Must-Read Poetry: May 2021

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Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Even Shorn by Isabel Duarte-Gray 

An impressive debut that reverberates with its anchoring sense of place. The “night river is a woman washing / clean the moon / upon forgiving rocks,” Duarte-Gray writes in “Cutter Quilt,” and later wonders: “are these nails my person are they / dead apart of me the callus where / I grip my drawknife.” Western Kentucky pulses in this book, sustained by a folk sense that plays with horror and myth. Deft with the open space of the page and unafraid for lines to linger in those wide fields, Duarte-Gray creates a stunning sense of discomfort. In “Drunkard’s Path,” “My old mother kneaded bread / newborn gathered at the breast / full as circle skirt / her blue-eyed cotton lap” until a man comes home drunk, swinging, “his fists falling like / a basset skull caught the back hoof / of a unbroke horse.” These poems exist like hushed stories passed like terrible gifts across generations—the recognition that perhaps we will remain scarred: “Took me time to learn you can’t heal in body.”

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly 

With an expansive voice that is always tethered to the craft of material of stanzas and lines, Kelly creates a powerful second book. Kelly lines feel sustained by a collective voice—a perspective sometimes grammatically present within the lines, other times occupying something like a heartbeat in the charged material. “We come from abundance,” she begins one poem, “each season / bowed with rain.” She writes: “I watch the shoulder burn, / drive through the smoke that blots the mountains, / and holds the old yolk of sun.” The narrators of these poems are dizzy from pain, and seek to affirm: “Tonight, my love, we are free / of men, of gods, and I am a river // against you, drawn to current and eddy, / ready to make, to be unmade.” In addition to the rupture of childhood, Kelly also reveals the pain of separation—the longing that brings broken hearts temporarily together, and yet ultimately, “the gesture weak, / the occasion quite late.” Kelly’s past and present intermingle: “Fathers are for children,” she ends one poem, “and I was never a child, / only a smaller image of myself.” Absent of belief, her narrators ask incomplete questions and wander in mystery, and yet the wandering itself is affirmation enough: “I’ve always had: a dull knife, / a child afraid of the night and herself, // the woman you left. Still, there’s only doing / and done, the same sun, and who can remember home?”

Flares by Christopher Merrill

While reflecting on his time in Slovenia, Merrill said he found a world where “poets and writers, filmmakers and artists” played a distinct role “in fomenting, prophesying, or attempting to stave off the crisis, and then in bearing witness to what they saw. This was deeply interesting to me as a poet coming from a country in which the arts have a rather marginal place. It was disorienting to be in a place where artists took center stage.” Merrill’s life as a writer has been focused on imagining a world where the storyteller’s vision matters, and that vision sustains Flares, a book that also demonstrates the narrative merit of the prose poem tradition. The vignettes arise from an itinerant eye. In “Fall and Recovery,” a safety inspector describes the concept of “crazing”: the manner of a “rack widening in the window of the plane,” the “mesh of lines spreading from the bullet-sized hole in the plastic through which shine glaciers melting in the sea below.” In the fable “Without,” a goat climbs to the top branch of an acacia tree, blares parables, and then “drifted off to sleep, unafraid of what the waxing moon might bring.” In one of the final poems, Merrill wonders: “What became of the vase of lilacs propped on the windowsill of the house tugged by a truck from one end of the street to the other?” A touching, diverse collection.

Collected Poems by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Ní Chuilleanáin has joked that she has never really suffered from writer’s block, but added “I think that my complete works in poetry would add up to something about an inch thick.” I can verify the literal truth of this observation through the book on my desk, but there’s a wealth of comedy, tragedy, and wisdom in her statement. We might write for all of our lives, and yet what we leave behind might only be measured in inches. Humbling, certainly, but perhaps also freeing. Her Collected Poems is a worthy testament to a notable life in poetry, beginning with the 1972 collection Acts and Monuments, and reaching to recent works. From that first book, “Family” glows: “Water has no memory / And you drown it in like a kind of absence.” That paradox permeates these collected works. She writes “Our history is a mountain of salt / a leaking strain under the evening cliff / it will be gone in time / grass will grow there— // not in our time.” A book to spend hours, days, years within.

The 10 Creepiest Gothic Novels

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I reckon there are three elements a novel must get right, in order to qualify as a truly creepy gothic tale. Firstly, the characters, although flawed and troubled (and they’ll definitely be troubled, somewhere along the line) must compel the reader’s interest. Secondly, the landscapes—from foggy Victorian streets, to abandoned country houses, to whistling arctic wastelands—should be both vivid and disquieting. Lastly, the story must be imbued with a sense of mystery, whether that involves a twist and turn on every other page, or a gradual build-up of secrecy and dread.
As long as these demands are fulfilled, the gothic genre is a generous one, allowing for endless depth and variety of writing. Even the type of fear a gothic novel conjures up may differ vastly from book to book—from creepy all the way down to serious, disturbing, and thought-provoking.
The 10 books in this list fulfill all my criteria, in spades. They come with intriguing characters, atmospheric settings, twisty plots, and a cast-iron guarantee to send shivers down your spine.

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

We’ve come to know Frankenstein’s monster as the tall green guy with the greasy hair and the bolt through his neck, but this 20th-century, comic-horror version does no justice to the serious intent of Shelley’s original tale. One dreary, November night, scientist Victor Frankenstein succeeds in animating the creature he has so painstakingly constructed from dead body parts, but no sooner has he achieved his ambition than “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Following its creator’s cruel rejection, horror is piled upon horror, as the unloved “monster” wreaks its revenge upon humankind. Frankenstein is a genuinely disturbing book that raises big questions about creativity, responsibility, and the dangers of knowledge.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is celebrated on many grounds: its insightful portrayal of childhood, its passionate proto-feminism, the heart-stopping romance of its central love story, to name but a few. I love it for all these reasons, but I also love it because it is Properly Creepy. I still get goosebumps when I imagine Jane waking at night to the sound of malevolent laughter outside her bedroom door. As with any self-respecting horror story, the reality of Jane’s situation is murky: is Thornfield Hall haunted by a ghost, or a would-be murderer, or is the mystery a trick of Jane’s mind, a symptom of her own dark desires? The scene that stays with me most vividly takes place shortly before Jane’s wedding, when she wakes at night to find an unknown woman standing in front of the mirror, wearing her bridal veil… It’s a gothic masterclass.

3. Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

Gothic tales don’t come much darker than Thérèse Raquin, in which Thérèse and her lover, Laurent, are devoured by remorse after drowning her husband, Camille. The novel is suffused with a fetid, cloying atmosphere: I picture the scar on Laurent’s neck where his struggling victim bit him; the bloated body in the morgue; the poky haberdasher’s shop where Thérèse ekes out an existence alongside her bereaved mother-in-law, Madame Raquin. Following her son’s death, Madame Raquin suffers a stroke, which effectively buries her alive inside her own body. She learns that Camille’s drowning was no accident when the murderers discuss their crime in her earshot, but the stroke has left her powerless to express anguish, or to communicate her knowledge to a third party. In one especially horrific scene she tries to spell out the truth to friends via tiny, effortful movements of her finger, but in their eagerness to understand they misinterpret: they think she’s saying, “Thérèse and Laurent look after me very well,” and are duly touched.

4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Fear of the unknown is at the heart of all gothic novels, and the new Mrs. de Winter is as ignorant as can be—about the world in general and about her own world in particular. From the moment she swaps the straightforward unpleasantness of Mrs. Van Hopper’s company for the much more elaborate darkness of marriage with Maxim, she is oppressed by questions. Who exactly is her husband? Who was Rebecca? Why does she feel so resented and overshadowed in her new role as mistress of Manderley? I can’t think of a creepier fictional character in all of literature than Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, a “tall and gaunt” woman with a “dead skull’s face,” who haunts the house like a living ghost, eaten up by bitterness and mysterious obsession.

5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Gothic novels rely on a sense of place; the characters and their story are only as compelling as their setting. When I think of The Woman in Black I immediately picture its landscape: a dark, lonely house standing on a foggy stretch of English coast, surrounded by dangerous marshes, and cut off from the mainland at high tide. In Susan Hill’s novel, the landscape is not a passive backdrop but an active player in the drama, every bit as cruel and unsettling as the ghost herself. When the shifting sands and tides swallow up a pony and trap, drowning Jennet Humfrye’s child, the first link is forged in what is to become a long chain of horrors.

6. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is the most profoundly frightening novel on my list. When it comes to ghost stories, there is often a fine line between chilling and absurd—one too many bumps in the night risk raising more laughs than hairs on the back of the neck—but there is nothing absurd about the haunting in this book. In the wake of the Civil War, former slave Sethe settles with her family in Cincinnati. When slave-catchers threaten to return the family to the Kentucky plantation they’ve only just escaped, Sethe drags her small children outside to the woodshed and tries to kill them. Anything–even violent death–is preferable to slavery. Sethe only succeeds in murdering her two-year old daughter, and it is the ghost of this child—the Beloved of the title—that haunts the family home. In a wider sense, the specter is the trauma of slavery, and the upending of norms which that wholesale crime entailed. The book is so frightening because, as well as being a story about particular characters, it is a story about everyone: the violence we are capable of perpetrating, the violence we’ve suffered, and the ways in which this does—and must—haunt us all.

7. The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

The Meaning of Night may be a 600-page doorstopper of a novel, but its gothic twists and turns led me on with such skill that I began to dread reaching the end. (Lucky for me that Michael Cox wrote an equally enthralling sequel called The Glass of Time.) The Meaning of Night begins on a foggy October evening with our narrator, Edward Glyver, picking an innocent man from the crowd, tracking him through the seamy backstreets of Victorian London, and stabbing him to death. The action is horrific, yet the storyteller’s voice is sympathetic—so what does it mean? Why did he do it? I can’t think of anything creepier, or more irresistible, than a distinctly unreliable narrator holding out his hand to the reader and saying, “Come with me, and I’ll tell you everything…”

8. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

All the traditional components of a ghost story are present and correct in this gothic chiller, but they’ve been given a sharp twist—the creaky haunted house becomes a scientific research station on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, and the requisite atmosphere of gloom and desolation is provided by the inescapable arctic winter. Place and story are woven together with such skill that terror of the ghost and terror of the landscape merge seamlessly. The apparition that haunts the novel’s main character, Jack, is an integral part of the loneliness he is forced to endure when his research colleagues abandon him, one by one. As the days on Svalbard get shorter and shorter, and the long winter night begins to close in, I’m not sure whether I, as a reader, feel claustrophobic for supernatural or non-supernatural reasons—or, indeed, whether that distinction makes any sense. Is it rational or irrational to fear darkness, cold, and solitude?

9. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

The haunted house trope seems inexhaustible: novelists are drawn back to it, time and again, and the best of them will always find a fresh approach. Fuller’s third novel unfolds at Lyntons, a dilapidated stately home in England, over an obscenely hot summer in 1969. The middle-aged narrator—awkward, lonely Frances Jellico—has been employed to stay at Lyntons in order to catalogue the gardens for its absent American owner. She is joined there by Peter and Cara, a charming and self-possessed young couple to whom she finds herself increasingly, and uncomfortably, attracted. As in all the best ghost stories, the supernatural elements are ambivalent–as much a projection of Frances’s disturbed mental state as of the house itself.

10. The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell

I read this novel over the Christmas holidays, and I remember looking up at the end of chapter one to relish the perfection of the moment: a gale blowing outside, a fire burning in the grate, and a deliciously scary mystery in my hands. Sometimes, paradoxically, a gothic chiller can be frightening and reassuring at the same time–perhaps it has something to do with striking that perfect balance between physical comfort and mental unease–and this was one of those books for me. O’Donnell’s writing style is wholly original, but there are flavors of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins in there, as befits the novel’s Victorian setting. The richness, narrative drive, and gothic atmosphere reminded me, in particular, of Great Expectations and The Woman in White. The opening chapter—in which doomed seamstress Esther Tull takes her final walk up to the attic of her employer’s London house, a bloody message stitched into her skin—will stay with me forever.

Image Credit: Pixabay

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: At the outset of this marvelous novel, Flora Mancini finds her husband’s wedding ring—the one he told her he lost over a decade ago—and the discovery leads her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about their life together. I read Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s follow-up to her bestselling debut The Nest in two breathless days, eager to find out what would happen next in this elegantly depicted story about marriage, friendship, loyalty, and the intersections of art and commerce, love and secrets. When I was finished, I was plunged into the kind of sweet melancholy that only the end of a good book brings. (Edan)
Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness by Nick Ripatrazone: This is the second book by my fellow contributing editor Ripatrazone, whose first book, Longing for An Absent God, investigated Catholicism in American fiction and its influence on storytelling. Wild Belief continues Nick’s scholarship on spirituality—this time, considering how the spiritual tradition sees nature as a site for renewal and wonder. He synthesizes the work of philosophers, poets, and even saints, to understand why we are drawn to nature even as we fear it, and how it enriches our lives. (Edan)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Now that her Outline trilogy is complete, we get to see where Cusk, winner of the Whitbread Award and one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists, travels next. When a woman invites a famous artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, she hopes that his gaze will penetrate the mysteries of the landscape and of her life. The publisher describes it as a novel that examines, “the possibility that art can both save and destroy us.” (Claire)
 
The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy: Pundits always feel the need to draw upon past masters like Franz Kafka or George Orwell to explain our dystopian present, but in the future it may very well be Alex McElroy and their debut novel The Atmospherians which best elucidates our panopticon-surveyed, late capitalist hellscape epoch. In the novel, doxxed influencer Sasha Marcus must reconstitute her brand after her woman’s wellness venture was destroyed by men’s rights activists, and so she founds a rehabilitation institute to cure men of their toxic masculinity. A trenchant picture of our world right now, The Atmospherians is equal parts perceptive and prescient. (Ed S.)
In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan: Social distancing marked the lonely horror that was this year; paradoxically a demonstration of how affection and empathy for our fellow humans required us to retreat into ourselves, connection now defined by the absence of contact. Ethel Rohan’s book of short stories examines something similar in his evocation of what lack of connection can do to us. With a diversity of characters ranging from a childless immigrant daughter justifying her decision to her parents, a grumpy crossing guard honoring the time he got hit by a truck, a demented priest looking for redemption, and a plucky teen detective, In the Event of Contact is a loving homage to humanity in all of its complexity.(Ed S.)
Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes: It’s hard to know why the Vernon Subutex trilogy, an unlikely cocktail of Wolfish satire, Houellebecqesque pessimism, and Ferrantean range and rage, hasn’t kicked up more of a fuss here in the U.S. (though maybe I just answered my own question). Still, it’s easy to see why Nell Zink’s a fan. This third installment concludes the adventures of our titular hero, a peripatetic and intermittently visionary ex-record store owner cut loose on the streets of Paris. (Garth)
The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado: A debut short story collection with elements of the fantastic, surreal, and speculative—flying children, strange creatures on the roof—that the publisher compares to work from Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. (Lydia)
 
Cheat Day by Liv Stratman: In Stratman’s funny and sharp debut, college sweethearts Kit and David are still together—but their relationship is falling apart. As the couple embarks on an intense fad diet together, Kit finds herself beginning an affair with someone she met at work. As Kit gives into her carnal desire, she begins to diet more severely. Jami Attenberg writes, “Sexy, witty and down-to-earth, Cheat Day tackles the truths about our modern occupations with wellness, relationships and what it means to be happy.” (Carolyn)
Phase Six by Jim Shepard: This uncomfortably timely novel imagines our next pandemic, unleashed by thawing permafrost. Set in Greenland, it follows 11-year-old Aleq, who unwittingly brings back a virus from an open mining site and survives a devastating outbreak. CDC epidemiologists are then dispatched to study the virus and prevent a global pandemic. They take Aleq into their care, and the novel follows multiple points of view as the catastrophe unfolds. (Hannah)
 
Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber: Silber’s ninth work of fiction is the story of a young New York lawyer who discovers that his father has a secret family in Queens: a Thai wife and two young children. Ethan’s mother leaves the country in the wake of the revelation, while Ethan becomes involved in a love triangle of his own. This complex, intergenerational novel spans three continents as it reveals the connection between the two families, no longer secret to each other. (Hannah)
Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng: A young girl in China hears from her long-emigrated parents that they will collect her soon and bring her to America. While she fights to stay in the place she knows, her parents are working through their own crises as they navigate the past and the future. Of the novel Garth Greenwell raves, “Everything in this gorgeously orchestrated novel surprises, everything outraces expectation. Swimming Back to Trout River is one of the most beautiful debuts I have read in years.” (Lydia)
The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti: In August 1947, as talk of Partition swirls on the streets of New Delhi, 16-year-old Deepa trades messages encoded in intricate origami with her boyfriend Amir. Seventy years later, in Atlanta, Georgia, Deepa’s granddaughter, reeling from marital troubles and the recent loss of a pregnancy, begins to search for her estranged grandmother and in the process piece together the history of her family shattered by the violent separation of India and Pakistan. Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars, calls The Parted Earth, the second of two books by Enjeti out this spring, “a devastating portrayal of Partition and the trauma it wreaked in the generations that followed.” (Michael)
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Everything is vanishing, or so it appears to Anna, the protagonist in Flanagan’s new novel that is “one part elegy, one part dream, one part hope.” Hailed as the Booker Prize winner’s greatest novel yet, the new work tackles climate change, family ties, and resilience in the Anthropocene. (Nick M.)

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead: Spanning from 1920s Montana to wartime London to present day Los Angeles, Shipstead’s historical novel follows Marian Graves, an infamous 20th century aviator, and Hadley Baxter, the Hollywood starlet cast in Marian’s biopic a century later. Weaving through time and space, the novel explores fate, love, and fulfillment. Receiving starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, the latter calls the novel a “breathtaking epic” and a “stunning feat.” (Carolyn)
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd): The newest novel from Breast and Eggs is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy who is mercilessly bullied for his lazy eye. With grace and clarity, Kawakami explores destructive nature of adolescent violence, and the power of empathetic friendships. About the novel, Naoise Dolan writes: “Heaven is told with astonishing frankness and economy. It will cut through all your defences down to every layer of fear, isolation, hope and need you’ve ever felt.” (Carolyn)
Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger: Selected as a winner of the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards, Dancyger’s illustrated and reported memoir manages to be so many wonderful and heartbreaking things at once. With empathy and gorgeous prose, Dancyger excavates, explores, and attempts to understands her father—a brilliant artist and addict—as he was: flawed, complicated, and so very, very loved. T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, calls the debut “candid, thrilling, wickedly smart” and “one of the greatest memoirs of this, or any, time.” (Carolyn)
Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho: In her newest book, Cho—an author, sociologist, and Korean immigrant—blends food memoir; sociological explorations of her mother’s South Korean upbringing; and her complicated relationship with her mother, who had schizophrenia. Allie Rowbottom says that Cho’s “raw, reaching, and propulsive” memoir “creates and explores an epic conversation about heritage and history, intergenerational trauma and the connective potential of food to explore a mother’s fractured past.” (Carolyn)
Nervous System by Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell): In her newest novel, award-winning Chilean author Meruane follows Ella, an astrophysicist, as she struggles to write her dissertation and care for her partner, El, who is recovering from a near-fatal work accident. As the stress and secrets begin to consume her, Ella invokes the spirit of her late mother and asks her to inflict her with an illness. Sarah Moss says, “Nervous System is fast, uncompromising, and shimmering with intelligence.”(Carolyn)
Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcalá: Originally published in 1997, Alcalá’s award-winning debut novel is being reissued with a new forward by Rigoberto González. Set in 1870s Mexico, Spirits of the Ordinary explores the complexities of survival, faith, and culture. In its original review, Publishers Weekly’s starred review said: “Alcala’s seductive writing mixes fatalism and hope, logic and fantasy, to create moral, emotional and political complexities.” (Carolyn)

Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman: Author, activist, and AIDS historian Schulman has written the ultimate account of the triumphs, tragedies, and political activism of the New York City AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) chapter. “Sarah Schulman has written more than an authoritative history of ACT UP NY here—it is a masterpiece of historical research and intellectual analysis that creates many windows into both a vanished world and the one that emerged from it, the one we live in now,” says Alexander Chee. “Any reader will be changed, I think, by the stories here–radicalized and renewed, which to me is something better than just hope.” (Carolyn)

The Millions Top Ten: March 2021

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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
3 months

2.
2.

White Ivy
5 months

3.
3.

Fake Accounts
2 months

4.


Klara and the Sun
1 month

5.
8.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
3 months

6.
6.

Detransition, Baby

3 months

7.
4.

The Silence
6 months

8.
5.

Dune: Book 1
5 months

9.
9.

No One Is Talking About This
2 months

10.
7.

What Are You Going Through
6 months

Let’s get right to it: basically nothing changed this month. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun jumped into the space that Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga left open. Two books reversed positions: Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy swapped eighth position for fifth, which had previously been held by Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Otherwise? Less movement than the Ever Given.

That’s OK, though. Especially in a year when few of us have moved much more than that. This might be the inhalation before the stretch, the huff before the sprint. If the Top Ten is the country at large, then the pairs of five- and six-month books on it—books poised to hit our Hall of Fame soon, opening spots as they do—are dormant cicadas, ready to transform the late spring and summer into something wholly different from what we have now. That’s soon.

Or perhaps a comparison more apt would be this: if the March Top Ten is all of us, huddled and yearning to breathe (mask) free, then ramping up vaccination rates are going to free things up sooner than later, and movement will only follow.

Respite is coming. Will reading? See you next month to check in.

This month’s near misses included: Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology, Outlawed, Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, and A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself. See Also: Last month’s list.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading: Sigrid Nunez
Bird Brain: Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, and the Literature of Twitter
The Novel Still Exists: The Millions Interviews Don DeLillo
A Year in Reading: Lauren Oyler
George Saunders and the Question of Greatness
Kazuo Ishiguro and the Inescapable Perils of the Internet
Panel Mania: ‘Dune: The Graphic Novel’

April Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
 
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Inspired by the true story of one of the first Black female doctors in America, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel tells the story of Libertie Sampson coming of age in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn. Libertie’s mother, a physician, wants her daughter to attend medical school and practice alongside her but, unlike her mother who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. After accepting an offer of marriage from a young Haitian man promising equality on the island, Libertie finds she is still considered inferior to her husband, and all men. In the words of Brandon Taylor, author of Booker short-listed Real Life, “In this singular novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge confronts the anonymizing forces of history with her formidable gifts. Libertie is a glorious, piercing song for the ages—fierce, brilliant, and utterly free.” (Adam Price)
Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi: Following 2019’s “Hansel and Gretel”-inspired Gingerbread, Oyeyemi brings her readers on a surreal, inspired journey, beginning with hypnotist Otto Shin going off on a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his longtime boyfriend, Xavier. A train trip, their honeymoon takes an odd turn Ava Kapoor, the train’s owner, reveals that she’s set to receive a large inheritance. And when a mysterious passenger threatens that inheritance—and a young man named Yuri begins intervening in their lives—Otto and Xavier find their trip becoming more and more stressful. (Thom)
An Alternative History of Pittsburgh by Ed Simon: Pittsburgh native Ed Simon, erudite staff writer at The Millions, has written an idiosyncratic and predictably brainy book about his hometown, to be published by the inspiring independent house, Belt Publishing. Pennsylvania is Simon’s clay, as witnessed by this passage from a post-election essay that appeared in Belt Magazine: “Far more capable tyrants than Trump have been felled by Pennsylvania. This vanquishing feels like George Meade turning back Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It makes me want to ring the Liberty Bell until its crack breaks the whole thing apart and the light can get in.” The light got in. This book will help you understand how and why. (Bill)
Subdivision by J Robert Lennon: J Robert Lennon, one of our most reliably interesting and adventurous novelists, returns in 2021 with Subdivision, an offering both darker and more whimsical than his critically lauded 2017 foray into crime fiction, Broken River. Subdivision continues Lennon’s fascinating career-long exploration of perception and memory, as an unnamed narrator finds herself in, well, the Subdivision, a mysterious locale where the unsettling and inexplicable routinely occur. Accompanied by an Alexa-like digital assistant named Cylvia, the narrator explores the maze-like neighborhood, and as the jigsaw puzzle in the guest house where the narrator is staying nears completion, the Subdivision’s true character begins to emerge. (Adam Price)
The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler): It seems that New Directions releases a new translation of Lispector’s work at least every few years, and thank goodness, I can never get enough of her writing. This latest volume is a translation of what has been called Lispector’s “most accessible” book. A surprise when considering that this is the work that follows The Passion According to GH, and need I remind you, much of that wondrous novel consists of the narrator crossing a room to kill and consume a cockroach (and well, so much more). When Lispector was asked why she wrote something so straightforward, she replied, “I humanized myself.” (Anne)
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade: “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” Someone has been hearing my prayers: Quade has taken one of the finest short stories from her debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, and revisited the tale to create a masterful novel of family, faith, doubt. Quade’s storytelling gift is her ability to capture the mysterious pulse of belief and ground them in visceral ritual on the page. She begins with Amadeo’s dream role for Holy Week—no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus. Amadeo pines for meaning his life: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion. How many people can say they’ve done that for God?” Yet his plans are strained when his daughter reveals her secret. It turns out that the Lord and great storytellers work in mysterious ways. (Nick R.)
The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken: There’s good reason a new Elizabeth McCracken book is cause for celebration: everything she writes—her short stories, her novels, and, hey, also a memoir—is consistently brilliant. Her work is the perfect amount of odd, witty, tender, and deceptively heart-splitting. This latest is a short story collection that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “sly” and “emotionally complex.” There are twelve stories in all, including one about a mother who gorges on challah because she longs for her kids, and another about an actress who plays a villain on a children’s show and her loser brother. I can’t wait. (Edan)
The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright: A Black man is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct, where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn’t commit. After signing a confession, he escapes from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers beneath the streets of the city. Sound familiar? No, this didn’t happen last week. It’s the premise of the previously unpublished novel from the 1940s, The Man Who Lived Underground, by the immortal Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy. This novel cut close to the author’s heart. As he put it: “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from pure inspiration.” (Bill)
My Good Son by Yang Huang: The winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, My Good Son is about a tailor named Mr. Cai in post-Tiananmen China and the dreams he holds for his only son, Feng. Mr. Cai schemes with one of his clients, Jude, a gay American expat, to get his son to the States, and the novel, about parental expectations, social class, and sexuality, highlights both the similarities and differences between Chinese and American cultures. Huang, who has previously published a novel and a collection of linked stories, grew up in China and moved to the states to study computer science—only to also pursue writing. She says, “In writing I can let down my walls, suspend my moral judgment, and pour my deepest compassion into the written words.” (Edan)
First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel): The eight stories in this new collection by Murakami are all told in the first person singular voice. This narrator shares a lot of passions with the author: nostalgia of young love and sex, ruminations on Jazz music, and the enthusiasm in baseball. Like Murakami’s previous stories, the charm of magical realism is always sustained by a philosophical meditation on love, loneliness, and memory. (Jianan Qian) 

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode: A Nigerian crime drama with wide-ranging sociological and political implications, Lightseekers introduces the unusual detective Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist more interested in why than how. After an angry mob beats and then burns three undergraduate students in a Nigerian border town and the killings are widely shared on social media, the powerful father of one victim hires Taiwo to figure out what really happened. The police can’t find a motive for the murders, but Taiwo (with the help of his streetwise driver, Chika) faces a dangerous conspiracy to reveal the private violence behind the public attack. (Kaulie) 
Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian: A comic surreal novel about a young man growing up in the Atlanta burbs, a scheme of his neighbor’s that goes awry, and his adulthood as a history grad student surrounded by the new gold rush of Silicon Valley. Celeste Ng says of the novel “In a perfect alchemical blend of familiar and un-, Gold Diggers takes a wincingly hilarious coming-of-age story, laces it with magical realism and a trace of satire, and creates a world that’s both achingly familiar and marvelously inventive. Written with such assurance it’s hard to believe it’s Sanjena Sathian’s debut, this is a dizzyingly original, fiercely funny, deeply wise novel about the seductive powers—and dangers—of borrowed ambition.” (Lydia)
Southbound by Anjali Enjeti: For generations, portraits of race relations in the American South have been painted only in Black and white. But as more Asian and Latinx people settle south of the Mason-Dixon line, that picture has grown more complex – and more interesting. In her debut essay collection, Enjeti, an election activist and former attorney, tackles a wide range of topics spanning from voter suppression to the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the South and the whitewashing of Southern literature. (Michael) 
Farthest South & Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford: Following his acclaimed debut collection, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, Rutherford’s sophomore collection  blurs the boundaries between dreams, fables, and the mystical to explore themes like family, grief,  and illness.  About the eight stories, Laura van den Berg writes: “Drawing on landscapes both mythic—the fairytale, the ghost story—and domestic, this collection illuminates terrors that feel at once prescient and eternal.”  (Carolyn)
Nancy by Bruno Lloret (translated by Ellen Jones): Lloret’s English language debut follows a recently-widowed, cancer-striken woman on her deathbed as she looks back on her sad, lonely, and bleak life in Chile. Fernando A. Flores calls Nancy “a devastating, psychic exploration of our crumbling world, told in a visceral style that proves Bruno Lloret to be a force among the emerging Chilean writers of today.” (Carolyn)

We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane: In her lyrical memoir, which won the 2020 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, Cassandra Lane explores her ancestral history in order to give her future child a family history. Weaving the story of her great-grandparent’s lives in the rural South (including her great-grandfather’s tragic death) and her life in current-day Los Angeles, Lane explores the ways the past informs the present—and how to beautifully reclaim it. Previous Meriwether winner YZ Chin writes: “In We Are Bridges, Cassandra Lane boldly investigates the connections between transgenerational trauma, personal love, and the burden of memory.” (Carolyn)
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur: In Hur’s newest novel, particle physicist Elsa Park is working at an observatory in the Antarctic—a place, she believes, is far enough away from her family, past, and the ghosts that inhabit both. When the imaginary friend from her youth returns—and her catatonic mother breaks her years-long silence—Elsa must return home to face what she has spent years running from. Celeste Ng calls the novel “spellbinding shape-shifter” that “tackles questions of race, culture, and history head-on, exploring the blurry boundaries between past and present, fact and fantasy, and personal and cultural—or cosmic.” (Carolyn)
A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco (translated by Jennifer Croft): Falco’s newest collection (and his English language debut) feaures five stories—one of which was a finalist for the García Márquez Short Story Prize. Set in Argentina’s Córdoba mountains, these richly drawn stories explore faith, loss, and love, as well as the psychological and environmental. Kirkus’ glowing starred review called it “expansive and ingeniously crafted—an unforgettable collection.” (Carolyn)

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin: From the author of Don’t Skip Out on Me (a 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalist), Vlautin’s newest novel follows Lynette, a 30-year-old who is barely hanging on, as she tries to keep her family together by buying the house she lives in with her mother and developmentally disabled brother. Set over the course of two increasingly stressful days and nights, a desperate Lynette is pushed to the brink in order to keep a roof over her family’s head. Ivy Pochoda calls the novel a “masterclass of scope and scale” that bleeds real, cuts deep, and offers just the right dose of hope.” (Carolyn)

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick: The protagonist of Ozick’s first book in over a decade is Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired and isolated lawyer, who seems to be living in (and for) the past. When the boarding school he attended as a boy is turned into a pseduo retirement home for trustees, he tries to wrangle his memories into a memoir. About Ozick’s writing, The New York Review of Books writes: “No matter what the topic, Ozick’s prose urges the breathless reader along, her love of language rolling excitedly through her sentences like an ocean wave.” (Carolyn)

Permafrost by Eva Baltasar: Told in first-person stream of consciousness, Catalan poet Baltasar’s debut novel—which won the 2018 Catalan Booksellers Award—is about a forty-year-old lesbian who is turning over the memories of her life: wondering about former lovers; remembering places she lived; her thoughts of suicide. Amina Cain writes, “How can a novel that orbits suicide be so surprising, so intensely liberating and funny, and at the same time, so full of grief? That is its genius.”
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner: The tender and moving debut memoir from Zauner—writer and musician of the indie solo act Japanese Breakfast—shares the name of her viral 2018 New Yorker article. In what Dani Shapiro calls “a gripping, sensuous portrait of an indelible mother-daughter bond,” Zauner explores the visceral importance of food, memories of her late mother, and her identity as a Korean American. (Carolyn)

Back to School: The Nine Best Campus Novels (and One Memoir)

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Before I’d written a page of my novel All Girls, I’d drawn—on the yellow lined paper of a legal pad—a map of my book’s fictional boarding school: the round loop of its campus drive; the placement of the various dorms across a wide green; the woods that bordered the back edge of my rural enclave. This exercise had a practical purpose: I needed to understand the layout of my school to describe how my characters moved around it. But the activity was also itself a character sketch: in a campus novel, place is as significant a role as any protagonist (or villain). These books offer us a portrait of a community, not just in cast but in geography, and tell us the story of the relationship between a place and its people—how they shape one another, imprint on each other, leave the other forever changed.

1. The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames
Ames’s debut novel opens with a description of a dorm room window seat: From the outset, we understand that the liberal arts college where our story begins will shape our characters’ perspectives. The Other’s Gold is an empathetic, thoughtful reflection on whether we choose our friends or whether our circumstances choose them for us, and how those bonds do—or do not—weather the tests of growth and change.

2. We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

Funny and madcap like its 1980s setting, Barry’s novel tells the story of a high school field hockey team whose athletes pledge themselves to “witchcraft”—a series of increasingly elaborate (and dangerous) pranks enacted upon their school and surrounding community in the name of securing victory on the field. We Ride Upon Sticks is a portrait of a team, in all its interconnectedness—and in a world where not enough books feature girls who play sports, this is a gift.

3. My Education by Susan Choi

Is it possible that Choi is the patron saint of campus novels? Before Trust Exercise, there was My Education—a book about a grad student who falls in love with her predatory professor’s wife. The novel resists defining its characters’ sexuality, instead giving us a meditation on desire, and in this way almost seems like a precursor to books like Raven Leilani’s Luster or even the 2020 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

4. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford
Not a novel, but Lacy Crawford’s memoir is such a powerful portrait—and indictment—of the power and privilege of institution that it belongs on any list about boarding school books. Assaulted by a fellow student at St. Paul’s School when she was 15 years old, Crawford’s book is a reclamation—of her voice and her story—but it is also a wholly empathetic rendering of teenage girlhood. The depth and compassion Crawford grants to her younger self is what all girls deserve—but perhaps in particular from the places that swear to serve as their protectors.

5. The Divines by Ellie Eaton

Eaton’s debut begins as our protagonist, Sephine, is on her honeymoon—and proceeds to unfold in two timelines, as Sephine navigates marriage and motherhood while also revisiting the traumatic events of her junior year at a crumbling English boarding school. The Divines is a book about legacy and self-perception—about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—and one that wonders whether we don’t sometimes choose the ghosts that haunt us.

6. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
At the start of Johnson’s debut novel, a boy dies by suicide. The rest of the book unfolds several years after the tragedy; this is not a novel about grief or guilt as much as it is about ripple effects, and the psychology of teenagerhood generally. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth takes the linked structure of Olive Kitteridge or A Visit from the Goon Squad and applies it to the most insular, interwoven community of all: high school.

7. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
A boy and a girl from very different backgrounds with their own personal traumas meet, fall in and out of love, and are—ultimately—a little bit doomed. It’s easy to forget that Kwon’s debut begins in this familiar way—on the dance floor at a college party—but for all its wrestling with big themes like faith and grief and violence, The Incendiaries is also a very intimate story: about the things we do and do not tell the people we love, and about what it is to be very young and searching for safe harbor.

8. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Credit where credit’s due: Prep is the O.G. Sittenfeld’s debut novel is the defining boarding school novel, unparalleled in its texture and verisimilitude, and Lee Fiora is one of the most distinct voices in contemporary fiction. With sharp insights on race and class, meticulous attention to the rhythms and mores of prep school life, and a nesting doll structure that underscores the labyrinthine nature of high school itself, Prep is one for the canon.

9. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
At Catherine House, students have everything they could ever need or want—including membership to an elite club of famously successful alumni. Tuition is free…ish: For the duration of their enrollment, students must promise to give up access to the outside world. Catherine House is equal parts campus novel, horror story, and coming-of-age tale—and a book whose very smart central question seems to ask: is there really a difference between a school and a cult?

10. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
Another debut novel set in an all-girls boarding school, Madam introduces us to a newly-appointed Classics teacher at Caldonbrae, where—not unlike in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—something is amiss. Although the book is set in the 1990s, Wynne plays expertly with her gothic literature toolkit, so our sense of place and time are distorted from the outset—a metaphor, perhaps, in the timelessness of the girls’ struggle, the school’s overemphasis on its own history.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Ten Thrillers Based on Real-Life Events

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Writers of fiction based on real-life events lay themselves open to charges: sensationalism, exploitation, cheap thrills. Let’s be honest: sometimes the thrills on offer are cheap. But they don’t have to be. The form of the thriller—fast-paced but with moments of intense reflection—lends itself to exploring big questions, often from new and unexpected angles. Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Patricia Cornwell have all used mystery stories to reinterpret real events. Was Jack the Ripper actually English painter Walter Sickert, as Cornwell claims in Portrait of a Killer? I don’t think so, but Cornwell is such a high-octane storyteller that I enjoyed being pulled along for the ride. And sometimes a writer wants to go further, to frame an alternative outcome, or to dramatize aspects of a case that are not inherently dramatic (we know from FBI transcripts that most of what goes on in a serial killer’s head is unendingly mundane). Sometimes only fiction will do.
Murder disturbs us, and murder trials do not bring closure. They raise questions that nonfiction accounts often can’t answer, such as How could this happen here, and to these people? And because motive can be the hardest thing to determine, Why? Perhaps fiction can’t provide definitive answers, but it can certainly map out the terrain. In the U.S., Ed Gein, a killer who made keepsakes from bones and skin, casts his long shadow over Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. And almost 30 years after it happened in my home country of Britain, we still struggle with the Jamie Bulger case, in which two 10-year-old boys murdered a toddler in cold blood. Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls and Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing take their inspiration from this horrible little murder. They are works of entertainment, yes, but honorable, thought-provoking, and deeply compelling. Here are 10 exceptional thrillers based on real-life events.
1. The Long Drop by Denise Mina
Sixty years after Peter Manuel’s death, people in Scotland still shudder at his name. Mina takes an event known to have happened—Manuel’s 11-hour drinking session with William Watt, the man whose wife, sister-in-law, and daughter he had bestially killed—and intercuts that night with Manuel’s trial for their murder the following year. For both men the stakes are high. The police suspect Watt of murdering his own family; Watt believes Manuel to be the killer. This is true crime reimagined as fiction and marketed as a novel. It’s a superb trawl through the razor gangs and illegal bars of the 1950s Glasgow underworld—horrifying, but at times very funny. Traces of that world are still there, as anyone who grew up in Scotland will tell you.

2. The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani
It’s easy to see why this is an international bestseller. What the opening pages describe is so repellent that you’re left wanting to put down the book, but Slimani writes with such persuasive brilliance and such compassion that she hooks you in. She based the novel on a notorious double child-murder in New York in 2012, but she moves the characters to Paris, and subtly flips the ethnic balance between family and nanny. Look at these people, this book seems to say. They could be you and your family. Slimani plays all kinds of tricks with the conventions of the crime thriller—we are never in any doubt about who did it, or why—and yet it is a breathless, compelling, and terrifying read that takes hold of your deepest fears and draws them subtly to the surface.

3. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Speaking of openings: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” If there is a better first sentence in a thriller, I don’t know what it is. Those 16 words terrified me as a child—they still do—even as they forced me read on. It’s the combination of a correct, matter-of-fact style, and the horrible promise they make to the reader. Part of you thinks they can’t be true, that no narrator could treat his characters with such cruelty. It’s chilling but exhilarating. This is a novel set in the prewar world of Brighton, a place of decency and gentility, you would think, but it’s policed by violent gangs armed with cutthroat razors. The novel’s most violent and compelling character, Pinkie, has a psychotic brilliance that others can only dream of.

4. Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth
Anyone living in Norway knows Vigdis Hjorth, an acclaimed writer of literary fiction. This book reads like a thriller, a devastating study of violence within a family, both physical and psychological, and the after-effects of that violence. Hjorth based the novel on experiences within her own family. In Norway the book caused such a stir that Hjorth’s sister felt compelled to publish her own counter-novel “to set the record straight.” But don’t read Will and Testament as a roman à clef: read it as a thriller, a family novel in weaponized form. Watch as it weaves seemingly banal events and conversations into a tight and breathless narrative of coercion and control, but also, ultimately, of escape.

5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Columbine High School murders cast long shadows across this novel, though you barely notice that at first. It’s the story of Kevin, a boy whose mother cannot fully love him. Is Kevin a bad child? A bad son? A bad brother? Or is something about the family driving him to want to destroy it? Shriver is such a skillful observer of human behavior, and of the intricate patterns of family life, that you are constantly uncertain. But it’s not just Columbine that Shriver is writing about, and it’s not just violence. Her narrator picks apart the family, the one with the values just like yours or mine, and she is terrified by what she finds.

6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
This book made me feel actively dirty, complicit in deeds that disgusted me, and yet I’ve read it three times. Why? Because Hannibal Lecter is a superb creation. Harris based the character on Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a prison doctor he met while conducting interviews in a Mexican jail. Dr. Treviño was in fact an inmate, a death row prisoner awaiting execution, a quietly charismatic man, and highly intelligent. Harris’s Lecter is the serial killer as brilliant mind, with a capacity far beyond anything we can imagine in ourselves. Who cares how unlikely that actually is? Lecter is so damn charismatic that a small part of me, a bad part for sure, wants to cheer him on. Thank God, then, for Clarice Starling, the moral center of the novel. Interesting, too, that Treviño’s actual crimes—a string of hitchhiker murders—are committed in Harris’s novel by the character of Buffalo Bill.

7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
So many mystery writers have taken the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as inspiration, but Agatha Christie must surely have been the first. Just two years after the 20-month-old boy was taken from his parents, aviators Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Christie published Murder on the Orient Express, with a plot that revolves around a similar abduction. It’s an intricate and beautifully crafted thriller, a locked-room mystery on wheels. But it’s so much more. It took me some time to realize that this is actually a horrifying little tale, because the release of information is so slow, and so clinically controlled. The murder at the story’s heart is so profoundly disturbing, readers at the time must have found themselves asking: “Too soon?”

8. Room by Emma Donoghue
It took me time to adjust to the voice in this novel. You find yourself asking, “Would a five-year-old structure a story sequentially? Would he express himself in italics?” Then you begin to understand Jack’s situation, and Donoghue’s story takes over. Jack and Ma are being held captive by Old Nick, a violent man who repeatedly rapes Ma. Jack cannot understand how desperate his situation is, because Ma shields him from the truths that she must face. What’s frightening to Jack, and what becomes terrifying to the reader, is the world beyond, which Jack only experiences through the television. The novel was inspired by the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, held as a sex slave by her father for 24 years and forced to bear his children, but the focus is really on what happens when a world collapses, as Jack’s world does on the day when he escapes.

9. The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline has said that The Girls is not about the Manson family, and that’s true in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin is not technically about Columbine. It’s a brilliantly clever denial; this thriller balances on a knife-edge, using what we know about the Manson family—a Californian death cult who murdered seven people over two nights, including the actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child—to make us fear for Evie, the book’s central character. Evie is 14, bored, and easily charmed. One day in summer she meets a captivating character. Will her innocence be the undoing of her? It connects very deeply to questions of radicalization that left me wondering what pushes or draws people into groups where violent acts are normalized.

10. Girl A by Abigail Dean
Can a book about a child’s kidnapping really be “profoundly entertaining?” Yes, according to Jenny Colgan, who describes Girl A as “a lovely, precision-tooled piece of kit.” Abigail Dean is a lawyer, and the “Girl A” in her novel is Lex, who was held captive by her parents as a child. When she and her siblings inherit the childhood home, they are confronted again with their past. Dean drew from a number of infamous legal cases, including those of English child killers Rose and Fred West, and the California couple David and Louise Turpin, who in 2019 were convicted of sexually abusing 12 of their 13 children. A confession: Girl A came out in February and, at the time of this writing, my copy hasn’t yet reached me in Norway, so I’m still waiting to read it. The book is on its way to being a huge international bestseller. I’m sure Jenny Colgan is right, and that the sensationalist framing hides a thoughtful and deeply felt commitment to confront and conquer ugly deeds.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2021

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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
2 months

2.
2.

White Ivy
4 months

3.


Fake Accounts
1 month

4.
5.

The Silence
5 months

5.
3.

Dune: Book 1
4 months

6.
8.

Detransition, Baby

2 months

7.
6.

What Are You Going Through
5 months

8.
9.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
2 months

9.


No One Is Talking About This
1 month

10.
7.

Cuyahoga
5 months

“We suddenly have two novels, released within a week of each other, that brazenly, with swagger and open ambition, take on the voice of the bird app [Twitter], and thus of our scrambled times,” wrote Michael Lindgren in his piece last week on new novels from Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler.  “Due to the caprices of the publishing schedule, [both are now] permanently frozen in a lit-world pas de deux for all eternity.”

Both are now members of our Top Ten as well.

The third spot on this month’s list belongs to Oyler’s Fake Accounts, while Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This holds ninth position. (In Lindgren’s review, he’d have swapped the order.)

Their entrée onto our list was made possible by the ascension of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half to our site’s Hall of Fame, as well as another book dropping out from last month’s list. Meanwhile, the eight other books from January’s rankings alternated position, but mostly remained where they were. (Dune dropped a few slots, perhaps because at 704 pages, it simply weighs too much.)

Looking ahead, we expect significant changes to our list in May and June, as fully half of the books listed this month have been listed for four or five months apiece. That means five spots are on track to open up right as we enter what could be the most anticipated summer in North American history. You might think a populace emerging from a year of plague-based precautions would favor friskier activities than reading—but then again a generational cicada swarm may make the outdoors less appealing. In that case we’ll all be indoors again—reading, reading, reading, vaccinated and free.

This month’s near misses included: Outlawed, Vesper Flights, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself and Life Among the Terranauts. See Also: Last month’s list.

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About James and Nora Joyce

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Dubliner James Joyce gained international fame with the publication of his novel Ulysses in 1922. Joyce enjoyed a lifelong partnership with Nora Barnacle—an earthy, pragmatic Galway woman with little interest in literature.
The pair met in Dublin, where Nora worked in Finn’s Hotel, and first went out together on the June 16, 1904, later immortalized as Bloomsday, the day the events in Ulysses take place. Joyce and Nora left Ireland for Europe in October 1904 and settled in Trieste, then an Austro-Hungarian port town. They had two children—Giorgio and Lucia—and lived in various cities, including Paris. Both died in Zürich, Switzerland.
1. Joyce and Nora were not married when they eloped in 1904 and didn’t marry until 1931. Though bohemian in some attitudes, the Joyces lived a fairly conventional life. They pretended to be married but, after 27 years, made their union legal to ensure their children’s inheritances. The pair hoped to marry quietly in a London register office, but were found out by the paparazzi. Their annoyance is palpable in the photographs—Joyce looks grim and Nora tries to hide her face with her cloche hat.
2.Nora and Joyce moved relentlessly throughout their lives: sometimes evicted, sometimes living in borrowed accommodation, sometimes having to flee to keep safe. They stayed in Zürich during WWI and returned there at the start of WWII. In Paris alone, they lived at 19 different addresses. This peripatetic existence may have been a hangover from Joyce’s youth—his large family often moved clandestinely at night when his profligate father left their rent unpaid.
3. James Joyce was an English teacher. He taught at the Berlitz schools in Trieste and the Italian province of Pola, but found the work tiresome, and often spoke to his students about the faults of Ireland and the joys of drinking, rather than verbs and vocabulary. He gave up teaching when several benefactresses—Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Sylvia Beach, and Harriet Weaver—eased his financial strains.
4. In the great Irish emigrant tradition, Joyce and Nora “brought over” three of Joyce’s siblings to Trieste. His favorite brother, Stannie, worked alongside Joyce in the Berlitz School. Joyce’s motives were not benign—poverty-struck, the household needed another earner. Stannie was often bitter about propping up his genius brother and family. “He used me as a butcher uses his steel,” Stannie wrote. Still, he named his only son James and, in another twist, Stannie died on Bloomsday 1955.
5. James Joyce opened Ireland’s first dedicated cinema. The Volta Electric Theatre opened on Dublin’s Mary Street in September 1909. Joyce set up the cinema with backing from business people he befriended in Trieste, but Dubliners didn’t much like the program of Italian and French films, and the venture failed.
6. Nora and Joyce exchanged steamy, erotic letters when Joyce was in Ireland setting up his cinema and Nora was home in Trieste. Joyce’s letters, which can be read online, are frank, explicit, and obscene, but they also spill over into intimate, tender, poetic trances. Naturally we should not be privy to these wild imaginings, but it’s hard not to read them when they are there.
7. James Joyce was from a musical family and once contemplated a career as a singer. He had a sweet tenor voice and loved music. Nora was enchanted when she heard Joyce sing in Dublin’s Antient Concert Rooms, early in their courtship. The previous year, Joyce won a bronze medal at a national singing contest, only failing to win gold as he couldn’t sight-read. He gifted his medal to his Aunt Josephine; it was later bought at auction by dancer Michael Flatley.
8. The Joyce children were creatively talented. Lucia was a dancer and performed in Paris, and Giorgio, like his father, had a fine singing voice. Sadly, Lucia’s mental illness prevented her developing a career in dance, and Giorgio was, apparently, too nervous to take to the stage very often.
9. The Irish government refused to repatriate James’s body when died in Switzerland in 1941. He was buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zürich, beside the zoo. Nora, who died 10 years later in April 1951, was not initially buried in the same grave as her beloved Jim, but in 1966, her remains were exhumed and reburied with Joyce.
10. Nora and James’s last direct descendant died in January 2020. Stephen Joyce was the great defender of his family’s reputation and his grandfather’s writing. He said of Nora, “Nonna was so strong, she was a rock. I would venture to say that [Joyce] could have done none of it, not written one of the books, without her.”
Bonus Links:—James Joyce and the Yuletide EpiphanyHow to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Peach State by Adrienne Su

An exquisitely textured book. Food is a language, and Su follows its turns and tastes. She announces in “Ginger”: “We’ll affirm its arrival / when it’s not in the titles / of recipes in which it figures / quietly, as moderate slivers.” She rails against recipes that include the admonition to “serve immediately”: “Already the days // overflow with imperatives.” She laments that in “Home Baker,” “Art becomes chore, / your hair, clothes, the floor flecked with powder.” Be wary: “Having baked before marriage for the one you chose, / you pay to the end. Courtship is delusionary, // bread corporeal.” There is an unfortunate paradox: “Now, despite furnishings, a loaf / has the heft of a gift, the hours a miniature life / not spent on a book or a song.” Poems like “Peaches” cover much ground. “I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,” she writes, “stored it in the coolest part of the house, / then devoured it before any could rot.” Other Georgians ask her “But where are you from originally,” and she wants to quip “The homeland of the peach.” She writes about being “Chinese in that part of America, both strangers / and natives on a lonely, beautiful street,” and considers her parents: “Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids // who grew up to confuse work with pleasure, / to become typical immigrants’ children, / taller than their parents and unaware of hunger / except when asked the odd, perplexing question.” Peach State is so deliciously crafted through food that it makes me wonder why poetry is written about anything else. 

If This is The Age We End Discovery by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Most of these poems include the narrator wrestling with something: an ode to her brother, happy little clouds, derelict spacecraft, and Rick & Morty (but mostly Rick). “All my timelines lead to this poem,” she writes an especially apt poem about pondering life in a possible simulation. “I suspect / my own veins are rogue simulations/ flitting with a new kind of heightened self- / awareness. Proof: the nurse says they are flighty / & hard to find.” The f sounds of those lines capture the fluttering sense of ourselves: are we really here? Do we always awaken to the same world? “It’s also sad to think / the envy still filling us over some horse / we knew for less than a week / is simulated,” she says. Ben-Oni’s poems often spray across the page, her lines reaching for the edges as if they seek to uncover the outlines of our tenuous existence. In one wonderfully heartfelt poem, “All Palaces Are Temporary Palaces,” she writes of how her six-year-old niece calls her to ask questions. The girl talks of asteroid mining, comets, quarks. “My dear, dear girl,” the narrator responds, “Calling on this overcast day in the spring, where sky is one, long cover / Of impassivity. Why are we here? She’s asking for the first time, / And I hear the anxiety of one who’s stumbled upon a burning / Temple in the fields.” Ben-Oni courts wonder throughout this book, while acknowledging that opening ourselves to the search can be perilous. 

American Wake by Kerrin McCadden

Impressive range in this collection, both within and across poems. In “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” she asks: “what isn’t closer than you thought?” Bills, of course, but also “texts from an ex-husband that you have cleverly given / his own ringtone—the science fiction one, / so that every time he wants something / he breaks into your village home like a flying saucer / landing on earth, so close, all of a sudden / the peace and quiet you have built shattered.” Funny lines, but we sense the tension here, the hesitancy. “A Hagiography” is more comfortably hilarious: “Heads will roll, we say when shit gets bad, / but they don’t anymore—no more Saint Alban, // his head rolling downhill into a well, the water / turning holy.” More good questions: “Where was Saint Denis going when he walked / downhill into Paris, holding his head in his hands? // Where does anyone go with their head in their own hands? And what sermon does he give, this man gone walking // and praying, having played chicken without backing down / from men with swords, scourged and racked?” McCadden’s ability to shift without jarring owes to her care with sound and setting, as in “Our House Behind the Hawthorns”: “Our house // is just stone walls—a box filled with rusted bed- / frames and ploughs.” “Work and haul, kettle and hook, / stick broom, dirt floor, turf-light. At night, tiptoe / the edges of thirteen people sleeping.” When I read the lines “The sheep say their words / with their heads low, as if they know a story // is a sacrament” I feel an inclination toward the spirit that also permeates “The Dead.” The narrator watches her mother at her grandmother’s grave, “surveying lots, / approving and disapproving care and neglect.” She knows: “They worry I won’t keep the graves when they’re gone.” Elsewhere McCadden ponders her Irish lineage, in solemn pieces like “Saying the Rosary, Station Island.” An aged priest leads parishioners in praying the rosary. “I didn’t come for this,” the narrator admits, “but it takes me, and soon / I am walking outside, around and around the chapel, the priest // droning another decade, all of us walking in a circle.” They move “past the lake, past the holy water font, past the restrooms // where the Dyson hand-dryer joins the droning, a little engine / of extra prayer.” 

In the Antarctic Circle by Dennis James Sweeney

Appropriately enough, I settled into this book during a storm that dropped three feet of snow. The mood was externally set, but Sweeney’s book will get you there in any weather. In these prose poems, an unnamed narrator and a companion, Hank, exist in some ethereal plane in Antarctica. “The bed yawns under us,” Sweeney writes, on the introductory page. “He and I grip fingers. Thighs on thighs like batons.” We might consider this a prose-poetic play, discovered in scorched fragments. Each poem has coordinates as its title, leaving us somehow both exact and dizzied. Where are we? Hints of Samuel Beckett and William Gass (snow, wind, eternity, terror) haunt this book. “You will learn,” the narrator warns: “In a whiteout you cannot see shadows, but that does not mean the edges are not there.” Sweeney startles with the precision of his figurative description: “Harpoons loll in our arms like children too old to be held. Along the horizon animals run, disappearing over the brink of snow.” The narrator and Hank might be in love; they might simply be among each other, as we tend to gravitate toward what is warm when we are freezing: “Our rites of love and boredom circle each other, waving their leather whips.” Their purpose in this land is less clear than the explorers that Sweeney critiques. They are often powerless in this book: “Though no savior is due, we make a life of waiting.” The narrator ultimately sighs: “The world has less to offer than you think.” 

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

“Echo” is a perfect choice as the first poem for this book: “Gaudí believed in holy sound / and built a cathedral to contain it, / pulling hearing men from their knees / as though Deafness is a kind of Atheism.” The narrator continues: “Even though I have not heard / the golden decibel of angels, / I have been living in a noiseless / place where the doorbell is pulsating / light and I am unable to answer.” In a later poem, he explains that this is “the reason I sat in saintly silence / during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached / The Good News I only heard / as Babylon’s babbling echoes.” “Dear Hearing World” is a dynamic poem, an ars poetica and more. “I am equal parts sick of your / oh, I’m hard of hearing too, just because / you’ve been on an airplane or suffered head colds. / Your voice has always been the loudest sound in a room.” The narrator’s mother remembers Robert Plant, the “cheeky bugger,” who tried to haggle down her prices. “I didn’t care about Led nothing. / I’m just out in snow on a Saturday market morning / trying to make rent and this is it.” He recalls his father in “Dementia”: “When his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue, / wet with babbling,” the narrator went close to him, “unravelling a joy.” The narrator then “swallowed his past / until your breath was / warm as Caribbean / concrete.” He understands dementia will take its course, but prays that it will “make me unafraid / of what is / disappearing.” Antrobus can be gentle, tactile, and pointed in this book—which collects into an affirmation, a pronouncement. 

No Chronology by Karen Fish

In “Alibi,” Fish perfectly captures youth: “I knew nothing about anything: school, dreams, tornados, / strangers, smoke-filled bars, silent, oblivious mothers, / the teenage girls across the street, swaying and sashaying through the late afternoons with transistor radios.” She remembers how those years were full “of abrupt boys / running, stopwatches, athletic accidents, stitches, // snuck cigarettes, stashed girlie magazines, pogo sticks, / headlocks, handlebars to fall from.” Elsewhere in her book, there is the sense that the world will pass us: “The river forgets the fish, and the winter sun slides beyond / the far hills.” There’s a similar awareness in “The Accounting”: “Of course, there is some accounting, / right as you leave this world—stepping down // the rocky embankment, a purgatory.” Fish is absolutely exacting in her description, as during “Evening Song”: “The daylilies wince sut, reduced to orange tongues / waving by the woodshed, woozy on the wind.” and in another poem: “Living in the country, the great spaces / between the houses. The river just a black line / that underscored the sky.” And another: “Like most beauty— / the deer arrive unnoticed and then, / simply, are indisputable.” These precise lines (emotionally, syntactically so) are a stay against the mortality she reminds us of elsewhere. That’s comfort enough, I think, for now.