Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2020 Book Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

October


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

November


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

December


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


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

Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis


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

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald


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

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie


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

Code by Charlotte Pence

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

Must-Read Poetry: June 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

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

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

Tertulia by Vincent Toro

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

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

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

The Clearing by Allison Adair

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

June 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 Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s bestselling first novel, so I can’t wait for her second, about identical twin sisters who run away from their small Southern town at age 16. Ten years later, one of the sisters is passing as white, and not even her white husband knows the truth. The book moves back and forth in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and, according to the jacket copy, “considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations.” (Edan)

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino: The week of her wedding, a woman known only as The Bride is visited by the spirit of her dead grandmother, who appears in the form of a parakeet. Her grandmother tells her: Don’t get married. Seek out your brother. As the novel follows The Bride in the increasingly hectic few days between this encounter and her wedding, Bertino tells a complex story about family, responsibility and the need to become our best selves. (Thom)

A Burning by Megha Majumdar: The hotly anticipated debut novel from the editor of Catapult, A Burning takes place in contemporary India and follows three characters from different circumstances as they are thrown together after a bombing. Colum McCann says “This is a novel of now: a beautifully constructed literary thriller from a rare and powerful new voice.” (Lydia)

The Lightness by Emily Temple: The first novel from LitHub senior editor Temple, The Lightness is “psychologically wise and totally wise-assed, all while being both cynical and spiritual,” according to one Mary Karr. After Olivia runs away to a place known as the Levitation Center, she joins the camp’s summer program for troubled teens and falls into a close-knit group of girls determined to learn to levitate. Of course, it’s not that easy, could even be dangerous, but Olivia’s search for true lightness pushes her towards the edge of what’s possible in this novel that blends religious belief, fairy tales and physics. (Kaulie)

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: The debut novel from Irish writer Dolan follows Ava, a 22-year-old millennial ex-pat, who finds herself in a love triangle with Julian, a 28-year-old English banker, and Edith, a local Hong-Kong lawyer. Exciting Times keenly explores power, class, race, gender, and sexuality with equal parts humor and initmacy—as well as a wonderful addition to the spate of novels about messy young women figuring it out. About the novel, two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel writes, “Droll, shrewd and unafraid—a winning debut.” (Carolyn)

Empty by Susan Burton: This American Life editor Burton’s debut memoir chronicles—with candour, vulnerablity, and strength—the nearly thirty years she spent oscillaing between anorexia and binge-eating disorder. Author Lori Gottleib says, “Empty is a tour de force of both vulnerability and strength, a memoir so unflinching and brave that it forces us to peer into our own dark places with newfound honesty and compassion.” (Carolyn)

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Set in 1950s Mexico, Moreno-Garcia’s gothic novel follows Noemí, a red lipstick-wearing socialite, as she sets out to save her cousin Catalina from High Place, a remote mountain villa that turns out to be a house of horrors. Kirkus writes: “Moreno-Garcia weaves elements of Mexican folklore with themes of decay, sacrifice, and rebirth, casting a dark spell all the way to the visceral and heart-pounding finale.” (Carolyn)

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan: When Elisabeth, a successful journalist and new mother, moves with her family from Brooklyn to upstate New York, she bonds with her babysitter Sam, a senior at the local women’s college. Exploring class, domesticity, motherhood and privilege, Kirkus’s starred review says “this perceptive novel about a complex friendship between two women resonates as broadly as it does deeply.” (Carolyn)

Self Care by Leigh Stein:  In Stein’s biting, satirical novel, best friends Maren Gelb and Devin Avery are the ultimate #girlbosses. Cofounders of Richual, a women’s lifestyle and wellness startup in the vein of Goop, the young women sell a vision of the world best seen through millennial pink-colored glasses—as they and their company do things that are the exact opposite of aspirational. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes: “Stein’s sharp writing separates her from the pack in this exquisite, Machiavellian morality tale about the ethics of looking out for oneself.” (Carolyn)

Broken People by Sam Lansky: Following his memoir The Gilded Razor, Lansky’s debut novel follows a character named Sam—a 28-year-old Los Angeles transplant from New York—who has just published a memoir about his addiction struggles. After learning about a shaman who performs “open-soul surgery” on broken people, Sam and friend travel to Portland to be healed—and to heal themselves. Author Steven Rowley calls the novel “An epic journey of self-forgiveness that confronts us with the ways in which we’re all broken, then, with the assured hand of a most talented writer, conjures the healing magic within.”. (Carolyn)

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory: Prolific rom-com writer Guillory returns with her newest novel following Olivia Monroe, a lawyer who moved to Los Angeles to start her own firm, and Max Powell, the handsome stranger she meets and flirts with at a bar. Only Max isn’t just anybody—he’s an accomplished junior senator who lives his life under a bright and intense spotlight. Their relationship, which begins through covert courting and secret dates, becomes more complicated when they go public and face a media firestorm. (Carolyn)

An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer: In his newest novel, Spencer returns to the characters from his last novel, River Under the Road. Focusing on Kip Woods—a side character from River—and his years-old, unrequited-longing for his best friend Thaddeus Kaufman, a once-successful writer whose career and life has fallen into desrepair. Kip struggles with the ways his personal compass has always pointed in the direction of Thaddeus—sometimes, surprisingly often, at the detriment of his own happiness and well-being. Joshua Ferris calls Spencer a “fierce observer with the soul of a romantic, he knows what matters most: that our folly, put on display, should wreck, ravish, engulf us.” (Carolyn)

A More Perfect Reunion by Calvin Baker: In his newest book, novelist and Hurston-Wright Award finalist Baker argues for
integration, which he views as the single best way to to create a society no longer predecated upon and defined by race. Exploring a wide breadth of U.S. history, politics, and culture, Baker offers insight into how we came to our current moment—and what we need to do going forward to form a more perfect union. “Required reading for any American serious about dismantling systemic racism,” says Kirkus’s starred review. (Carolyn)

The House on Fripp Island by Rebecca Kauffman: Set in the 1990s, Kauffman’s latest novel follows two families—drawn together by the mothers’ friendship; torn apart by their class differences—on a life-changing, world-shattering vacation. Tensions rise. Secrets are revealed. Violence erupts. And their lives are forever cleaved into Before Fripp and After Fripp. Julie Buntin says, “Kauffman’s latest is a rare and gripping combination of gloriously observed prose and three hundred pages of pure suspense.” (Carolyn)

Between Everything and Nothing by Joe Meno: Meno’s newest book explores the true story of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal—two Ghanaian asylum seekers—as they separately navigate the  brutalities of the broken U.S. immigration system. “Though harrowing,” writes Sigrid Nunez, “the story…is also deeply inspiring, revealing how two powerless but fiercely courageous asylum seekers, battered by years of injustice and cruelty, held fast to their religious faith, their dignity, and their love and hope for humanity.” (Carolyn)

Swan Song by Lisa Alther: In the wake of the sudden deaths of her parents and Kat, her decades-long partner, Dr. Jessie Drake flees from her life and accepts a job from a former flame aboard the Amphitrite, a British liner, as the ship’s doctor. While the cruise quickly falls into chaos—including, but not limited to affairs among passengers and a hijacking by pirates—Jessie, who is mired in grief, finds herself looking for answers in Kat’s journals. (Carolyn)

Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why by Alexandra Petri: Washington Post columnist and humorist Petri’s essay collection—which includes both new and previously published pieces—explores the horrors of our current political climate with sarcasm, wit, humor, and rage. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says, “Acidic and spot-on, Petri’s work captures the surreal quality of Trump’s tenure as perhaps no other book has.” (Carolyn)

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch: Britsch’s darkly funny debut follows Janet, a deeply sad and anxious woman who works at a dog shelter, can’t stand her boyfriend, and finds herself surrounded by people who are trying to get her to change. When a new pill designed to make Christmas more manageable hits the market, Janet must decide whether or not to take it—and if she wants to leave her “manageable melancholia” behind. About the novel, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney writes: “Lucie Britsch has crafted a biting, pitch-perfect novel about one woman’s desire to stay true to herself in a world that rewards facile happiness.” (Carolyn)

Destination Wedding by Diksha Basu: From the author of The Windfall comes the story of Tina Das, a young woman living in New York, who decides to attend her cousin’s lavish, week-long wedding in Delhi. Running from her recent breakup, a stagnant career, and an uncertain future in America, Tina hopes to unwind and relax during the wedding, only to find herself mired in more drama than she knows what to do with. Terry McMillan calls Destination Wedding “a witty and romantic novel perfect for all readers.” (Carolyn)

Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips: Winner of the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, Phillips’s first collection explores the rich tapestry of a small, rural town in North Carolina and the people who live there. A starred review in Publishers Weekly calls it a “blunt, life-affirming debut collection” that “stands out in the field of current Southern fiction.” (Carolyn)

Must-Read Poetry: May 2020

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit, edited by Leah Silvieus and Lee Herrick

An anthology that should become a mainstay of poetry classrooms. “It is always the right time for faith and the spirit. It is always the right time for poetry,” the editors write in their introduction. The anthology begins with a long poem, “The City in Which I Love You,” by Li-Young Lee, which sets the appropriate tone of wonder and seeking: “Is prayer, then, the proper attitude / for the mind that longs to be freely blown, / but which gets snagged on the barb / called world, that / tooth-ache, the actual? What prayer // would I build? And to whom?” Several excellent poems here from Matthew Olzmann, a poet both clever and soulful (one trait of a great anthology is that it sends us searching to find more work). From his “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”: “But this is how faith works its craft. / One foot set in front of the other, while the wind / rattles the cage of the living, and the rocks down there // cheer every wobble, and your threads keep / this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. / I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across.” In a later poem of his, an ecumenical prayer: “Our Father, who art in / heaven and also / the centipede grass and the creek / and the engine that warbles / roadside.” The anthology includes “Grace,” a lovely elegy by Joseph O. Legaspi for his father. A carabao “pulling a wooden cart hill-high with watermelons” arrives on the narrator’s street. His father “watermelon lover, scanned the stacked pyramid, held up a dull fruit.” He gave it “a gentle knock,” his “knuckles // bounced off the bell-domed curve, he listened, eyes / closed.” The narrator “watched him then, as I always did, / man of eternal theater, of elegant fingers, this Lazarus / figment memory I call poetry, my father full of grace.” There are poems here that also sound the faithfulness of doubt, like “Vestige” by Michelle Peñaloza: “The creak of pews makes my knees ache, / my palms and fingertips kiss.” The visceral, tangible roll of rosaries connects the narrator with her mother: “I envied the faith she found.” She, though, has other devotions. “I count the day’s / miracles: the sweet butter on wheat toast, / the abundance of coffee, the predictability of doors, / opening and closing.” 

The Park by John Freeman

Freeman’s pensive volume is a fascinating consideration of the park as a place of preserved wilderness. “We / stop, in mourning, / sensing everything / we’ve lost. We call / that ceremony / a park” he writes in the prefatory poem; wildlife passes through those spaces, yet it is only humans who need to ponder the relative absence of wildness elsewhere. The park is an injunction against the neutering of civilization. As Freeman etymologically notes, “It took the overrunning of London / by its immigrant population in 1680 / to turn the word into the spot we’d / park humans, so they could stumble / around in bewilderment at how time / is translation, change is nature’s time.” As he demonstrates in “Walks in the Dark,” layers abound in these considerations of wild spaces. While a child, the narrator entered woods “stark / and bluish-green, lit / by our candles, ninety / young singing boys, / walking to the lake” while “holding our / fathers’ hands.” The woods “darker still because of those / teardrops of light.” The lake’s “black / water absolutely waveless,” the candles floating. Yet the morning after, the narrator “learned / the lake was a reservoir, / water we stole / from the trees that gave us / shade.” He followed the water to the dam “holding back the hoarded / water,” the flow “clogged / with the candles, which were / soggy and gray and not at / all like prayers.” In the end, as Freeman writes in another poem, perhaps the purpose of parks “is to temper the machine / in us.”

White Blood by Kiki Petrosino

Another ambitious volume from Petrosino. Revelation through ancestry test: a narrator wonders how genetic history routes our lives, and how we are to fully reckon with our past, known and unknown. An early section of the book is a skilled double crown sonnet that begins with acceptance—to college, but also the intellectual structure of America—that feels more conditional and tenuous with each successive line. She wonders: “Of those white kids / whose turn (some said) I took. / I took it hard.” She feels like a specimen, a test: “Since I was a living lab / I scythed, skull-clean / my crop of hair.” She “hummed in botanical Latin / the notes of my glasshouse / erudition.” Intensely aware of the economics of the campus, she thinks of her ancestors, and her admirable vulnerability contains despair: “How was I their dream, their hope? / Born too late to know them or walk / the perimeter of their graves / deep in the next country, next / planet, where I couldn’t read the land / or speak the right words in the woods.” Throughout the book, her narrator can’t escape this self-analysis, this worry, this reconsideration, as in “The Shop at Monticello”: “I’m a black body in this Commonwealth, which turned black bodies / into money. Now, I have money to spend on little trinkets to remind me / of this fact.” An intriguing collection that weaves themes of lineage and the paradox that race and identity are wielded as souvenirs: commodified souls. 

Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

While living in Louisville, Ky., Lucy Bakewell Audubon wrote to her cousin that her husband, John James, “is constantly at the store,” and that she wishes there was a library or bookstore nearby, because she “should often enjoy a book very much whilst I am alone.” Her correspondence is replete with similar longings. Lucy is often a biographical complement to her husband, or worse, a clarifying footnote. Yet in this poetic biography, Dowd accomplishes the complex task of affirming Lucy’s own life, while also illuminating her husband’s talents. In a September 1804 poetic epistle to her cousin, Lucy writes: “As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised / to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.” They marry several years later, but their relationship is defined by distance; if not at his general store, he is “off hunting rabbits, or sketching them, / or racing his fine horse.” Dowd also writes several monologues through John James’s voice. “Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,” he thinks, but “I cannot see it,” for he is “amid the bales and boxes, / flour bins and raisins, and the wooden socks.” He ends the poem: “I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families, / while something in me sighs that I am not.” Longing and sacrifice pervade this book. One of the few placid moments appears in Lucy’s December 1824 letter to her sister Eliza: “Be happy for us, Sister. Once more we sing.” Soon the couple would be separate for three years while he worked on and promoted The Birds of America, but that sentiment of hope and return carries through Dowd’s work.

So Forth by Rosanna Warren

Warren anoints the ordinary with reverent elegy. “Northeast Corridor” is a wildly accurate sketch of that route. The rider: “Catechist of gnarled oak trees, marshes, suburban marinas, / cinders, and gutted mattresses.” The view: “A dilapidated barge, half-sunk, hunches from slime. / Chain-link fences, dim factories, tumble of trash down a bank– / my country, my countryside, hurls itself away // as twilight catches in each broken window.” The bridge and play of “my country, my countryside” is one example of Warren’s sense of the tragicomic. “The horizon’s illegible. We have left / shingled houses, sidewalks, picket fences behind in a blur / back where we made the childhood promises. / We signed our names but wrote in invisible ink”: few poems capture the region with such perspicuity. She also brings such lucid vision to prosaic spaces, as with the first lines of a later poem: “The poster in the doctor’s office proposes / Eden: varicose peonies tilting / over a lapis lazuli pool. / Blossoms lush, carnal, and tipsy / as aging courtesans.” Warren is able to channel, or conjure, a sense of earnest malaise: “If it’s a god // who touches us when we lose ourselves / he’s the briefest of flashbulbs, the image cannot endure.” This melancholic, skilled sense extends to the unique final section of the collection, mostly set in the forest: “We tread on silver flakes and shadows. / Downward, ever downward, to the meadow / where the ghost lily, late summer wraith, / gapes, ash-pink, with news / of the underworld dusted on its tongue.” 

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.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Little Eyes is her second novel to be translated into English (her first was the frenzied Fever Dream). In Spanish, the novel’s title is Kentukis, which is also the name for the cutesy device, described as a “creepier Furby,” that acts as a portal between lives of the owner and the person who has purchased essentially a voyeur’s right to its camera feed. Embedded within this novel of international interconnectivity are questions of the exhibitionism and voyeurism tied up in our use of technology. Expect echoes of the Wachowskis’ Sense8, except told with what has been characterized as Schweblin’s “neurotic unease.” (Anne)

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride: A woman walks into a hotel room. Then another, and another. Hotels in Austin, Avignon, Auckland, others, and each room reflects back something of herself. Sometimes she meets a man, sometimes she fights with her memories, and sometimes she thinks about what it would mean to go home. An avid McBride fan ever since A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I eagerly await the arrival of what’s sure to be a darkly brilliant work. (Kaulie)

Drifts by Kate Zambreno: Drifts is Zambreno’s first novel since Green Girl, and is first in a series that continues to explore and reify her obsessions with artistic ambition and the possibilities and failures of literature. Her narrator spends long days alone, corresponding with writers and taking photos of residents and strays in her neighborhood alike—with nods to the likes of Rilke, Dürer, and Chantal Ackerman, among others. “Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin,” writes Paris Review staffer Rhian Sasseen, as does “her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty.” (Anne)

The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian: Set in his native Detroit in the grim year of 2009, Zadoorian’s new novel, The Narcissism of Small Differences, is a comedy of the compromises Joe Keen, a failed fiction writer, and Ana Urbanek, an advertising copy writer, have made over the course of their long relationship. Their compromises come in many flavors—financial, moral, professional—and as these two creative types near their dreaded 40s, they’re forced to confront the people they have become because of those compromises. Like Zadoorian’s earlier novels—The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, The Leisure Seeker and Beautiful Music—this new novel brims with wit, passion and soul. (Bill)

The Book of V.​ by ​Anna Solomon: This novel intertwines the lives of three women across centuries: Lily, a mother in Brooklyn in 2016 who is grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires; Vivian, a political wife in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., who refuses to obey her ambitious husband; and Esther, an independent young woman in ancient Persia who is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king. Solomon, the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride, explores how things have both changed and stayed the same. Mary Beth Keane says it’s “searingly inventive, humane, and honest.” (Claire)

Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: The capstone of Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy, this latest novel returns to the life of the boy David, the protagonist of the first two books in the series. But this time it’s David—in perhaps the story’s sole clear analogy to the life of Christ—dying too young. And was his life, stripped of every cursory marker of identity, worth anything? Is everything, as the sages have told us, meaningless? Coetzee, via David, leaves us with better template by which to ask—if never answer—these questions. (Il’ja)

All Adults Here​ by ​Emma Straub​: I keep hearing online chatter that this is Straub’s best novel yet. When Astrid Strick witnesses an accident, a suppressed memory causes her to question the legacy of her parenting to her now-grown children. Elizabeth Strout says it’s, “totally engaging and smart book about the absolutely marvelous messiness of what makes up family.” Ann Patchett says it’s “brimming with kindness, forgiveness, humor.” Straub is a New York Times-bestselling author and co-owner of the vibrant Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic. (Claire)

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns: Burns’s memoir, Cinderland, powerfully evoked the post-industrial ruins, both physical and psychic, of her childhood home in Mercury, Penn. In Shiner, she returns with a book similarly rooted in geography, the story of 15-year-old Wren Bird, who lives in isolation on a West Virginia mountain with her mother and father, an itinerant preacher and snake-handler. When tragedy strikes at one of her father’s sermons, Wren is forced to discover the truth about her family and imagine a life outside of her cloistered West Virginia existence. The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State, calls Shiner “a lush, gripping novel that explores love, grief, rage, and regeneration in a small Appalachian community,” and says, “I won’t forget the haunting mood, place, and characters that Burns brings to life.” (Adam P.)

Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford: Pulitzer-Prize winner Ford’s latest is a short story collection that explores themes of love and loss, taking readers to his native Mississippi, as well as New Orleans and Canada. The volume includes a novella, The Run of Yourself, which depicts a New Orleans widower learning to cope without his Irish wife. (Hannah)

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet: This new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist takes place at a family vacation, where 12 children break off from their parents’ revelries and find themselves in apocalyptic circumstances. Karen Russell calls Millet “A writer without limits.” (Lydia)

All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: Critic and fiction writer Masad’s debut novel follows 27-year-old Maggie Krause, whose mother has just died in a car crash. On her return home, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes from her mother, each addressed to a man Maggie doesn’t know. Maggie sets out on a road trip to discover the truth about her mother’s hidden life, and her own difficulties with intimacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as a “queer tour de force.” (Jacqueline)

Quotients by Tracy O’Neill: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree O’Neill’s (The Hopeful) sophomore effort follows a young couple attempting to make a seemingly conventional home together—but this story turns into a heady brew of fractured identities, aliases, big data, and what it means to live in this age of terrorism and global surveillance. Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human) describes it as “a love story rendered in galloping prose that takes you all over the map.” Looking forward to this timely and intriguing work. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha: Beha’s novel begins in 2009, with two prophets: a street preacher who promises an apocalyptic “Great Unveiling” and Sam Waxworth, a religious skeptic and software engineer whose “political projection system” predicted every result of the 2008 election. Now a writer, Waxworth has been assigned a piece on Frank Doyle, a legendary, infamous commentator of baseball and politics. The assignment turns out to be more than Waxworth expected, widening and revealing his own faults. Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction—even down to the probing dialogue of his characters. (Nick R.)

Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma: Francis-Sharma’s prose shines in this epic and propulsive historical novel that is set in Trinidad and the American West, and follows the life of Rosa Rendón, who is talented, bright, and fierce. Laila Lalami writes that the novel “recreates the hybrid history of Native and African peoples during the era of American exploration and expansion,” and Peter Ho Davies says that it “adds (or better say restores) another strand to our national narrative. We’re all the richer for Book of the Little Axe.” (Zoë)

Latitudes of Longing by Shubangi Shwarup: Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020, this novel brings together characters as disparate as a geologist and a yeti. Nilanjana S. Roy writes, “Astonishing and completely original, Shubhangi Swarup’s magical novel will change the way you see people—and landscapes, forests, the oceans, snow deserts. She stirs your curiosity about the earth, takes you from sadness and heartbreak to rich, unexpected surprises, and finds hope in the cracks of broken lives.” (Lydia)

Stray by Stephanie Danler: In her debut memoir, Danler, the bestselling author of Sweetbitter (her debut novel), explores the trauma of growing up with (and eventually fleeing) her addiction-riddled, dysfunctional family—and the ways she faced her painful past in order to move into her future. Author Lisa Taddeo calls the memoir many things including “hot,” “dark,” “quiet,” “tender,” and, ultimately, “a compulsive, neck-breaking masterpiece.” (Carolyn)

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollet: In his debut memoir, Jollet, frontman of the indie rock band Airborne Toxic Event, writes about his childhood growing up in the Church of Synanon, a commune turned dangerous cult; living with his broken and dysfunctional family post-escape; and the ways music saved him—from them and himself. Adrienne Brodeur says, “Jollett’s story serves as a potent reminder that while we cannot change the hand we’re dealt, our freedom lies in what we choose to do with those cards.” (Carolyn)

Officer Clemmons by François S. Clemmons: Clemmons’s debut memoir recounts his incredible life, which included growing up gay and Black in 1950s Alabama and Ohio; being the first African American actor to have a reoccurring role on children’s television (as Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood); and his creative and spiritual pursuits after leaving the show. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the “uplifting memoir” a “thoroughly delightful, inspiring story will speak particularly to artists in marginalized communities.” (Carolyn)

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico: In a follow-up to 2017’s debut, The Lucky Ones, Pachico’s sophomore novel follows Lina, a 28-year-old academic, who returns to Medellin, Colombia, after 20 years away. Once there, she reunites with her childhood best friend, Mattías, who is now running a refuge for poor children called The Anthill. Then things begin to take a strange, sinister, and supernatural turn. Author Sharlene Teo says: “It’s a novel that laughs through a mouthful of blood, which scares and touches, dazzles and compels.” (Carolyn)

Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan: Set in 2015 in a flood-ravaged central Texas, Dinan’s debut novel follows Boyd Montgomery, an 18-year-old woman who is searching for her missing friend. The devastating weather has not only made the well-known landscape unrecognizable, it’s also opened up the world to the surreal and mystical. Kirkus calls the novel “By turns magical, harshly realistic, poetic, aggravating, and enthralling.” (Carolyn)

Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman: Full of political intrigue, extramarital affairs, and unfulfilled ambition, Ackerman’s latest novel takes place over the course of one day as Catherine, an American living in Istanbul, attempts to leave Turkey with her sons—and without her husband, Murat, an influential and connected Turkish real estate developer. (Carolyn)

Here We Are by Benjamin Taylor: With Phillip Roth’s blessing and the promise not to publish it until after his death, Taylor’s newest memoir offers an intimate portrait of Roth, one of our finest writers and his best friend. Lisa Halliday, whose debut novel, Asymmetry, features a fictionalized Roth, calls the memoir “A poignant and frequently poetic tribute to a friendship abundant with laughter, erudition, generosity, devotion, and grace.” (Carolyn)

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.)

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)

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