books)

Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego, translated from the Italian by Aaron Robertson (Italy, Two Lines Press)

Labyrinth by Burhan Sönmez, translated from the Turkish by Umit Hussein (Turkey, Other Press)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Poland, Riverhead)

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (Japan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This year’s fiction jury is comprised of Elisa Wouk Almino, Pierce Alquist, Hailey Dezort, Louisa Ermelino, Hal Hlavinka, Keaton Patterson, Christopher Phipps, Lesley Rains, and Justin Walls.

Best Translated Book Award 2020: Poetry Longlist

Aviva-No by Shimon Adaf, translated from the Hebrew by Yael Segalovitz (Israel, Alice James Books)

Time by Etel Adnan, translated from the French by Sarah Riggs (Lebanon, Nightboat Books)

Materia Prima by Amanda Berenguer, translated from the Spanish by Gillian Brassil, Anna Deeny Morales, Mónica de la Torre, Urayoán Noel, Jeannine Marie Pitas, Kristin Dykstra, Kent Johnson, and Alex Verdolini (Uruguay, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Next Loves by Stéphane Bouquet, translated from the French by Lindsay Turner (France, Nightboat Books)

Camouflage by Lupe Gómez, translated from the Galician by Erín Moure (Spain, Circumference Books)

Book of Minutes by Gemma Gorga, translated from the Catalan by Sharon Dolin (Spain, Oberlin College Press)

The Catalan Poems by Pere Gimferrer, translated from the Catalan by Adrian Nathan West (Spain, Carcanet)

Tell Me, Kenyalang by Kulleh Grasi, translated from the Malay and Iban by Pauline Fan (Malaysia, Circumference Books)

A Drink of Red Mirror by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae (South Korea, Action Books)

The Winter Garden Photograph by Reina María Rodríguez, translate from the Spanish by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen (Cuba, Ugly Duckling Presse)

This year’s poetry jury is comprised of Nancy Naomi Carlson, Patricia Lockwood, Aditi Machado, Laura Marris, and Brandon Shimoda.

For more information, visit the Best Translated Book Award site, the BTBA Facebook page, and the BTBA Twitter. And check out our coverage from 201620172018, and 2019.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2020

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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Topeka School
5 months

2.
4.

Ducks, Newburyport
5 months

3.
7.

Trick Mirror
3 months

4.
6.

The Hotel Neversink

4 months

5.


The Resisters
1 month

6.
7.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories

6 months

7.
9.

Night Boat to Tangier
2 months

8.
10.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
2 months

9.


Interior Chinatown
1 month

10.


Fleishman Is in Trouble
1 month

To celebrate the ascension of Ducks, Newburyport to the second spot on this month’s Top Ten, this write-up will consist of a single sentence—in spite of the fact that Lucy Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel actually consists of eight—because, frankly, as the world of online books and culture has evolved, or more accurately contracted and rigidified, it remains the case that The Millions is a place where, although some might disagree, there is still room for playful displays of fanatical literary bombast (as, of course, evidenced by the fact that Ducks, Newburyport’s un-diagrammable heft was purchased by so many readers last month that it’s now been listed second only to Ben Lerner’s latest), and so with us agreed that this place can be fun, and funny and most of all filled with celebration, we must tip our hats to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, and Inland by Téa Obreht, a trio of novels bound for our site’s hallowed Hall of Fame, and we must tip those very same hats—or, if you prefer, we can tip a new set of hats, because few things are more excessive and celebratory than spare hats, reserved specifically for fresh tipping—to The Resisters by Gish Jen, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, and Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the trio of novels filling the vacated spaces on the list this month, which advances us from February into March, a time of new beginnings and, in the mid-Atlantic, unseasonably warm temperatures, but that’s beside the point, which is of course that these three newcomers on our list are superb, the first two of which earning praise in the most recent installment of our annual Book Preview for being “a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history,” and a “wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original [novel],” respectively, while not to be outdone is Taffy’s debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, which has been discussed the most on our site—earning two spots in our Year in Reading series courtesy of Hannah Gersen and Devin Lee Booker—and was mentioned most recently just three weeks ago when Anna Sims referred to it as “a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man,” before continuing on to describe it as not just a “very funny book,” but also a “very tired book,” which is a sentiment that, by now, the writer of this piece—to say nothing of the myriad readers of this piece—can completely understand.

This month’s near misses included: A Long Petal of the Sea, The Testaments, How to Be an Antiracist, Quichotte, and The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. See Also: Last month’s list.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Ben Lerner
A Year in Reading: Adam O’Fallon Price
The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘Pieces for the Left Hand’
Shifting Anxieties: On J. Robert Lennon’s ‘See You in Paradise
You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry
I’m a Stained-Glass Guy: The Millions Interviews Kevin Barry
A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry
Memory Can Be a Second Chance: Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’
Modern Feminism’s Big Lie: On ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

March Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

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

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Celebrated novelist Erdrich, author of Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House, returns to the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in The Night Watchman. One of the most powerful voices in contemporary Native-American literature, Erdrich provides a fictionalization of her own uncle’s story, when he journeyed from North Dakota to Washington D..C in 1953 to testify on a congressional hearing about the Termination Act, which would once again abrogate the United States’ treaties with a Native-American nation. The Night Watchmen, as with all of Erdrich’s writing, reminds us that Native-American culture is not hidden in history books and museums, but an identity that is current, or as she writes in The Plague of Doves, “History works itself out in the living.” (Ed S.)

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Millions’ own Mandel is back with The Glass Hotel, the long-awaited sequel to her much-beloved first novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist. Where Station Eleven explored a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a super-plague, The Glass Hotel explores what Mandel calls “the kingdom of money”— locales as disparate as a South Carolina prison and a container ship in international waters—and the messily intertwined lives of half-siblings Vincent and Paul. In a starred review of The Glass Hotel, Publishers Weekly says, “This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.” (Adam P.)

Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction by Nick Ripatrazone: The Millions’ own Ripatrazone has proven himself over the past decade to be one of our most adept critics at explicating the faith of poetry and the poetics of faith. Now in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, Ripatrazone asks in what sense Roman Catholicism informs the writings of some of our most crucial writers, from Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy to more surprising authors like Toni Morrison (who converted) and Cormac McCarthy. For Ripatrazone, there is a fruitful tension between those who joined the Church, those who left it, and those who stayed. “Writers long for God,” Ripatrazone argues, “and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” (Ed S.)

Lakewood by Megan Giddings: After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies and her family falls on hard times, she drops out of college and applies to participate in a secretive research project. The pay is good, there’s health insurance, but something’s off. Lena, a black millennial, joins a pool of subjects who are all black, Indian, or Latinx; all the researchers are white. Experimental eye drops change brown eyes blue, subjects are given mysterious medication, and it soon becomes clear that Lena’s participation may require more sacrifices than she’s willing to make. Giddings’s debut novel, Lakewood takes a long and horrified look at the costs levied on people of color in the name of science. (Kaulie)

It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan: As its uplifting title implies, McMillan’s new novel is about women of a certain age refusing to see the late stage of life as a dreary slide toward death. At the center of a reunited group of high school classmates is 68-year-old Loretha Curry, head of a beauty-supply empire, whose world is turned upside down by an unexpected loss. “It’s about living in the here and now,” 68-year-old McMillan tells O magazine, “even being willing to fall in love and live happily ever after in these late chapters of our lives.” Like McMillan’s earlier hits, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, this novel looks destined for the bestseller lists. (Bill)

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: At 15, Vanessa Wye enters into an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, Vanessa must reckon with their relationship when Jacob is accused of sexually abusing another student. Author Janet Fitch says: “It’s breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.” Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity. (Carolyn)

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn: The author was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island and this is the novel that will help many of us realize we need to read more fiction from Hawai’i. In 1995, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls over the side of a cruise ship, but is rescued by a shark—a divine favor. When fortunes turn, his family is forced to confront their bonds, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. Marlon James calls it, “a ferocious debut.” (Claire)

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby: A collection of essays on life, love, and work by the piercingly funny and trenchant writer, to follow the bestselling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The new collection documents bad dates with new friends, weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers,” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Read Irby’s latest piece on settling down, for The Cut. (Lydia)

August by Callan Wink: The author’s debut novel follows his 2016 short story collection, Dog, Run, Moon—a set so good that I hoped Wink could distract himself from fly-fishing long enough to range further and give us a novel. And now he has: this testament to the obstacles encountered by a Michigan boy battling his way toward manhood. Told with all the economy, clarity of character, and lively prose that mark Wink’s short stories, this is writing that would tell just as well around the campfire as it does on the page. (Il’ja)

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang: In what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has described as an “immaculate debut novel” and “a wholly engaging joy to read,” Chang follows a 24-year-old Asian-American woman as she leaves a prestigious tech reporting job in Silicon Valley to move with her boyfriend to upstate New York. The move, precipitated by her boyfriend’s entrance into graduate school, is more of an excuse than a reason. The narrator has been searching for a way out. But once there, she finds herself captivated by stories of Asian Americans in history, and forced to think more deeply than she ever has about her role in an interracial relationship. In this tender, funny, coming-of-adulthood story, Chang asks what it means to live in a society that does not notice or understand you. (Jacqueline)

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: In a starred review, Kirkus called the latest novel from science fiction luminary Jemisin “fierce, poetic, uncompromising.” Set in Jemisin’s hometown of New York City, this work of speculative fiction features five New Yorkers who must come together to defend their city against the Enemy, which Jemisin described, in an interview with EW, as “a dangerous otherworldly tourist…trying to supernaturally gentrify the city to death.” Toilet stalls attack, backyard pools become portals, and FDR traffic “becomes a literal, tentacled killer.” So, your standard work of social realism. I can’t wait for this one. (Jacqueline)

Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita: Yamashita blends Jane Austen’s characters with stories of Japanese Americans in this dynamic collection. In merging these characters, she reconsiders canonical works, questions cultural inheritance, and experiments with genre and form. Julie Otsuka says “whether she is riffing on Jane Austen, channeling Jorge Luis Borges, or meditating on Marie Kondo, Yamashita is a brilliant and often subversive storyteller in superb command of her craft.” (Zoë)

Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following up on the success of her novel Euphoria, King’s latest follows a Casey Peabody, a 31-year-old waitress who is mourning the sudden loss of her mother and her most recent relationship. While she aches to live the creative life she’s always dreamed of, she spends her days writing her novel, working a dead-end job, and having not one—but two—affairs. Author Madeline Miller calls the novel “captivating, potent, incisive, and wise” and “a moving story of grief, and recovering from grief, and of a young woman finding her courage for life.” (Carolyn)

First, Catch by Thom Eagle: Winner of the Debut Food Book at the Fortnum and Mason’s Awards, Eagle’s collection is less a step-by-step cookbook than meandering musings on the emotional, philosophical, and physical journey of creating a large spring lunch. In his preface, he writes that he wanted this book “to demonstrate to my own satisfaction that there is so much more to food than just the cooking of it.” Publishers Weekly’s starred review says, “This wonderfully indulgent, pleasurable compilation of culinary meditations will thrill food lovers.” (Carolyn)

The Companions by Katie M. Flynn: After a pandemic wipes out huge portions of the population, the quarantined are kept company by Companions, which are factory-created humanoids that the dead upload their consciousness into.  When Lilac, one of the first Companions, realizes she can defy her programming, she sets off in search of the person who murdered her as a teenager—and begins to meet the richly-drawn characters of Flynn’s slightly-futuristic world. Told through eight different points of view over two decades, Flynn’s speculative debut novel poses questions about memory, identity, and humanity. (Carolyn)

Spirit Run by Noé Álvarez: Born to Mexican immigrant parents in Yakima, Álvarez finds himself working at a fruit warehouse while dreaming of escaping Washington. In his debut memoir, he chronicles his journey to freedom via the Peace and Dignity Journeys, which are epic, 6,000-mile marathons across North America organized by Native American activists. A starred review in Publishers Weekly called the “spellbinding” novel a “literary tour de force beautifully combines outdoor adventure with a sharp take on immigration.” (Carolyn)

Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel by Julian K. Jarboe: Jarboe’s 16-story collection—which contains everything from novellas to two-page stories bordering on prose poems—mixes fabulism, sci-fi, and surrealism. Their debut is a literary bricolage exploring queerness, body horror, alienation, and belonging. “Throughout, Jarboe melds tenderness, humor, and righteous anger into insightful tales of characters navigating the margins of society,” says Publishers Weekly’s starred review. (Carolyn)

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: Celebrated Vietnamese poet and author Quế Mai’s first novel translated into English is a multigenerational epic about the Tran family. Set in 20th-century Vietnam, the novel explores how one family navigates war, loss, and trauma, but also how they remain buoyed by hope and each other. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the “lyrical, sweeping debut” a “brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam will move readers.” (Carolyn)

The Exhibition of Persephone Q by Jessi Jezewska Stevens: In the weeks after 9/11, freelancer Percy discovers she is pregnant and also discovers she cannot tell anyone about it, including her husband. Amid the changes, internally and externally, Percy receives a package containing a catalog for a photography show. Even more strangely, the woman in the photos looks like Percy—or does she? What comes next is an exploration of self, identity, and reality in the digital age. Catherine Lacey writes, “With a voice both riveting and wisely bizarre, Jessi Jezewska Stevens tells a timeless story of the battle to stop the present from turning into the past.”(Carolyn)

Marguerite by Marina Kemp: In Kemp’s debut, young nurse Marguerite Demers moves to a small farm in the South of France to care for Jérôme Lanvier—a cruel and once-powerful man who is now on his deathbed. Swirling gossip, jealousy, and secrets threaten to destroy the small town and its inhabitants including Marguerite. The novel has received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, which raved, “Stellar…Expect Kemp to make a big splash.” (Carolyn)

The Body Politic by Brian Platzer: Platzer’s sophomore novel (following Bed-Stuy Is Burning) follows four New Yorkers dealing with infidelity, loss, chronic illness, and betrayal in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Brought together in the unstable years after 9/11, the four friends find themselves—and their lives—in free fall again. Jenny Offill calls the novel, “A cleverly constructed and emotionally compelling novel about the common disappointments and surprising consolations of middle age.” (Carolyn)

Temporary by Hilary Leichter: Leichter’s absurdist debut follows a nameless woman with 23 temporary jobs (including working for a murderer and working on a pirate ship), 18 casual boyfriends, and a ghost who lends her life advice as she searches for “the steadiness,” or a permanent position. (And aren’t we all?) Publishers Weekly’s starred review says the “cutting, hilarious critique of the American dream will appeal to fans of Italo Calvino.” (Carolyn)

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: The prolific cultural critic and author of Men Explain Things to Me returns with a memoir of her development as an artist as a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s and the violence against women that undergirds American life. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Absorbing…A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.” (Lydia)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: THE FINAL VOLUME IS UPON US. Mantel dazzled readers with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and now she completes her stunningly good account of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. One of the literary events of the young millennium. (Lydia)

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Louise Erdrich
A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel
A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone
A Year in Reading: Terry McMillan
Writers to Watch: Spring 2020
Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel

Must-Read Poetry: March 2020

Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall

With each successive book, there’s even more grandness to Brimhall’s narrative voice. She writes with a commanding sense, with some poems feeling like the voice beaming to Job, and other poems arriving like a hypnotizing whisper at night. “I left the religion, but kept the sin / and its images,” one narrator writes—an apt description of the permeating sense of God and absence in this ambitious book. With belief in the distance, “None of my prayers are questions anymore. / Just aching stanzas full of chrysanthemums dying / on the kitchen table.” “I want out of exile,” the narrator says in the book’s final poem, “and back to a garden where we can confuse / innocence with goodness.” This longing results in a synthesis of the divine and desire. First, in a conceptual sense: “Every fire thinks it’s a part of God, but lightning / is not a promise, a flag is not a shield. Love wants you / to believe that there’s a God somewhere who can // do your dying for you. There are raptures that won’t / come for you and raptures that will.” Then, elsewhere in the book, Brimhall’s narrators blur love and lust—to use apophatic methods. “I want God’s anger / more, want to rouse the Old Testament in me,” one narrator writes—“want to be both hand and cheek. Even when God / flooded the world, he loved it. Even when he promised / to destroy it again with cleansing fire. That’s the way / I want to love.” She writes to Eros: “I worshipped the myth I made of you, but I’m off my knees / now. I want your hands to become language and make me / offer you one thigh at a time.” The blurring of God and Eros, belief and unbelief, are the result of Brimhall’s provocative and powerful language. “We all want / to be broken for one another,” she writes, to explain how compelled we are to touch. “We all want to kiss our names from someone else’s / mouth.” Another masterful book from one of our finest poets.

Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips

Few poets can deliver such weight with such precision as Phillips, who again marvels in this new collection. In an early piece, “On Being Asked to Be More Specific When It Comes to Longing,” Phillips demonstrates the power of metaphor. A forest opens to a clearing, “a vast / meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an /angled argument against despair.” Yet that material might only be weeds, with language and form intermingling, blending, and then separating. “Like taking / a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might / more easily disperse, we’d at last reached the point // in twilight where twilight seems most / a bowl designed to turn routinely but / as if by accident half roughly over”: the recursive nature, the mimesis evolving into mysticism—Phillips’s method creates a new, acute world. This is longing! This is what poetry, I think, must do: bring us to the brink, “from the smudged edge of all that / seemed to be left of what we’d called / belief.” The poem ends: “what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give, and you shall receive.” In this book, the language and luster of belief is not mere vestige—it is a liturgy of desire. It is an interrogation of the self: “If as shame is to memory, so too desire, / then is this desire, this cloak of shadows, / that I wrap close around me, that I / refuse to take off?” Phillips is the type of writer to make us believe that, perhaps, poetry truly is the form in which story and song best breathe together.

A Certain Clarity: Selected Poems by Lawrence Joseph

Joseph is a Catholic poet for a real world of sin. In one early poem, the narrator was “pulled from the womb / into this city.” He spent hours in prayer, and even more hours in shame. He proclaims himself “the poet of my city,” the pronouncement more a sense of duty than grandiosity. We get that sense elsewhere: in another poem, the narrator, coy, says “I’m only an accessory to particular images.” In a way, it is the perfect summation of Joseph’s project: the self permeating the work as story and symbol, an act of poetic transubstantiation. In one poem, the poet reflects on Catholic school: the Baltimore Catechism, and how he “prayed / to a litany of saints to intercede / on behalf of my father who slept / through the sermon at seven o’clock Mass.” He recited the Book of Jeremiah in fifth grade, confounding his teacher. Yet despair resides in some of these poems: “Heaven answers your prayers with dust and you swallow it.” “There is a God who hates us so much: / we are given ears to hear ribs kicked in, / we are given eyes to see eyes close / before a city that burns itself to death”—these are words of suffering, yes, but despair does not overtake this book. St. Augustine haunts Joseph’s verse, and when we complete this confession, we feel charged and changed. An important book that begins to collect Joseph’s notable writing.

Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

Hirshfield has said that “part of poetry’s core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn’t being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward.” In some poems, Hirshfield makes visible our common world, as when she writes: “I admire the amnesia of buckets.” How they are “simple of purpose.” “A bucket upside down / is almost as useful as upright”; how a “bucket receives and returns all it is given, / holds no grudges, fears, / or regret.” She also mines the most confounding elements of our existence. Her poem “I Wanted to be Surprised” begins: “To such a request, the world is obliging.” She is surprised to learn “the stubborn, courteous persistence” that words like please and good morning might still carry weight, “and that when I wake up / the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain, / the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.” Perhaps what grounds Hirshfield’s narrators is a humble sense of realism. Of life, one narrator concludes: “This did not have to happen. no part of this had to happen.” Existence isn’t arbitrary, but it requires a graceful skepticism: “I would like / to grow content in you, doubt, / as a double-hung window / settles obedient into its hidden pulleys and ropes.” She’s also capable of stinging elegies. “I said,” she begins one short poem. “I believed / a world without you unimaginable. // Now cutting its flowers to go with you into the fire.”

The Painted Bunting’s Last Molt by Virgil Suárez

A book of leaving and longing. The song of “When Leaving the Country of Your Birth” is anaphoric, entrancing: “Will the wind remember your body,” he begins, writing of a land from which the narrator has left. The questions that follow are heartbreaking: “Will your old house stand in the shadows of all the plantains your father planted?” “Who will remember you, child? Who will sigh your name?” “Who will trace the bread crumbs this far out?” That final question returns to a common theme in the book: what happens when we must finally, truly go home? The narrator’s grandmother wants to return to Cuba: “My grandmother says they will return because they miss // their concave lives, and each night, before she puts me to sleep, / she sings a prayer for the worn, the lost, for the unremembered.” Sadly, she tells that narrator that “we live in countries / we cannot possibly die in.” Despite this pain of distance, Suárez captures the glimmer of hope that exists in escape and travel. Excellent descriptions of water, that route of travel, abound: “At night, other than the star-pocked sky, // there is little difference between the slicked surface / of the water and the heavens.” Later: “What I like about water is it knows // how to keep a secret. A body slices / through without leaving a trace, / when you must leave in the night.”

Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez

A book that captures the inevitable, immediate collision between natural and manufactured worlds. Perez pairs his first poem with a quote from Mythologies by Roland Barthes: “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them.” Plastic—the manufactured world—is ubiquitous, inevitable. It is the probe that the doctor presses against the belly of the narrator’s wife; it is the bag in which her placenta is stored. Later, it is the material of their daughter’s pacifier, and the pump that “whirrs” as “breastmilk drips into a plastic bottle.” The narrator dreams that his daughter is “composed of plastic, / so that she, too, will survive our wasteful hands.” Even his figurative language in the book is steeped in manufactured language: “Darkness spills across the sky like an oil plume.” On Halloween, he says, “let us praise the souls of native youth, whose eyes / are open-pit uranium mines, veins are poisoned / rivers, hearts are tar sands tailings ponds.” Perhaps for this reason, the narrator-fathers of this book have disaster on their minds: “Am I brave enough to bear her // across the razor wires of foreign countries / and racial hatred?” He wonders and worries: “Could I inflate my body into a buoy to hold her above rough waves?” In “Echolocation,” the narrator cooks dinner while his wife plays with their daughter, and he sees a news report about Tahlequah, an orca whale who grieves her dead calf.” Their lives go on—preschool, vaccinations—as the whale carries her dead child “until every wave / is an elegy, / until our planet / is an open / casket.” Elegiac and skillful, Perez’s collection is worth pondering.

To Make Room for the Sea by Adam Clay

Clay once described the poet John Ashbery as a writer “whose work has always struck me as layered on so many levels, though it might seem simple on the surface.” That duality, I think, often resides in Ashbery’s tendency toward the melancholy sense, as in “Vetiver”: “Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay, / As the flowers recited their lines / And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.” Clay shares that graceful and skillful movement in this new book: “Beneath // every question is an elegy, and beneath / every elegy lives the promise that a life / will persist long after its song.” From: “Meditation for the Silence of Morning” “Imagine finding you look at the world / completely different upon waking one day.” Clay’s usage of the second person is an invitation to grief: “You’ve looked out the door each morning // only to find the view’s changed little over time, but life feels / passive and grows more so the further you go from the bed, // quietly unsure of what the day holds.” One narrator concludes that “Life mostly feels like walking the line / between an elegy and an ode.” Clay, like Ashbery, demonstrates that something remains other than despair. There is “some version of hope or comfort / found within each simple slow ritual, // but what to make of life when there’s no ritual / worth praising? Sometimes even starting / to think of an inevitable void is a comfort / we keep for ourselves, a minor way of curbing / the mind from danger.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– A Year in Reading: Jane HirshfieldFifteen Poets on Revision

Novel Moves: Wrestling in Recent Fiction

The only two things that were real in pro wrestling were the money and the miles.—Chris McCormick, The Gimmicks
Wrestling is true and genuine and great.—Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida
The figure-four leg lock, my favorite professional wrestling move, is quite simple: spread apart the legs of your supine opponent; wrap yourself around his left leg and bend it over his outstretched right leg; fall to the ground and push down on your opponent’s left foot. His histrionic wailing will indicate that you have executed the move successfully. (Here’s how a master does it.)
From the description above, it is perhaps evident that the figure-four  requires a certain level of cooperation from the victim, who patiently waits as you pretzel him into agony. As a young fan of professional wrestling who would practice the move and others with my best friend, I loved this choreographed compliance—a compliance always in the service of storytelling, be it our basement role playing or the soap operatic spectacle of WrestleMania. When I signed up for actual wrestling, in which the opponents were decidedly incompliant, I found it less satisfying. The drama was too stark, though I did begrudgingly appreciate the brute elegance with which a superior opponent could bend my body to his will. I soon took up cross-country running.
Though I abandoned the sport and my pro wrestling fandom waned, I was excited to see several recent works of fiction that leverage the narrative power of the sport: the colorful archetypes and illusions of professional wrestling or the elemental combat of “real” wrestling. Like my repertoire of wrestling moves, these stories are supple and varied, featuring an Armenian immigrant learning the ropes of small-time American professional wrestling, a monomaniacal collegiate wrestler determined to win a national title, and an Ottoman strongman whose life is turned into a disconcerting allegory.

1.Move over baseball. Professional wrestling, per a character in Chris McCormick’s debut novel The Gimmicks, is the “true American pastime.” The reason lies not in the sport’s popularity but in its metaphorical resonance, its audacious commitment to success via flimflammery. Wrestling is doggedly committed to “the gimmick,” a wrestling term for one’s adopted persona: “What was the American Dream if not the ability to trade gimmick after gimmick until you got one over?” says a wrestling impresario in the novel. 
This globetrotting novel, however, is far from an American tale. “Armenian stories require explaining,” we read in the first chapter, and in terms of plot, there’s a lot to explain here. The action follows three childhood friends—beautiful Mina, slight Ruben, and gigantic Avo—in a story that careens around the world from Soviet Armenia to a backgammon tournament in Chantilly, France, to small-town American dives. Mina and Ruben excel at backgammon, while Avo practices a less strategic though no less symbolically weighty sport: wrestling. When Ruben’s violent political activism forces him into exile, he invites Avo to leave behind Mina, now his fiancée, and join him and a radical underground political group in America. Once there, he gains some renown as a professional wrestler called The Brow Beater (aka King Kong of the Caucasus) before disappearing on the eve of a match in Greensboro, N.C.
Certain sections of the novel are narrated by one Terry “Angel Hair” Krill, a cat breeder and former pro wrestler-turned manager who spots Avo at a Los Angeles bar called The Gutshot in the late 1970s. Blessing his “numinous fortune” for encountering the giant Armenian, whose “shoulders had established themselves like kingly epaulettes on either side of his neck,” Krill initiates Avo into the confraternity of knights errant: “As contractors, we were freelancers in almost the medieval sense of the word, fighters and jesters for hire.” Indeed, McCormick depicts the band of hard-living misfits touring the country as beefy Philip Marlowes, strictly adhering to a set of values despite their dissolute lifestyles. For one, they swear by kayfabe, or the oath to protect “the illusion of pro wrestling’s reality.” Moreover, they treat each other with courtly solicitude, “real care”:  the spectacle of violence conceals the pains taken not to hurt each other with, say, an overzealous piledriver: “From a distance you see violence. Up close you find love.”
(Hulk Hogan’s commentary about his WrestleMania III match with Andre the Giant, barely able to move because of a bad back, reinforces this view There is indeed something loving about the way the Hulk waits for the ailing giant’s consent before agreeing to bodyslam him. Or consider John Irving, the bard of “real” wrestling, discussing the “civilized aspects to the sport’s combativeness”: “I’ve always admired the rule that holds you responsible, if you lift your opponent off the mat, for your opponent’s safe return.”)
Professional wrestling appeals as a  physical form of storytelling, a pulp fiction built on broadly recognizable types, Grand Guignol villains, predictable last-minute reversals of fortune and ingrained cheating: ringside managers interfering in the action and combatants taking advantage of incompetent, distracted, or unconscious referees. These elements give rise to inexhaustible narrative permutations: “It’s wrestling, big fella. We’re only limited by our creativity and how much we’re willing to work,” explains Krill. It is also—and this is important for a novel built around the question of personal and political commitments—a moral form. “We’re in the business of delaying and delivering maximum justice, for maximum effect,” says Krill to his ingenue. The same could be said of the terrorist organization, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, that ensnares Avo. “Do you care about justice?” asks its shadowy leader upon first meeting him.
Wrestling does heavy thematic lifting in the book, even if the novel spends more time theorizing rather than dramatizing the spectacle. In wrestling, says Krill, “an elaborate fiction is staged as honest competition,” and the thematic battle between fiction and truth spills out of the ring into every aspect of the novel. Before becoming a semi-professional wrestler, Avo works in a Los Angeles factory making counterfeit silk; before leaving for the States, he proposes to Mina with a cubic zirconium ring (that is, a fake diamond); weary wrestlers mistake flings with groupies, “nights of flesh and mercy,” for true love; a medieval manuscript on backgammon strategy that Mina hopes to sell might not be as old as purported; there are true revolutionaries and those who, if not faking it, are not committed to its violent means; and finally, the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide entails a grander, more sinister illustration of alternative historical truths.
This synthetic contagion implies that professional wrestling is, by virtue of transparent illusions, the most honest thing in the world. “Call it predetermined,” pleads Krill. “Call it entertainment.” But not [fake].”

2.From the wide-ranging The Gimmicks to Gabe Habash’s concentrated debut novel, Stephen Florida, we move from the ring to the mat, as the subject is collegiate, that is, “real” wrestling, and its titular character, a college senior wrestler marked by a “foolish greedy dodo single-mindedness.” (Full disclosure: Habash was formerly my editor at Publishers Weekly.) Over the course of his final year on a rural North Dakota campus, Stephen pursues his goal to win a D4 national championship with a monkish devotion comprising endless repetitions, a Spartan diet, and in-season celibacy.
If in McCormick’s novel the wrestlers cast on and off identities and costumes until they find le gimmick juste, Stephen is a thoroughly engraved character: “I am so much myself, I could never be anyone else.” His body “was preordained to weigh 133 pounds,” the weight class in which he competes, and he willingly submits that body to the trials, and perhaps martyrdom, for which it was destined:

I’m on a one-lane road in a thick metaphorical forest with no distractions. Everything I do is intentional. To arrive at the end of the road is to know Glory in the biblical sense, to put your paternity in Glory. I put my paternity on things. I haven’t studied much on the saints, but it sounds exactly like what their lives were like.

Perhaps, though it is hard to picture St. Francis attempting to put an incensed goat in a cradle hold, as Stephen does in one muddy scene in which he takes on an opponent as stubborn and ready for a fight as he is.
Stephen is the perfect expression of concentrated energy and, because of that concentration, a cipher. He craves competition precisely because “it’s a way to disprove my lack of selfness.” Or as he puts it a little grandiloquently after a victory: “There is no Stephen Florida. I am only a giant collection of gas and light and will.” (In fact, there is literally no Stephen Florida—as he assumes that name only after his coach misspells his real one, Forster, in a recruitment letter.) Wrestling grounds his simultaneously fixed and inchoate character, directs his gaseous will. “I like to spot problems and try to figure them out, which is all wrestling really is,” he says. He does this very effectively with his opponents, but he also has “problems” of a metaphysical sort, especially after suffering a potentially season-ending knee injury. During extended time off, athletes tend to turn their thoughts to Cartesian matters. If Stephen is a wrestler through and through, and that character is tied to a body, then what happens when that body falters?

…is the link so weak that wrestling ends with the body? Does the entire feeling end just like that? The center inside me, encoded with tilts and cradles, could go up in smoke at any moment without a body willing to do its dirty work.

The work is certainly dirty. Philosophy aside, Stephen Florida is a profoundly physical book: blooming cauliflower ears, oozing pus, ripped tendons, smashed noses. Working on his prone opponent, Stephen pushes “his far shoulder like I’m crowbarring open Tut’s tomb.” He is not above gaining an advantage through unsportsmanlike behavior—biting an opponent’s hair or giving him “the old five-on-two,” that is, the surreptitious grabbing of an opponent’s testicles. (Here Stephen is in good, nay angelic company: the first cheap shot in wrestling history is in Genesis, when Jacob’s opponent “touched the hollow of his thigh” in an attempt to break their hours-long standstill.)
And yet, as with all thoughtful sports writing, there is always a sense that there is another, often indescribable plane of action. After one detailed description of the sequence of quicksilver moves leading to an escape, Stephen clarifies that

…none of this looks like how I’m explaining it, trust me, it’s little shivering steps fitted together like violence, which is so abstract as to be the desperate past, an ambulance full of context-free furniture pieces.

And when he’s in the groove, Stephen attains a kind of beatific quietude, the still point of the turning world. Placing his ear on an opponent’s back at the start of a period, he hears the doomed wrestler’s heartbeat: “I could fall asleep here if I stayed long enough.”
Being suspended in a Lotus Eater’s blissful trance of dreamy combat would suit Stephen just fine, but the match, and his college career, must end. The novel is a kind of Bildungsroman in which the hero, almost pathologically sure of his vocation, slowly wakes up to an expanded, and confusing, world outside the confines of the mat.

3.Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s recent collection The Trojan War Museum contains unsettling, multilayered, and suggestive postmodern tales in which history, storytelling, and violence intertwine. The title story, for example, fancifully chronicles curation gone run amok in an effort to commemorate a foundational battle between cultures. In “A Cautionary Tale,” she presses on this theme, exploring a literal and figurative clash of civilizations in the story of a famed 19th-century Ottoman wrestler. (Tania James also has a wonderful story in her collection Aerogrammes that similarly uses wrestling as a metaphor for imperial attitudes and the misreading of cultures.)
There are few identifying details in the story, but the narrator of “A Cautionary Tale” is an unnamed immigration officer, presumably Turkish, considering the paperwork of an unnamed citizen applying to leave the country. Rather than asking the “proper questions” in such circumstances, the agent tells a fable-like historical story about Yusuf Ismail, “the first of a line of legendary, savage, monstrously large wrestlers all called, one after the other, the Terrible Turk.” Every so often, the agent breaks off the tale to ask the applicant about their reaction to the tale or to establish the hermeneutical mystery confronting both applicant and reader: “I tell everybody these stories. I’m telling you everything for a reason.”
After gaining fame in his Ottoman homeland, Yusuf travels abroad, demolishing European and American opponents. Outlandish tales of his strength and dedication abound: “It’s said he promised to cut his own throat if he was ever beaten,” and so on. In the West, he is portrayed in the press as a noble savage, a brute with a “sluggish Oriental brain” whose physicality is as impressive as it is ungovernable. Abroad, he can communicate with the crowd and the referees solely through pantomime. 
Returning home from two fiasco-like, possibly fixed bouts in Madison Square Garden with an American opponent, his ship sinks. The story goes that laden with the 40 pounds of gold he liked to wear around his waist, he frantically tried to pull himself onto an already overloaded life raft. In one version, a sailor, cuts off Yusuf’s grasping hands—silencing the pantomiming Turk in more ways than one.
Apart from the Terrible Turk’s Western tour and gruesome end we also hear the agent describe Yusuf’s halcyon days as a young wrestler, establishing his reputation at a multi-day, open-air tournament at Kirkpinar, the old summer hunting grounds of the sultan. Here amid festive drinking and dancing, hundreds of oiled-up combatants compete for the Ottoman crown in a kind of wrestling Burning Man festival. The camaraderie and honor stand in stark contrast to the sullied matches and ostracism he faces abroad.
The tale completed, the vital questions is posed: “Do you think, in choosing to immigrate, the Turk made a mistake?” The applicant is rightly bemused and bothered by the agent’s bizarre, Socratic line of questioning, which given the role of gatekeeper takes on an authoritarian tenor: “This isn’t right. It’s not for you to decide,” the applicant says at one point.” Is the agent a petty tyrant with a stamp or a kindly dispenser of prophetic wisdom about the perils of xenophobia?
A question to wrestle with.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– A Year in Reading: Gabe HabashTwo Writers, One Marriage: The Millions Interviews Julie Buntin and Gabe HabashA Year in Reading: Chris McCormickA Year in Reading: Ayşe Papatya Bucak‘The Trojan War Museum’: Featured Fiction from Ayse Papatya BucakA Year in Reading: Tania James
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2020

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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
6 months

2.
2.

The Memory Police
6 months

3.
3.

The Topeka School
4 months

4.
5.

Ducks, Newburyport

4 months

5.
4.

Inland
6 months

6.
7.

The Hotel Neversink

3 months

7.
9.

Trick Mirror
2 months

8.
6.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
5 months

9.


Night Boat to Tangier
1 month

10.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
1 month

The new year brings slight change to the top-half of our Top Ten. The books in fourth and fifth position swapped places, bumping Ducks, Newburyport up a spot, but otherwise 2020 begins just as 2019 ended: with Olga Tokarczuk in first place.

Elsewhere on the list, things get more interesting. Both Jia Tolentino and Adam O’Fallon Price saw their works rise a couple spots: Trick Mirror from ninth to seventh; The Hotel Neversink from seventh to sixth. Bravo, both.

Speaking of cheers, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, capped off six straight appearances on our Top Ten by ascending to our Hall of Fame. It’s the second time Whitehead has reached the Hall. The Underground Railroad made it in 2017. On the other hand, The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, dropped out of our list.

Filling the two free spots are Ocean Vuong and Kevin Barry, as On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous moves from perennial placement in our “Near Misses” to 10th position, and Night Boat to Tangier rides two mentions from our Year in Reading series into the ninth spot. Both Daniel Levin Becker and our own Bill Morris sung its praises. It “wrap[s] inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss” wrote Becker. “It provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence)” wrote Morris.

This month’s near misses included: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, A Long Petal of the SeaHow to Be an Antiracist, and Quichotte. See Also: Last month’s list.

February Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—if you want even more to look forward to in 2020, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

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

The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus into the Netted. But that promising future also means betraying the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen chooses for this novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)

Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and right-wingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)

trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)

Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Too Much by Rachel Vorona Cote: Cote, a former Victorian scholar, laces together cultural criticism, history, memoir, and theory in her debut work of nonfiction. Spanning everything from Jane Eyre to Britney Spears, the book explores the ways women’s excesses (whether physical, mental, or emotional) can both bind and potentially liberate them. Author Esmé Weijun Wang says the book “spills over: with intellect, with sparkling prose, and with the brainy arguments of Vorona Cote, who posits that women are all, in some way or another, still susceptible to being called too much.” (Carolyn)

Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: In his debut novel, Stuart follows the life of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain and his family in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Agnes—his extremely flawed, well-meaning, and beautiful mother—struggles to stay sober while caring for Shuggie, who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality. A portrait of a working class family dealing with poverty, infidelity, addition, and violence during the Thatcher era. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo says the novel “will knock you sideways.” (Carolyn)

Home Making by Lee Matalone: Matalone’s debut novel laces together the lives of three people: Cybil, an adopted woman who journeys into motherhood; Chole, Cybil’s daughter who attempts to make her house a home; and Chole’s best friend Beau, a gay man in love with a man on the internet. The woven narrative explores mothering, grief, loneliness, and the idea of home. Weike Wang calls the novel “An intricate exploration of family and home, of mother and child, of friends, of women and written with both precision and style.” (Carolyn)

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams: Set in 1870s Massachusetts, Beam’s debut novel follows Samuel Hood, a widowed essayist, and his daughter Caroline open a progressive school for young women. After a flock of red birds touches down in town, the girls begin to experience mysterious illnesses. When Caroline begins to experience the same symptoms, she must step out of her father’s shadow and trust herself—in order to save everyone. A starred review from Kirkus calls it “A satisfyingly strange novel from the one-of-a-kind Beams.” (Carolyn)

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: In 1979 Baja California, 18-year-old Viridiana feels like she’s wasting away in her seaside hometown. While watching fisherman pull dead sharks from their nets, she dreams of a bigger, better, and more glamourous life—until she meets three American strangers. After one of the tourists dies, Viridiana becomes a suspect and her life is upended. Author Gabino Iglesias says Moreno-Garcia’s first thriller “moves forward with the power and grace of a shark.” (Carolyn)

The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons: It’s the classic “girl falls in love with boy” story except for one little thing: The boy is dead. Stuck on Earth for 90 days due to a clerical error, Thomas ignores the rules that say he cannot interact with the living and begins an intense relationship with Rachel, a reference librarian, during his final weeks. With starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, Bonnaffon’s erotic and strange debut chronicles a sexy, somber, and ghostly love affair. (Carolyn)

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson: Larson, the author of bestsellers Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City, has a penchant for making history feel immediate, gripping, and vivid. His newest book offers a portrait of Winston Churchill, his officials, and his family during the Blitz, and the ways the personal informed the political during London’s most destructive and turbulent time. Kirkus’s starred review calls it a “captivating history of Churchill’s heroic year.” (Carolyn)

Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit by Malcom Harris: Taking its title from the sign of an Occupy Wall Street protestor, Harris’ (Kids These Days) essay collection contains 30 pieces about our current political, cultural, and economic landscape and what it means for the future. About the collection, writer Jenny Odell says “The provocations in these essays add up to something we sorely need: a diagnosis of the present that hasn’t given up on the future.”(Carolyn)

Unfinished Business by Vivian Gornick: Acclaimed writer and critic Gornick’s newest collection features nine slim essays about her love of reading and rereading. While writing about books she repeatedly returns to (like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Colette’s The Vagabond), she explores the ways literature informs her life and how her relationships with certain books change and grow throughout the years. (Carolyn)

Where You’re All Going by Joan Frank: Winner of the 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Frank’s quartet of novellas follow ordinary people who are dealing with love, loss, loneliness, and the intimacies—small and large—that connect us all. Writer Aimee Bender says “every paragraph begs to be read aloud, to be heard” and that “the stories are, line after line, brimming with a brisk freshness.” (Carolyn)

Something that May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery:  An essay collection from Lavery, The Toast cofounder and Slate’s “Dear Prudence” columnist, that upends genre to create something wholly new and unique. Honest, vulnerable, and hilarious, Kirkus’s starred review says: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, often both at once. Everyone should read this extraordinary book.” (Carolyn)

Your Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe: Historian Coe breaks with tradition of previous George Washington biographers (mostly male) to present a uniquely humanizing portrait of America’s first president, a man of mythic proportions. “A bewitching combination of erudition and cheek, You Never Forget Your First is a playful, disruptive work of history,” says Jennifer Egan. (Carolyn)

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland: While interning at the Harry Ransom Center, Shapland discovers love letters between McCullers and a woman—and takes it upon herself to give McCullers (and herself) the story they deserve. R.O. Kwon writes, “Captivating and trenchant and moving, Shapland’s genre-mixing debut will stay with me a long time.” (Carolyn)

Must-Read Poetry: February 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Through a Small Ghost by Chelsea Dingman

“I wanted to give you the world.” The narrator of “Memento Mori,” the first poem in Dingman’s new book, speaks those words to the child inside of her. And yet she knows “my body is / the house you will ever forget how to breathe in.” Dingman has the gift to see the world through a wound. In “Intersections,” the narrator encounters a mare “alone in a field, her belly / distended, ribs like ladder rungs.” The occasional wind rustles oak trees, and the mare “spits & shakes” as well. “I’ve seen this before,” the narrator says: “the way a woman’s body reaches // for its own ruin.” There’s wind elsewhere in this book, and its spirit and haunt is the perfect metaphor (I think of John 3:8–“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.”). In “Postscript,” she writes: “A wind chime on my mother’s porch. / The prairies. The constant wind / tears through me like a new language. / Like it’s whispering empty empty empty.” These poems are hymns to a lost daughter. An affirmation. “How briefly the body is a story / where everything matters, // even its name.” And: “When the world // shows us that it’s incapable / of mercy, we stay up all night / & practice how to be merciful.” One of the best books this year.

Romances by Lisa Ampleman 

The first two poems of Ampleman’s new collection follow Andreas Capellanus, a likely pseudonym for the author of a 12th century satirical volume on courtly love. Ampleman immediately brings him to the present day with her own form of humor–a little whimsical, a little absurd, always clever (Rule #2: “Unrequited love is like insulation–toxic / cotton candy hidden beneath gypsum board. / It will keep you warm all winter.”). But Ampleman turns in her own direction to create a farcical take on contemporary love, yet one stitched with real sentiment. In “Love-Scrawls,” the narrator thinks about how we “carve trees, scrape the bark to make our confession, / our affinities simplified to initials / in a lopsided heart.” Not to mention the affirmations on bathroom stalls and biceps. We know that “flesh stretches, ink fades,” but love is not logical. Love is unpredictable, of course (this could be the only book to include a sonnet sequence dedicated to Courtney Love–“I transcribe and mimeograph you for the sake / of those who’ve loved and lost, or sighed / over a sonnet.”).  Ampleman is the perfect guide for this subject.

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

In his prose introduction to this collection, Phillips writes that “we all make art with the same material–time, art is made of time.” Time–inexorable, constant, unconcerned with us despite our obsession with it–plays a distinct role in his new book. He imagines history as a lover who “promises you a kiss / When she comes to bed.” Until then, she, “like every night this summer, stays up / To watch her shows.” History wakes you not with the light of dawn, but “just the white haze of her cell. / You stayed half-awake in the lit darkness / Thinking she owed you something.” Maybe a kiss, maybe more, but then the “light turned off as if it never happened. / And nothing came to you because you were / Owed absolutely nothing.” There’s a touch of Stevens here, of Warren. In another poem, “We wander round ring after ring of life, / One after another, blossoms of light / To which we’re but a mere flotsam of bees.” Remember: “Yesterday’s newspapers becomes last week’s / Newspapers spread like a hand-held fan / In front of the face of the apartment / Door.” The truths of Phillips’s book are plain and perceptive, harsh and oddly soothing.

A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok

Sok has an impressive sense of story in this debut collection. In “American Dancing in the Heart of Darkness,” the narrator, of Cambodian heritage, is in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival. She is surrounded by American students, and considers “maybe I’m American too.” She and the other students stay at the Golden Gate Hotel, where she orders room service–“fresh young coconut, a club sandwich, and French fries”–delivered by a “woman with a bruised face and a silver tray” who has to walk seven floors to her room. The woman will make the same trip almost nine times that night to other rooms, American rooms. The next morning, hundreds are killed and injured in a human stampede at Koh Pich, and the narrator hears from her family. The Americans nod in recognition at the horror, but the narrator is no traveler. Confused, and dizzy with grief, she goes “to the Heart of Darkness, the nightclub empty but open. / We dance with Khmer boys.” The calls announcing deaths continue to arrive that night. It’s an early poem in the book, but Sok never lets up, her detailed sense creating almost constant suspense and tension in this collection. A significant new voice.

Praise Song for My Children: New and Selected Poems by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

These are affirming poems–songs, truly. In the title poem, Wesley writes “Let me come to you at dawn, my children, / my calabash, wet from the early dawn’s / water-fetching run.” Wet, tired, and yet determined: “Let me come to you bearing tears on my face / after the war, after the villages have crumbled / under the weight of grave hate.” The power of Wesley’s collected work here is established in the book’s first poem, “Some of Us Are Made of Steel,” blessedly inspirational verse for a world that needs it: “life has made us cry. / But in our tears, salt, healing, salty, and forever, / we are forever. Yes, some of us are forever.” In one poem, Wesley is thankful for graces common and uncommon, including suffering. Such willingness to see the grace in pain informs the rest of her book, steeped in elegies and remembrances that avoid nihilism. “When I meet my mother,” Wesley writes, “she will take / from my tired hands, this bundle of rotten / leaves and the pail of tears / I have brought to her.” She writes of Liberia and war, and leaving Liberia–but hopefully not forever. “One of these days / there will be rejoicing / all over the place,” she promises. “All of us refugees / will come home again.”

Still Life by Ciaran Carson

The late Carson’s final volume begins with the word “Today,” and that first line ends with the phrase “here I am”–an appropriate formulation. His long lines, their ends pushing past the margin and running down the center, create a root in the present. Carson speaks often of his terminal diagnosis in these poems: “How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is going on. / The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left. / And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.” There is a bravery in offering oneself over to elegy, although the book never feels maudlin–owing to Carson’s range, his almost ravenous curiosity.