‘The Divines’: Featured Fiction from Ellie Eaton

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In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we’re happy to present an excerpt from Ellie Eaton’s debut novel, The Divines.
The book, which Publishers Weekly says “will keep readers riveted,” follows freelance writer Josephine as she reflects on her time at the (now defunct) St John the Divine—an elite English boarding school for girls—and the scandal that changed their community forever. Booklist writes, “At times both sharp and haunting, this novel embodies the awkwardness and regret of adolescence.”
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I am Divine.

My mother was Divine and her mother before that, which isn’t uncommon. Though that was at a time when being Divine meant something; it had cachet, as my mother still likes to brag; it opened doors, got you places. Though it’s hard to see specifically where being Divine ever got her, other than married. Perhaps I’m missing the point.

I haven’t spoken to another Divine for fourteen years, maybe more, despite there being ample online opportunities these days to reconnect with my former peers should I so wish. I don’t. Every Christmas and Easter I fly back to England to visit my mother, who, in her sixties now, keeps backdated copies of our Old Girls’ newsletter for me in her downstairs loo, next to Country Living. Births, deaths, marriages, the rare athletic achievement, horses for sale, and, of course, reunions. Endless reunions. Not one of which I have attended. Until, as a newlywed, I take my husband on an impromptu detour from our honeymoon destination, veering off the dual carriageway so unexpectedly at the road sign that he thinks for a heart-stopping moment I might have morning sickness.

“Just to have a look,” I say. “It won’t take long.”

A trip down memory lane, then we’ll be on our way.

I crawl our rental car round the Oxfordshire town, circling closer to where I remember my former school once stood, folding forward over the steering wheel, trying to get my bearings. This is harder than I think it will be. Nothing is as I remember it. Most of the grounds have been flattened. The gym is gone, the maths block, the redbrick science labs, everything except those buildings deemed to hold significant historic value—the Old Hall and a couple of boarding houses, subdivided into flats for young professionals. I park outside the chapel, which is now, by the looks of things, a private dental practice. My husband of two days is bemused. Keen to get some miles under our belt on the long drive to Scotland, he hadn’t factored this pit stop into his calculations.

“This is it?”

“Give me half an hour,” I say, squeezing his hand.

I point him in the direction of the White Horse. When he is gone, I walk into the dentist’s, slipping past a young receptionist into the sanctuary-cum-waiting room, repainted a minty orthodontic green. I sit for some time listening to the ominous clinks and skirls and high metallic whines of the hygienist at work. Along the nave, cubicles have been fashioned from low movable walls decorated with huge toothy faces of smiling children. The wooden bench I am sitting on looks like, perhaps even is, the ex act pew that the robed altar servers slumped on during our Sun day service, obscured by puffs of incense. The organ pipes are still in situ, way back up in the balcony behind the choir stalls, which seem quite small, barely room for a handful of girls. On the immovable stone pulpit where Fat Fran, my headmistress of six years, made her daily proclamations, a series of dental brochures, women’s magazines, food and lifestyle glossies have been stacked, some of which, at one time or another over my career, I have contributed to. I rest my head against stone and look up at the arched ceiling. It is very surreal, the dental nurses padding in and out of the vestry in their soft-soled shoes like nuns. Everything so familiar yet nothing quite as it was.

Behind my head is a sequence of very narrow and long stained glass windows reaching all the way to the beams. What shocks me as I sit there is that—unless I actually sit up and twist my neck to look-I can’t remember what they depict, not even if you put a gun to my head. I spent the entirety of my adolescence facing those windows, staring at them every single morning for close to five years, Saturdays excepted, and don’t remember a single detail, not one saint or disciple or even the big man himself, which only goes to show the astonishing depths of teenage self-obsession. Or maybe, more accurately, it says something about me back then. Or my memory of my school days, selective at best.

As I am sitting on the pew a patient comes out of a booth, her jaw clamped down on wadding, her hand holding her cheek. Unsteady on her high heels, dazed, she is guided to a spot next to me. A dental assistant goes to retrieve something important, a prescription perhaps, and the patient’s eyes roam around the arched ceiling and the fluted ironwork. It is an unnerving set ting for a dental practice—the angels and the pulpit and stained glass-perhaps she thinks she is hallucinating. Blood catenates slowly from her empty socket down the gauze in her hand. We are probably the same age. She could have been a King Edmund. She stares vacantly at the neon exit sign as if she is waiting to be collected. Above the vestry door is the Divine school motto carved into a rectangle of wood.
MEMOR AMICI
Remember friends.

“Ha,” I snort out loud.

The patient slowly turns towards me, medicated, her hand still firmly pressed against her cheek. She blinks.

I try to swallow it down, doubling over, in the grip of the kind of stifled laughter that catches you off guard, leaping up your throat during somber moments: funerals, sermons, your fiancé’s art show opening.

My shoulders shake and the pew judders. The patient stands up suddenly, her handbag falling to the floor, its contents spilling.

“Shit, I’m terribly sorry.” I see her lipstick rolling towards the lectern. “Sorry, sorry.”

I put a fist to my chest and thump it. Swallow.

“Sorry.”

I scramble to pick up her bag, holding it out to her.

“This used to be a school,” I blurt, just to say something. “St. John the Divine.”

The poor woman’s numbed head nods slightly, taking her purse. She looks down at a message illuminated on her phone and then over her shoulder at the door, checking for her lift. I assume she isn’t allowed to drive.

“The private school,” I keep going. “The one that shut down; it was in the papers a long time ago, remember? There was a scandal.”

She stares at my face as if I am slowly coming into focus. Enough years have passed for me not to sound completely Divine. I have lived abroad on and off, my accent is sometimes hard to identify, but still, she looks me up and down and her eyes flash. She knows.

“Yeah,” she says. As she talks her wadding unplugs momentarily, exposing ghoulish bloody gums. “And? My mum worked in the kitchen.” She thumbs behind us in the direction of the old refectory. “Sixteen years scrubbing fucking pans, if you must know.”

The right side of the woman’s lip is drooping; her speech has a drunken slur.

“Bunch of stuck-up fucking toffs.”

She plugs the gauze back in, clamps back down on it, waiting to see what I’ll say next. She’s right, of course. But what does she expect me to do, defend my honor, wrestle her to the floor?

I think about my husband, Jürgen, waiting for me in the pub. Jürgen knows how to let moments like this roll over him. He is a pacifist, not someone who can be easily provoked. Despite the fact he’s the artist in our relationship, things that make me flare up with rage don’t bother him at all. When we met I had just come out of a turbulent, itinerant period of life and, exhausted, I suppose you could say that I found his particular brand of considered quietude seductive. That was what I had fallen in love with. Lately I have been trying hard to adopt some of Jürgen’s sangfroid. Plus we are newlyweds. On our honeymoon. I don’t take the bait.

Thankfully a bald man sticks his head around the chapel door, whistles, and gestures at the woman with his thumb. She departs, her high heels clicking sharply on the tiled floor, marching down the nave, past the vestry, and through the arched door.
MEMOR AMICI
I wait a decent amount of time, hovering on a Communion step, then I leave as well. My husband—that word feels so exotic is waiting for me outside, hands in his pockets, resting on the hood of the rental car, chewing slowly. I feel a burst of relief to see him standing there, solid looking and straightforward, not in the least Divine. On our first date he rolled up his sleeves at the sight of the leaking pipe in my kitchen, requesting a wrench. He is a pragmatist, a maker of lists.

“All good?” he checks.

I nod. I turn my back and lean against Jürgen’s chest; he loops his arms around my waist, his chin on my head, and I try to put the incident in the chapel behind me. I should never have come back. I’m embarrassed to have brought him here, to have wasted even an hour of our honeymoon on something so inconsequential. A moment of nostalgia, now gone. We gaze up at the stone statue of King Edmund in the center of the town, close to the bus stop. Five pigeons spar for space on top of his helmet, bobbing and ducking, feather elbows. They flick their shabby gray tails and shit down Edmund’s cloak. An elderly woman tugging a tartan shopping trolley shuffles past us into the market square. Traders hold bananas aloft on hooked fingers, hollering deals. Three old boys in tweed jackets stand outside the bookies smoking. I am acutely aware of how particularly English all this must seem to him, my husband, an Austrian.

Jürgen pulls a piece of fudge from a paper bag and puts it into my mouth.

“Okay. Big drive. Let’s go.”

He checks the fastenings on his bike that is tethered to the boot of our rental car, and as he tugs the frame tight a bald man driving a red Mazda swerves across the road towards us and stops abruptly, blocking traffic. A window hums down, and the woman from the dentist’s leans across the bald man, actually crawling across his lap, the lower half of her face distorted, stiff with pain.

“Hallo there,” my husband says jovially, squatting slightly, “can we help?”

Austrians, particularly country bumpkins like him, are pathologically nice. I’ve seen him dig a car out of the snow for a stranger and drag each of our neighbor’s bins out every week without a word of thanks.

The woman in the Mazda gives him the finger.

She glares at me, her real target, and pokes her swollen head farther out of the window as if there is something urgent she for got to tell me back there in the chapel, her tongue fat and lisping.

“Cunth.”

“Ha.” I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha.”

Then she spits at me, her gob landing at my feet, and they speed off.

So, this is the way it is. Fourteen years and nothing has changed. She is a townie. I am Divine.

“My god,” my husband says, “Sephine, who was that?”

Hands on his hips, he looks up the road after the Mazda.

“Was that some kind of joke, my god?”

“Forget it,” I say, humiliated, “let’s go.”

I give him a gentle shove towards the car in case the banshee decides to come back. I don’t want her to jinx our honeymoon Two days ago we were exchanging vows at the town hall, grin ning at each other like imbeciles, euphoric

“But I don’t understand; do you know her?”

“No, nothing like that.”

I slip my hands down his hip, taking the keys from his pocket. I unlock the rental car quickly and get behind the wheel. Jürgen sits in the passenger seat, shaking his head.

“Was she from your school then, an old friend?”

I start the car.

“I don’t have any school friends.”

He frowns, as if he’s only just found this out about me.

“You don’t? Why not?”

I have friends, of course, but the oldest and truest friendships I have are the ones I forged at university or soon after, when an element of choice was introduced to the selection process. Plus my husband’s friends, such as they are, though generally not their wives for some reason. Thanks to his extreme niceness, genial blue Austrian eyes, his obvious likability, Jürgen has always been the social one in our relationship. Though these days he’s just as happy to spend an evening at home, working in his studio or tinkering with his bikes. Occasionally we go to a gallery opening or drive visitors around whatever city we are living in, or meet an old editor of mine for brunch. I can count nearly all these friends on one hand. But not one of them is Divine.

“I don’t know,” I tell him with a shrug and turn the key in the ignition. “I just don’t.”

We break the journey in Yorkshire, spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast where we barely leave our four-poster bed. In the morning we scramble into clothes, unwashed, stumbling into the dining room moments before the end of service. The land lady, a stern matronly looking woman, reminiscent of a former housemistress of mine, stands with her hands on her hips, scowl ing at the clock. We slip sheepishly into our seats, trying not to laugh. Across the room two women, dressed in shorts and walk ing boots, barely glance up from their maps. A middle-aged man butters his mother’s toast. Next to us an elderly couple smile and raise their glasses of orange juice.

“Congratulations,” the wife says, leaning over and patting Jürgen on the back of his hand.

“Is it that obvious?”

The couple smile knowingly at each other.

Jürgen’s T-shirt is inside out, my hair unkempt. As we brush against each other under the table, there’s a stench between my thighs, musky and sour, like overripe fruit. I cringe, thinking of our attic room, the paper-thin walls and creaking bed frame, and bury my head in Jürgen’s shoulder. The landlady slams a teapot on the table in front of us.

Jürgen asks the couple how long they’ve been married.

“Forever,” the old man groans

His wife flaps her napkin at him.

“Fifty-four years this September,” she says.

I can feel Jürgen’s fingers as they weave through mine, how his wedding band grates over my knuckles as he squeezes, causing me to wince.

“Any advice?” Jürgen asks.

The elderly pair gather their room key and newspaper and spectacles from the table. The husband gets up and pulls back his wife’s chair so she can stand.

“Be kind,” the wife says.

They nod at us.

“Good luck.”

During checkout Jürgen stops in front of the landlady and kisses me, a hand slipping down the back of my trousers, and then we pack up the car and are back on the road. I begin to think that the unpleasant incident at St. John’s is forgotten, that the whole ugly scene is behind us. But then, unexpectedly…

“No school friends,” Jürgen says, sliding his hand up and down my thigh as I join the motorway. “That’s interesting, you know?”

I can see that my new husband finds this baffling. I wish I’d never mentioned the word Divine. He can’t let it alone. He taps one finger against the glass as we cross the border into Scotland, staring out at the uneventful landscape, green fields with yellow pocket handkerchiefs of oilseed rape, culs-de-sac, warehouses and roadside cafés, food trucks parked in rest stops. We have another four hours of driving ahead of us to get to Skye, not to mention the ferry.

“Not one?” Jürgen checks, uncharacteristically pushy.

“No.”

“How come?”

The four men that are his best friends all come from the same Salzburg village where he grew up. Andreas, Hansi, Thomas B, Thomas F. Two of them were christened together, they went to the same school, shared their first cigarette in Hansi’s woodshed, stole their grandparents’ schnapps, chased their first girlfriends on Krampusnacht, pretending to be the Christmas devil, masked and growling, nipping their sweethearts’ ankles with leather whips, threatening to carry them to the underworld. They have shed blood together, hunted together, drunk wept at each other’s weddings, actually staggering around the dance floor like bears. They are his family, closer than his actual brothers (one older, one younger, who I have to remind Jürgen to call on their respective birthdays). He is loyal to the core and would do anything for these four men, including jumping on a plane at the drop of a hat, or loaning them money without any expectation of return. A private annoyance of mine.

“Were you bullied?” Jürgen wants to know as we pull over to fill up with petrol.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Unpopular then?” He pokes me. “Eine Streberin. How do you say, a geek?”

“No.”

I grip the pump handle, my knuckles blanching.

“So you loved school?”

“Who loves school? It was fine,” I snap, instantly regretting my tone. “I mean, I don’t remember. Can we just drop it?”

Back behind the wheel he curls his hand around the nape of my neck to soothe me, rubbing his thumb up and down below my ear. He has calluses, little circular pads on the base of each finger from cycling that are rough as pumice.

“You don’t know if you liked school or not? You must remember something.”

“Not really,” I say, wriggling out of Jürgen’s grip, flustered, trying to concentrate on the road.

“Try,” he says.

I don’t answer.

Why won’t I talk to him? Is it just that I’m embarrassed? The boarding school education, the implication of wealth and privilege, the Old Girls’ network. When I met Jürgen (a sculptor I was sent to interview for a Sunday supplement, a rising star), he was still sleeping in a tent in his studio, washing in a sink, subsisting on grants and sporadic commissions. A self-made man, the de scendant of mountain people, literal peasants-cattle herders and cheese makers—he described to me during the course of that first meeting how he’d paid his way through art school felling trees and slaughtering goats.

Jürgen turns his whole body to face me.

“Seriously, you’re kidding, right? You won’t tell me this?”

Ashamed, I say nothing.

He can see that I’m not going to budge.

This does it. Silently thunderous, Jürgen takes out his guide book and reads the history of Skye. His stare bores down into one page then the next. We’re not the kind of couple who bicker. I sit behind the wheel, gnawing on the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry.

On the ferry to Armadale we stand apart, his hood up, my scarf wrapped around my head against the spray. He has his cam era around his neck but doesn’t take one photo. When we get to the island, there are midges, huge biblical clouds of gnats. We cover our mouths with our T-shirts and run into the croft house we have rented, cornered together inside the tiny kitchen.

“Oh my god,” I say, looking out at the bugs creeping all over the window frame, trying to find a way in. I try to make a joke about it but it falls flat. Jürgen is still furious with me, his new wife, for keeping secrets. He sits with the map spread on the floor, his precious road bike propped up against the wall. I open the bottle of single malt I bought on the mainland. I may have taken a few swigs already on the crossing. Dutch courage.

My throat warm, I place the whisky dead in the middle of his map. Jürgen barely looks up. I take off my clothes—it is our honeymoon, after all—and straddle Loch Hourn. Legs spread shamelessly. Afterwards, we lie on the floor and drink the rest of the bottle, picking midges from each other’s skin.

“Please, Sephine,” Jürgen begs. “Remember something. For me.”

“Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”

“That woman, she hated you. She called you a cunt.”

“So?”

“I want to know. I want to know about you back then.”

“No, you don’t.”

I curl under his armpit, press against his warm ribs.

“Liebchen”—he circles the birthmark on my shoulder “please.”

I think of the elderly couple at the bed-and-breakfast. Be kind.

“Fine,” I mutter. I believe, or so I tell myself, in the apotropaic power of marriage. That witch hasn’t jinxed us, we are invincible. Golden even. What harm can it do?

“Memor amici,” I begin.

Remember friends.

Excerpted from the book THE DIVINES: A Novel by Ellie Eaton. Copyright © 2021 by Ellie Eaton. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

On Nature and Nationalism with Sarah Moss

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The seventh novel from English writer Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 2021), is a slim book with a lot to unpack. Like Ghost Wall, her breakout work in the U.S. (published by FSG last year), it concerns an ill-fated expedition to a remote part of Great Britain. Stuffed with ideas about people’s relationship to nature and questions of national identity, the book, bereft of a central hero, takes up the point of view of a different character in each chapter.
“I was thinking of it almost as a relay race—that each time there’s an interaction across households, the narrative baton passes on,” says Moss, speaking over Zoom from her house in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin, where she’s surrounded by bare white walls.
Summerwater, which is set in the Scottish Highlands and follows several families who rent neighboring cabins in a national park, is a strange, episodic mix of interconnected scenes and lyrical interludes. It’s not clear where the story is going until at least halfway through the work.
Though Summerwater is not a thriller, Moss keeps the reader turning the pages by imbuing each chapter with a sense of foreboding. Some of the characters run into danger—a treacherous rope swing, a solitary paddle across a blustery loch, a secret nighttime excursion to a man’s illegal campsite on the fringe of the park—while others hang back and watch the goings-on from their cabins. The dynamic creates an unsettling sense of voyeurism, more so when the gaze of most of the watchers converges on one particular cabin, where loud music is played at all hours by the “foreigners” who are renting it.
When asked if she began with a plan to subvert the reader’s expectations about thriller motifs or if she was just having fun, Moss, who teaches creative writing at University College Dublin and has published scholarly works on 19th-century literature, says she was “entirely playing.” She doesn’t think like an academic when she starts a work of fiction, she adds. Ideas come later.
“The more I proceed on instinct and in the spirit of playfulness, the better it tends to be,” Moss says. She notes that her first novel, Cold Earth, “tends to be read as much more thrillerish than the later ones.” Often that instinct leads her to start with an old-fashioned plot form. “It’s an obvious way of building a novel, and it’s fun.”
Moss’s previous novel, Ghost Wall (a PW Best Book of 2019), is about a man who, obsessed with the Iron Age and the bog people, forces his teenage daughter to come along with him for a reenactment in the remote English countryside, where they strive to live as ancient Britons. Moss grew up in a family of hikers in Northern England and spent nearly every weekend in the mountains. She found the germ for Ghost Wall while on a writing residency in Northumberland.
The novel was read primarily as a Brexit book in the U.K., so Moss says she was surprised to see it make such an impact in the U.S. She believes now that this may be due to the fact that readers in Europe and the U.S. picked up on a broader theme of nationalism, which is also present in Summerwater.
In Ghost Wall, nationalism is dramatized through an obsessive, dangerous drive to authentically reenact the lives of the characters’ forebears; in Summerwater, the English and Scottish strangers are united around their outrage over the presence of a group of people who they assume, by the sound of their accents, have come from overseas.
The first character the reader meets in Summerwater is a middle-aged woman named Justine, who goes for a run through the park in the early morning despite the heavy rain. When she notices a tent pitched at an illegal campsite, her initial fears about “murderous nutters” give way to a more charitable estimation, as she remembers camping outside of bounds, as a young person, to avoid paying fees.
Justine’s husband, Steve, in contrast, is less benevolent toward the perceived interlopers, and is particularly irate over the loud cabin. It doesn’t matter that they’re “foreign, Romanian or what have you,” he says. “They can stay up all night and deafen themselves if they want to, but they should do it somewhere else, such as back where they came from.” Steve does not know, however, that the mother of the partying family, Alina, is from Ukraine and has lived in the U.K. for 20 years, or that her daughter is English.
Summerwater came together quickly for Moss after a stay with her family in a holiday park in Scotland, similar to the park where the book is set. Like the characters, they were met with two weeks of rain, but still they went out to climb mountains. “What are you going to do, sit inside for two weeks?” she asks. “We also became fairly fascinated by everybody else in the holiday park, and I was thinking how odd it was that there were these families who were kind of stuck in this place but still weren’t talking to each other.”
Moss says she brought her own children up the way she was raised, encouraging them to spend time outdoors and to believe “climbing mountains is what normal people do.” She also says she gives herself a couple hours each day for running, like her character Justine, in order to quiet her thoughts.
“I have this fantastic Joycean run,” Moss says, “that starts in Dún Laoghaire and goes along the coast that Joyce writes about, past the Forty Foot bathing place, Sandy Cove, Dalkey, and then up a Killarney Hill, where on a clear day, you can see the tops of the Welsh mountains.”
As a resident of County Dublin, Moss has the right to use the local running paths during the county’s Covid-19 lockdown, but they’re closed to outsiders—even to Irish people from other counties. “I barely know where the county boundaries are,” she says. “I don’t belong here.”
As she wrote Summerwater, Moss was thinking about the attitudes about public space that emerge in moments of popular nationalism such as Brexit. “It’s a really dangerous kind of blood and soil narrative, where you earn the right to be in a place and there’s no distinction between the right to be in a place and the right to exclude other people,” she says. “In some ways those issues have only become more vexed with Covid. Some of my neighbors are getting really cross about people coming from other parts of Dublin to walk here, which they’re doing because they’re not allowed to go anywhere else.”
When it’s pointed out to Moss that the “foreign” characters are the only ones who seem to be having any fun in Summerwater, she admits to reserving a special rage for people who make noise while she’s trying to write. As such, she claims that when she began the book, her sympathy was with the characters who objected to the loud music. But as she finished, with the lockdown in effect, she realized it’s “kind of wrong” to hate the sound of others having fun.
“Over the summer, cases dropped and restrictions lifted,” Moss says. “So everybody was socializing in their gardens, and it was so nice to lie in bed and hear people having real-life human interactions with each other and listening to music and enjoying each other’s company.”


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Letter from the Capitol

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The Confederate battle standard never flew within the Capitol Building — until January 6th, 2021. During the Civil War, that cankered, perfidious, malignant, cancerous cabal of traitors who grandiosely called themselves the “Confederate States of America” had many northern strategic inflection points in which they stabbed into the nation’s body, and because of these, for a time, it seemed as if they might be triumphant. General John Hunt Morgan’s 2nd Kentucky Calvary Regiment raided not just in that unfortunate border state, but in 1863 they pierced into Indiana and Ohio as well. Morgan would finally surrender in Salineville, Ohio, which latitudinally is almost as far north as Connecticut. Even more incongruously and a year later, 21 veterans of Morgan’s Raid crossed over the Canadian border, that land then colonized by a Southern-sympathizing Great Britain, and attacked the sleepy hamlet of St. Albans, Vermont, including robbing the bank and forcing the citizens at gun point to swear fealty to the Confederacy. The most violent (and most famous) invasion of the north was the traitor Robert E. Lee’s campaign in Pennsylvania, the goal of which was to possibly capture or burn down Philadelphia, but which was stopped at the infamous “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy when Union General George C. Meade turned back the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg—a battle that took more than 50,000 American lives in three days. During Lee’s campaign in southern Pennsylvania, free Black women and men had to flee north, as the Confederate raiders would send those they kidnapped into a southern bondage.

For sheer absurdity, among the closest positions that the rebels ever got to the national capital was the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, Virginia, where a Confederate flag was displayed that was so large and so tall that Lincoln could see it from the White House across the Potomac. A few weeks after Ft. Sumter and Union troops occupied the city, marching down red-bricked King Street where slave markets had sold thousands of human beings less than ten miles from the Capitol Building. When Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment ascended to the roof of the hotel to remove the flag, the proprietor of the Marshall House shot him dead, the first Union casualty of the Civil War. Despite being able to see the warped cross of the Confederate battle standard from the portico of the White House, Lincoln steadfastly refused to move the capital to safer points further north, arguing that the abandonment of Washington would be a capitulation to the seditionists.

“Let us be vigilant,” Lincoln telegraphed to the worried Maryland governor in 1864, “but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked.” Not for lack of desire, as that same year Confederate Lieutenant Jubal Early would attack Ft. Stevens in the Northwest Quadrant of the District of Columbia, in a battle that would take close to nine hundred men. Long had the secessionists dreamed of Washington as the capital of their fake nation. In the decades before the Civil War some imagined a “Golden Circle,” which would be a veritable empire of slavery, with the South Carolina Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett imperially enthusing that “We will expand… over Mexico – over the isles of the sea — over the far-off Southern — until we shall establish a great Confederation,” their twisted nation stretching from Panama to the District of Columbia. Until last week the Confederate flag never flew within the Capitol.

There the man casually strolls across the red-and-blue mosaic floor of some antechamber in the Capitol, dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with a tan hunting vest; hoisted over his shoulder is the Confederate flag, its colors matching the tiles. It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that his uniform is the exact same “suspicious” article of clothing which Black pre-teenagers have been shot for wearing, even while this man is able to raid the very seat of government unmolested. Because America is many things, but it is not subtle, the man in the photograph is centered by two gild-framed oil paintings. One is of Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist nearly caned to death by an opponent on the legislative floor of this very building, and who denounced the “unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government” before Congress in 1852. The other portrait, almost predictably, is of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina Senator and Vice President under Andrew Jackson, who in 1837 would declaim that the “relation now existing in the slaveholding states… instead of an evil, [is] a good. A positive good,” and would then gush about what a kind and benevolent slave-master he was. It would be harder to stage a more perfect encapsulation of the American dichotomy than our weekend warrior did on Wednesday, the continual pull between those better angels of our nature and the demons of history, who are never quite exorcized and are often in full possession of the body politic. A power in that grotesque image, the cosplaying Confederate momentarily self-anointing himself sovereign as he casually strolls through the chamber. Chillingly strolled, one might say, for all of these terrorists acted with as impunity as if they had the knowledge there would be no consequences to their actions. It reminds us that the mantra “This isn’t who we are” is at best maudlin and at worst a complete lie.

The siege against the Capitol on the day that Congress met for the constitutionally mandated and largely pro-forma ritual of officially counting the Electoral College votes to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the rightful victors of the 2020 presidential race can be examined from many directions, of course. Security experts can parse why there was such a profound failure at ensuring the safety of the session; political scientists can explain how social media algorithms has increasingly radicalized adherents of the far-right; historians can place movements like QAnon and the Proud Boys in a genealogy of American nativism and European fascism. Everyone should be able to say that ultimate responsibility lay with the stochastic terrorism promoted by the lame-duck president and his congressional sycophants in the Sedition Caucus, as well as his media enablers with whom he is clasped in a toxic symbiotic relationship. All those approaches to analysis are valid, but I choose to look at the day as a literary critic and a resident of Washington D.C., because those things are what I am. But incongruity alone, even the uncanny alone, can’t quite provide the full critical lexicon for what we witnessed on our televisions that afternoon, the sense that even more than an inflection point, we were viewers of a cracked apocalypse. How do we make sense of an attempted American putsch, the almost-nightmare of a coup?

Because the cultural idiom of this nation is Hollywood, and our interpretive lenses are by necessity through that of the movies, I can’t help but feel that much of what we saw seemed prefigured in film. The terrible logic of America is that our deepest nightmares and desires always have a way of enacting themselves, of moving from celluloid to reality. Look at the photograph of Jake Angeli, the self-styled “QAnon Shaman,” shirtless and bedecked in racoon fur with buffalo horns upon his head (in pantomime of the very people whom this nation enacted genocide upon) with his face smeared in the colors of the American flag, standing at the dais of the Speaker of the House, and tell me that it doesn’t look like a deleted scene from The Postman. Or examine the photograph of a smiling ginger man in a stocking cap emblazoned with “TRUMP,” casually waving as he jauntily strolls underneath the rotunda past John Trumbull’s massive painting Surrender of General Burgoyne holding under his arm a pilfered wood podium decorated with a gold federal eagle, his hero’s adage that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” apparently only to be selectively enforced. It looks like something from the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli.

And then, most chillingly (and disturbingly underreported), there was the painstakingly assembled set of gallows, placed a bit beyond the equestrian monument to Ulysses S. Grant, who with great courage and strength broke the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, from which one vigilante hung that most American symbol of a noose. When remembered in light of the black-clad and masked men photographed with guns and zip-ties, it should make all of us consider just how much more tragic this violation, which was already a grotesque abomination, could have been. Horrifying to recall that the narrative conceit in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and its television adaptation) that allowed for the theocratic dictatorship to ascend to power was the mass murder of a joint session of Congress. Sometimes #Resistance liberals get flak for their fears of fascism, but it would be easier to mock those anxieties if our country didn’t so often look like a science fiction dystopia.

It’s my suspicion that pop culture — that literature — is capable of picking up on some sort of cultural supersonic wavelength, those deep historical vibrations that diffuse in circles outward from our present into both past and future. There is something incantatory about those visions generated in word and special-effect, so that the eeriness of seeing marauding fascists overtake the Capitol grounds feels like something we’ve seen before. Think of all the times we’ve watched the monuments of Washington D.C. destroyed on film. Last week — while half paying attention to a block of cheesy apocalypse movies on the Syfy network that were supposed to count down the days left in the year — I saw the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier pushed into the city by an Atlantic tsunami where it rolled across the National Mall and crushed the White House in Roland Emmerich’s godawful 2012. I’ve seen the executive mansion punctuated by bombs and dotted with bullet holes in the spectacularly corny Antoine Fuqua movie Olympus Has Fallen, and according to Thrillist the Capitol itself has been laid waste in no less than nine movies, including Day After Tomorrow, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Independence Day, Olympus Has Fallen, Superman II, White House Down, and X-Men: Days of Futures Past. Probably the impulse to watch this sort of thing is equal parts vicarious thrill and enactment of deep fears. I remember that when I saw Independence Day (also by Emmerich, the Kurosawa of schlock) after it came out, the 1996 theater audience erupted into cheers and claps when the impenetrable wall of exploding alien flames incinerated its way across D.C. and shattered the white dome of the Capitol like an egg being thrown into a fire-place. Was that applause an expressed opinion about Newt Gingrich? About Bill Clinton? Something darker?

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, now almost twenty years ago, there was a profoundly shortsighted prediction that the hideous spectacle of Americans seeing the World Trade Center collapse would forever cure us of our strange desire to see our most famous buildings, and the people within them, destroyed. A perusal into the Olympian corpus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (seemingly the only entertainment which Hollywood bothers to produce anymore) will testify that such an estimation was, to put it lightly, premature. French philosopher Guy Debord could have told us this in 1967 in his Society of the Spectacle, wherein he noted that “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” to which it could be added that the inverse is also accurate – everything that has been represented has seemingly moved into life. Which doesn’t mean that scenes like those which we witnessed on Wednesday aren’t affecting – no, the opposite is true. People reach to the appraisal that “it looks like a movie” not to be dismissive, but rather because cinema is the most powerful mythopoesis that we’re capable of.

What’s needed, of course, is a vocabulary commensurate with what exactly all of us saw. A rhetoric capable of grappling with defilement, with violation, with desecration, but because all we have is movies, that’s what we’re forced to draw upon. They gave us the ability to think about the unthinkable before it happened; the chance to see the unseeable before it was on our newsfeeds. If the vision of the screen is anemic, that’s not necessarily our fault — we measure the room of our horror with the tools which we’ve inherited. Few square miles of our civic architecture are quite so identified with our quasi-sacred sense of American civil religion as the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and so the spectacle of a clambering rabble (used as a Trojan Horse for God knows what more nefarious group of actors) calls to mind fiction far more than it does anything which actually has happened. That’s the cruelty of our current age — that so frequently our lives resemble the nightmare more than the awakening. The Capitol siege was very much an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word: an unveiling, a rupture in normal history that signals why all of this feels so cinematic — though it’s hard to tell if it’s the beginning or ending of the movie, and what genre we’re exactly in. As Timothy Denevi writes about the assault in LitHub, “What is a culmination, after all, except the moment in which everything that could happen finally does? Where are we supposed to go from there?”

Important to remember that everything which could happen has already happened before, at some point. That’s what the bromide about this not being who we are gets wrong — this is, at least partially, who we’ve always been, albeit not in this exact or particular way. What happened at the eastern edge of the Mall this week has shades of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in which an conspiracy of white supremacists plotted against the Black leadership of the North Carolina city ushered in Jim Crow at the cost of hundreds of lives (and then untold millions over the next century). The assault on the Capitol has echoes of the Election Riots of 1874, when members of the White League attacked Black voters in Eufaula, Alabama, leaving behind dozens of wounded women and men, and seven corpses. These are two examples of hundreds of similar events that shamefully liter our nation’s history, albeit most citizens have never heard of them. Hell, most people didn’t know about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 — still less than a century ago — until HBO’s Watchmen dramatized it. The issue is exactly the same: White supremacists think that only their votes count, and will do anything to enforce that conviction.

That the supporters of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office believe any number of insane and discounted conspiracy theories about election fraud — claims rejected in some sixty lawsuits and a 9-0 Supreme Court decision — is to in some ways miss the point. Listen to their language — the man who instigated Wednesday’s riot emphasizes that he simply wants to count “legal” votes and ask yourself what that means, and then realize why the fevered rage of his mob focuses on places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. If the only people who’d been allowed to vote for Trump were white people, then he would have won the election in his claimed landslide — that’s what he and his supporters mean by “legal” votes. The batshit insane theories are just fan fiction to occlude the actual substance of their political belief. Such anti-democratic sentiment is also an American legacy, an American curse. The connection between what happened on Capitol Hill and in Wilmington, Eufaula, and Tulsa; or Fort Bend, Texas in 1888; or Lake City, South Carolina in 1897; or Ocoee, Florida in 1920; or in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 (you can look them all up), or any number of other thousands of incidents, may seem tangential. It isn’t.

When I lived in Massachusetts there was a sense of history that hung thick in the air, all of those centuries back to the gloomy Puritans and their gothic inheritance. Historical markers punctuated the streets of Boston and her suburbs, and there was that rightfully proud Yankee ownership of the American Revolution. Our apartment was only a mile or so from the Lexington battle green where that shot heard around the world rang out, and I used to sometimes grab a coffee and read a magazine on one of its pleasant benches in what was effectively a pleasant park, battle green thoughts in a green shade. Part of me wanted to describe this part of the country as haunted, and perhaps it is, but its ghosts seem to belong to a distant world, a European world. By contrast, when I moved to Washington DC, the American specters moved into much clearer focus. If Massachusetts seems defined by the Revolution, then the District of Columbia, and Maryland, and Virginia are indelibly marked by the much more violent, more consequential, more important, and more apocalyptic conflagration of the Civil War. In his classic Love and Death in the American Novel, the critic Leslie Fiedler described the nation as “bewilderingly and embarrassingly, a gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic — a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.” Our national story is a Jekyll and Hyde tale about the best and worst aspirations at conflict within the Manichean breast of a nation which fancied itself Paradise but ended up somewhere points further south.

Because I have a suspicion that poetry is capable of telling the future, that everything which can or will happen has already been rendered into verse somewhere (even if obscured), a snatch of verse from a Greek poet accompanied my doom scrolling this week. “Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?” Constantin Cavafy asked in 1898, “Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?” I thought about it when I first heard that the mob was pounding at the Capitol door; it rang in my brain when I saw the photographs of them parading through that marble forest of statuary hall, underneath that iron dome painted a pristine white. “Because the barbarians are coming today,” Cavafy answered himself. I thought about it when I looked at the garbage strewn through the halls, the men with their feet up on legislators’ desks, cackling at the coup they’d pulled. “What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’d do the legislating.” For a respite, it seems that the barbarians have either been pushed back or left of their own accord. In that interim, what will be done to make sure that they don’t return? Because history and poetry have taught us that they always do.

Image credit: Pexels/Harun Tan.

Listening to the Voices in His Head: The Millions Interviews Jim Gauer

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Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, an experimental novel set in Los Angeles, Ciudad Juárez, and Guanajuato, received a starred review from Kirkus, which praised the book for its “verbal and postmodern high jinks.” Originally published in 2016, a new edition, with an afterword by Chris Via, publishes in February.

The Millions caught up with poet and mathematician Gauer to discuss his novel, its enduring appeal, his writing process, literary influences, and much more.

The Millions: Your novel has also been featured in starred reviews, radio shows, and various platforms online, and is immensely popular on social media. To what do you attribute its long-lasting connection with readers?

Jim Gauer: Boy, that’s a tough one, a bit like asking a father to explain why his child has so many friends. Am I allowed to say it’s a great novel, and that anyone who loves it is an exceptional human being? No, I suppose not. Seriously, while I think the book is a lot of fun to read and may have what the novelist Joseph McElroy called “an indelible richness,” the truth is that the book is so different from most contemporary novels that those who enjoy it tend to be loyal to the book. Among other things, the book uses long, intricate sentences, long paragraphs, and an extravagant lexicon, none of which would endear it to corporate publishers, but I think there’s a kind of hunger for novels that aim high, and if they fail, at least fail spectacularly. It’s not the sort of book that anyone could feel indifferent about, so readers who believe in the book seem to be tenacious in their belief. In any case, however I explain it, I’m truly grateful for the book’s loyal readers, as without them, the book would have vanished without a trace.  

TM: Novel Explosives is over 700 pages long – certainly a feat for busy readers and those searching for space on their bookshelves. What would you share with readers about your book who might be daunted by the manuscript length? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for spinning this many-paged tale?

JG: Indeed, the book is far too long, though it does have a thriller-like intensity and a good deal of narrative propulsive force, and I don’t think it’s quite so long as the page-count would indicate. As for process, the book began when I had just finished another novel, currently in a drawer, and woke up the next morning with a voice and a first sentence in my head. I wrote the first hundred pages or so in one long blast, during which I discovered two more voices. I then spent the next seven years of seven-days weeks following those voices wherever they led, and where they led turned out to be Novel Explosives.

TM: One of the most intriguing and unique elements of your novel is the fact that it’s a three-stranded narrative. When you’re writing, how do you best keep track of timelines, character arcs, etc. to make sure the narratives converge at all the right moments?

 JG: I of course had an outline that took up the entire side of a three-by-five index card, but then I only referred to it a few thousand times. One of the reasons I didn’t take a day off in seven years of writing was that I had the structure of the entire book in my head, and I was afraid that if I took a day off, the book would fall apart or simply vanish. Part of this may have been my training as a mathematician, but I didn’t want to know too much about the writing up ahead, as I wanted the writing to feel as surprising to me as it hopefully feels to the reader. The index card was used to keep the timeline straight, and to make sure that all the narrative ingenuity didn’t turn into sheer incompetence.

TM: What was the inspiration behind setting the story in this particular year (2009) in this particular region of Mexico (Guanajuato)?

JG: For some reason, that voice I woke up with on the first morning was a character preparing to tell the story of how he came to live in Guanajuato, Mexico. He finds that all of his knowledge is intact, but since he has no idea who he is or how came to live in Guanajuato in the first place, he isn’t exactly prepared to tell the story of how he came to live there. In essence, the voice selected the place, as Guanajuato was little more than a word to me, and I’d never been anywhere near there. The book, in retrospect, seems a matter of “presiding over accidents,” as Orson Welles put it. One of the accidents is that the character, Alvaro, was positioned part way up a hill in a small hotel overlooking the Plaza de la Paz, in a very precise location that might easily have been a glue factory. When it came time to visit Guanajuato, my wife and I walked to the Plaza de la Paz, went up the hill to the street that Alvaro lives on, and discovered that his building was not only a small hotel, but that the hotel was called El Meson de las Poetas, The Inn of the Poets. If I had any doubts about completing the writing, the name of the hotel seemed so improbable to me that I knew I would have to finish the book.

TM: There’s been a lot of comparison of your style to that of Thomas Pynchon or even David Foster Wallace. Who do you count among your literary and visionary inspirations, and why?

JG: At bottom, the book is a kind of absurdist quest, so it may have been Cervantes presiding over many of the accidents. The tradition the book is written in includes Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, William Gass, William Gaddis, Pynchon, and the greatest unread novelist of the late 20th century, Alexander Theroux. Out of some sort of anticipatory anxiety of influence, I didn’t read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest until the book was finished, but he certainly would have been an inspiration had I read the book beforehand. While I can’t possibly compare my writing to any of these great writers, they’re all masters of the sentence, and Novel Explosives at least aspires to the same sort of mastery of the sentence.

TM: You’re a self-described “mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist venture capitalist.” How do these multi-faceted perspectives contribute to your voice as an author, and to this particular plot? 

JG: One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Walter Bagehot. “The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” Would Gaddis have been able to write JR if he hadn’t been forced to work in PR and learn about the business and legal worlds? As a poet, I too was forced to work for a living, and much of what I know, beyond novels, math, and philosophy, was the result of having to work for a living.

TM: What’s next for you in terms of writing?

JG: My first rule is don’t write unless you have to. My second rule is to wait until you wake up one morning with a voice in your head, and then follow the voice wherever it leads.
This piece was sponsored by Zerogram Press.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Saunders, Enríquez, Gurganus, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from George Saunders, Mariana Enríquez, Allan Gurganus, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) offers lessons from his graduate-level seminar on the Russian short story in this superb mix of instruction and literary criticism. In surveying seven stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, Saunders concludes that the secret to crafting powerful fiction is, ‘Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation.’ Each story is presented in full, along with Saunders’s commentary: on Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart,’ Saunders asks, ‘why we keep reading a story,’ and on Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man,’ he writes that facts can ‘draw us in’ when the ‘language isn’t particularly elevated or poetic.’ Saunders’s teaching style, much like his fiction, is thoughtful with touches of whimsy, as when he breaks the action of Turgenev’s ‘The Singers’ into a table and compares the short story writer to a roller-coaster designer. The writing advice, meanwhile, is expansive: revising, he writes, involves intuition, and he views a story as a conversation. His closing note for writers is to ‘go forth and do what you please.’ Saunders’s generous teachings—and the classics they’re based on—are sure to please.”

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Aftershocks: “In her enthralling memoir, Whiting Award–winner Owusu (So Devilish a Fire) assesses the impact of key events in her life via the metaphor of earthquakes. The biracial daughter of an Armenian mother and Ghanaian father, Owusu’s early life was fractured by her parents’ divorce and multiple moves necessitated by her father’s U.N. career. Living in Rome at age seven, she was visited by her long-absent mother on the day a catastrophic quake hit Armenia, seeding an obsession with earthquakes ‘and the ways we try to understand the size and scale of impending disaster.’ She believed ‘an instrument in my brain’—a kind of emotional seismometer—picked up vibrations and set off protective alarms. Her shaky relationship with her stepmother Anabel, meanwhile, worsened in her teens after her father’s death from cancer. College in Manhattan offered escape, but at 28 she was devastated by Anabel’s claim that her father died of AIDS: ‘Although… Anabel was a liar… the alarm continued to sound.’ A subsequent breakup with a boyfriend released long-suppressed anxiety, and she spent a week sitting in a chair in her apartment—’almost like sitting in my father’s lap,’ and it was only then that she could contemplate the complex love she, her mother, and her stepmother felt for her father. Readers will be moved by this well-wrought memoir.”

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata: “Filipino writer Apostol (Insurrecto) revises her playful 2009 novel, winner of the Philippine National Book Award and appearing in the U.S. for the first time, to highly entertaining effect. Framed as the expansive, postmodern memoir of the visually impaired Raymundo Mata, the book combines Mata’s reminiscences of the 1890s revolution against Spanish colonial forces and his involvement with the secret revolutionary Katipunan society with references to revered real-life 19th-century nationalist Filipino writer Jose Rizal. In a note commenting on the new edition, Apostol describes the book’s eccentric intricacies by noting how it was ‘planned as a puzzle: traps for the reader, dead end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of tongue.’ The narrative is studded with hilarious argumentative footnotes between an editor, a translator, and a scholar of Mata’s work, producing dueling Nabokovian narratives: Mata’s diaries and the conflicting commentaries, all suffused perfectly with Apostol’s dense, demanding style. As the story of the revolution faces off with literary histrionics, all is resolved with a gut-punch conclusion. Apostol’s unique perspective on facts versus fiction would make for a perfect Charlie Kaufman movie.”

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about That Old Country Music: “Irish writer Barry follows Night Boat to Tangier with a rather mixed story collection. ‘The Coast of Leitrim’ and ‘Deer Season’ tread well-worn romantic territories, depicting doomed and all-too familiar relationships. ‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy,’ about a morbid townie chatterbox, is entertaining, yet it ends with a punch line that falls flat. On the other hand, the title story, which follows a pregnant teen as she waits for her criminal fiancé to return from a robbery, pulses with electricity and emotion, despite its abrupt conclusion. ‘Toronto and the State of Grace’ showcases the author’s gift for dialogue and wit, as a brash son and his elderly mother hold court in a sleepy pub, drinking their way through the pub’s liquor and showering the barkeep with stories. And ‘Roma Kid’ transforms what initially seems to be a depressing runaway child story into a fairy tale of finding family and purpose. As always, Barry can’t write a bad sentence (‘A light rain began to fall and it spoke more than anything else of the place through which she moved’), but the too-tepid stories don’t do justice to the author’s considerable talents. This won’t go down as one of Barry’s finer works.”

Hades, Argentina by Daniel Lodel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hades, Argentina: “An Argentinian American unspools his dark memories of the Dirty War in Loedel’s mesmerizing debut. Tomás Orilla, a naive medical student, was drawn into Argentina’s dangerous political miasma in 1976 to impress his first love, the left-wing activist Isabel. The reader first meets Tomás in 1986 in New York City, where Tomás had fled 10 years earlier with a forged passport. Now married to an American woman, he shares with her a conveniently selective version of his story (‘the full, fleshed-out story still wasn’t one I was eager to examine, much less hand over’). Tomás returns to Buenos Aires after receiving a call from Isabel’s mother, who is terminally ill with cancer. There, he encounters what appears to be the ghost of a former mentor who takes him to a crypt underneath an old detention center, where he relives a series of horrifying events, some of which he was party to in the lead-up to a difficult choice he made for his own survival. The theme of ghosts is bent a few ways—ghosts appear in memories, the crypt, and on the street—and it becomes an apt, poignant descriptor for the people who were disappeared and the agony of their loved ones who had to carry on without knowing what happened to them. Loedel’s unflinching look at human frailty adds a revelatory new chapter to South American Cold War literature.”

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Detransition, Baby: “Peters’s sharp comedy (after Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones) charts the shifting dynamics of gender, relationships, and family as played out in three characters’ exploration of trans femininity. Reese, a trans woman from the Midwest now living in New York City, is in the throes of an affair with a kinky, dominant, and married man. Ames, Reese’s ex who has detransitioned since their breakup three years earlier, is now with his boss, a divorced cis woman named Katrina. When Katrina gets pregnant, Ames must reckon with his gender once again. Katrina intends to get an abortion if Ames leaves her, and he comes up with a solution so crazy it just might work. He cannot be a father, but he can be a parent (‘He knew, however, that Katrina didn’t have the queer background to allow for that distinction’), and Reese, more than anything, wants to be a mother; desperate, Ames asks Reese if she will be a co-mother; he also confesses to Katrina that he once lived as a woman. As Reese, Katrina, and Ames reckon with the possibility and difficulties of forming a family, their quick wit gets them through heavy scenes (Reese on Katrina’s ‘AIDS panic’: ‘How retro’). Peters conceives of a world so lovable and complex, it’s hard to let go.”

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Summerwater: “Moss’s taut latest (after Ghost Wall) turns a rain-drenched park in the Scottish Highlands into a site of tension and unease for a group of vacationing strangers. The book opens with a middle-aged woman going for a run in the early morning, her family still asleep in their rented cabin. As she follows the trail past an illegally pitched tent, she considers the trope of a dangerous man in the woods. From here on out, each chapter introduces a new point of view among the mix of English tourists and Scots who watch and pass judgment upon one another without interacting, and situations such as a teenage boy’s ill-advised kayak trip across a rough loch and a teenage girl’s sneaking out at night keep the reader wondering if this is the kind of book where the worst thing will happen. As the noises of late-night revelry from one cabin draw attention from all others, many of whom describe its dwellers wrongly as ‘foreign’ or ‘those Romanians,’ the suspense builds. Meanwhile, a series of lyrical interludes describing the park’s elements of nature and eons of evolution provide delightfully ironic contrasts to the small human dramas. Readers unafraid of a bit of rain will relish this.”

Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inland Sea: “Australian writer Watts punctuates her eloquent debut with deep-seated anxiety about climate change. For the most part, the story follows a young woman’s downward spiral after she graduates from college and faces a bleak future. The unnamed protagonist finds work as an operator at a call center connecting those in need to appropriate organizations. The rote job turns daunting when calls suddenly pour in, saturating her in horrific reports of floods, fires, and violence. Meanwhile, her personal life remains chaotic as she continues her relationship with an emotionally abusive ex, and indulges in heavy drinking along with nightly hookups, of which she observes, ‘I wanted to be undone. I wasn’t interested in protecting myself.’ Snapshots of her childhood reveal an angry father and her parents’ messy divorce, and the journal entries of real-life 19th-century explorer John Oxley, the narrator’s great-great-great-grandfather, find their way into the story. Oxley’s search for Australia’s inland sea is mirrored in the narrator’s bleak outlook on the future (‘The sea need only rise a few meters for… the rock and sand and red gibber plains to become submerged once more’). While the narrative moves haphazardly, the prose is consistently rich and loaded with imagery. Watts’s bold, unconventional outing makes for a distinctive entry into the climate fiction genre.”

Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Life Among the Terranauts: “Vigorous and supremely crafted, Horrocks’s second collection (after the novel The Vexations) explores human frailties, desires, and mechanisms for survival. In ‘The Sleep,’ family man Al Rasmussen persuades the fellow residents of his moribund Midwestern town to sleep through the winter (‘ ‘Don’t try to convince me,’ Al said, ‘that anything worthwhile happens in this town during January and February. I’ve lived here as long as you have’ ’). A posse of high school girls are haunted by their favorite fortune-telling games in ‘Better Not Tell You Now,’ and a former-cult member turned real estate agent takes his estranged son on a Boston-area college tour in ‘Chance Me.’ After a gruesome act of violence in ‘Teacher,’ an elementary school teacher considers whether one can really know how a student will turn out. The title story, one of the most arresting and inventive of the bunch, follows a small group of scientists, engineers, and a philosopher who live in an isolated artificial ecosystem, vying for the chance to win a small fortune. With 187 days to go and their faith in survival unraveling into disorder, the possibility of cannibalism becomes increasingly likely. Horrocks’s linguistic finesse and narrative range is impressive, and she brings incisive humor, pathos, and wit to her characters and their predicaments. The result is an immersive and engaging work that astutely captures the complexities of the human condition.”

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dangers of Smoking in Bed: “The alleys and slums of Buenos Aires supply the backdrop to Enriquez’s harrowing and utterly original collection (after Things We Lost in the Fire), which illuminates the pitch-dark netherworld between urban squalor and madness. In the nightmarish opener, ‘Angelita Unearthed,’ the bones of a rotting child reanimate after being dug up; likewise, in ‘Back When We Talked to the Dead,’ the dead foretell dread using a Ouija board. Themes of obsession and the arcane come to light in ‘Our Lady of the Quarry,’ where a band of teenage girls turn to witchcraft to snare the object of their desires; ‘Meat,’ which follows two grave-robbing fans of a recently deceased rock star; and ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’, in which a self-described ‘heartbeat fetishist’ gets off by holding a stethoscope to a diseased man’s chest. Things grow darker still in ‘Rambla Triste,’ as the victims of a pedophile ring are resurrected in Barcelona as “incarnations of the city’s madness,” and in ‘Kids Who Come Back,’ the book’s epic and visceral centerpiece, in which the missing, damned, and destitute begin returning home. (Which isn’t to discount the grotesque title story or the exorcism at the heart of ‘The Well.’) Finally, there are the pair of film fanatics who undertake made-to-order pornography only to quickly get in over their heads in ‘No Birthdays or Baptisms.’ Enriquez’s wide-ranging imagination and ravenous appetite for morbid scenarios often reaches sublime heights. Adventurous readers will be rewarded in these trips into the macabre—and hopefully they’ll be able to find their way back.”

The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus by Allan Gurganus

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus: “Gurganus’s vital collection (after Lost Souls) portrays small-town Americans, mostly oddballs and misfits, at moments of self-discovery as recounted in their own authentic voices. Several stories take place in fictional Falls, N.C., once called ‘the Athens of This Far into Eastern North Carolina,’ according to the tour guide in ‘The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC).’ Small-town residents like Falls’ know each other’s secrets and relish the telling. In ‘The Mortician Confesses,’ a 60-year-old undertaker has sex with a corpse, and the man’s sad story is colorfully told by the cop who caught him. In ‘Unassisted Human Flight,’ a reporter investigates a local legend of a man said to have flown almost a mile as a boy of eight. The characters can also be heroic, as when a 65-year-old widower rescues his neighbors during Hurricane Floyd in ‘Fourteen Feet of Water in my House,’ and an Ivy League doctor saves a Midwestern town from cholera in ‘The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,’ set during the 1850s. Among the greatest entries in this stellar work are ‘My Heart Is a Snake Farm,’ featuring a spinster whose life in a crumbling Florida motel brightens when a slippery charmer opens a reptile tourist attraction, and ‘He’s at the Office,’ which details a son’s efforts to help his 80-year-old father, a WWII veteran mentally stuck in the 1940s. Simultaneously funny and compassionate, literary and lowbrow, Gurganus’s stories trawl the mysteries of the human heart and surface with wonderful results.”

Also on shelves this week: Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez.

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview

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

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January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating What Defines Us: The Millions Interviews Joshua Bennett

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2020 was a big year for Joshua Bennett with his first nonfiction book, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and The End of Man, out in the spring and last fall, his second collection of poetry, Owed, was published by Penguin. Originally a spoken word poet, Bennett has taken to the page in a remarkable way. His first book, The Sobbing School, was a National Poetry Series selection; his new book is a work of poetry and a work of cultural criticism and personal reflection, which seeks to reclaim what his childhood meant, and celebrate his true influences. Currently the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Bennett and I spoke in October about our shared experiences; of being a scholarship student at private school; rejecting the narratives others wanted to craft for us; coming to rethink our childhoods and parents as adults; and teaching during a pandemic.

The Millions:  Joshua, I know you came up doing spoken word and poetry slams. What was your introduction to poetry?

Joshua Bennett:  My introduction to poetry was strange and multifarious: Sunday mornings indelibly marked by the rhetorical brilliance of Black Baptist and Pentecostal preachers; my sister taping Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to the front of her bedroom door; the sounds of Motown each weekend as I did my chores begrudgingly. I grew up understanding poetry as an occasion for celebration and gathering. That has always anchored the way I encounter the page. I’m a self-taught poet. My approach to poems is rooted in love and continuous study. I had to read a bunch of books to figure out what I was doing and how to make it sing on the page the way I had always heard it sung aloud.

TM:  There’s always this tension between spoken word and written word and how to capture it on the page. A handful of people—Patricia Smith comes to mind—have been able to do both well, but it’s not easy.

JB:  Spoken word was a way for me to make friends. There was something about the incredible privacy of writing my first book that instructed me in other approaches to putting language together. I had to sit by myself with my fears and my shame—my joy and my dreams, too—to remain in that quiet and try to create something beautiful that no one would ever see or hear until I put them in a meaningful sequence. The part of my mind that composes for the stage, in that sense and others, feels like it’s working in a different mode than the part that composes work that is meant to be read.

TM:  People our age grew up surrounded by hip hop and that influenced so much about the way we thought about rhythm and lyricism.

JB:  I hope that’s right. Certain kinds of secular music were banned in my household, so my introduction to hip hop was my sister having Common’s Like Water for Chocolate as a kind of contraband item I could listen to when I got home from school. My friend Vincent would use Limewire to make mixtape CD’s that he sold for five dollars. I was one of his most consistent customers. That was my introduction to Biggie, Big L, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and any number of other MC’s I would come to love over the course of my teenage life. The Diplomats eventually became another one of those early inspirations. Not only the rhythm and tone of the work, but more this particular approach to thinking about the relationship between violence and value. The music struck me as strange, insightful, astonishing. On-wax, the personae they invented and perfected were adventurers, outlaws. These were men essentially narrating their lives at the edge of life, without the protections of civil society. I didn’t grow up with money, but I grew up protected in a certain way. My father integrated his high school in Alabama. My mother grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx. They had a relationship to danger that was quite different from my own. In part because they did so much to try to shield me from it. That wasn’t always possible. But I developed a relationship to music that became a way to tell not just my own story in some pure, autobiographical sense, but rather as a way for me to imagine myself as a character in an elaborate origin myth that I could expand whenever I turned to the page.

TM:  I don’t think this is so much true anymore but, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear much hip hop on TV or in commercials, and a lot of parents wouldn’t let you play it. Hip hop was both a public and a private art form in a way, and I feel like I can see you straddling that.

JB:  I will say this. I don’t put anything on the page that I don’t think sounds beautiful when it is read aloud. But I do think there is a distinction between exceptionally good spoken word poems and poems that sing on the page. Some of that is about pacing or diction, and a great deal of it, of course, is one’s capacities and talents as a performer. Poetry slam is its own art form. We can discuss the ways that these genres and approaches overlap, while still honoring the fact some people are undeniably gifted when they step in front of a microphone, and that their mastery in that realm deserves its own kind of attention and recognition.

TM:  As far as your new book and the double meaning of the title “Owed” and “Ode”. The cover is a picture of you and your father and I kept thinking about what we owe our parents and the frame that they provide for our lives in so many ways, which is one of the threads running through the book.

JB:  That’s a beautiful reading. It’s also, I think, a way to approach the entire collection. What do we owe the people who made us possible? The book begins with my literary ancestors—Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Herman Melville—three of my favorite writers and the ones that really taught me how to think about the social, political, and psychic roles of literature. The cover is a photograph that my mother took in 1992. It’s an image of my father holding me. His strength, his grace and vulnerability, are what laid the groundwork for me to pursue my life as a writer. He worked in the post office for 40 years and before that fought in the Vietnam War and before that was a little boy in Alabama eating red river clay and trying to dream his way out of his social situation in the segregated South. The reason he enlisted as a teenager was that my uncle wanted to fight in the war, and the recruiter told him that they wouldn’t take two sons from the same family. And so he tried to lay down his life for his little brother. He did the same for us every day. He worked a job he did not enjoy very much so that I could go to fancy schools and read books he had never heard of. In this way, he offered me a model for what it meant to be a man, a human being, a moral actor, that was immensely instructive.

TM:  An ode is celebratory and I don’t want to say everything in the book is a celebration of your parents and growing up, but looking back you find joy and strength and celebrate that.

JB:  Joy is the through line. And it always requires work. Or at least, in the contexts in which I first earned to talk and think about joy, this was the case. Pain or terror persists in the night, but joy comes in the morning. You have to go through a gauntlet to get to joy. It’s not easily gotten or reached—or sustained. So alongside celebrating my family and my neighborhood I wanted to celebrate spaces like the barber shop, the 99-cent store. I wanted to take my time and meditate on what made these places, people, and things wonderful and worthy of praise.

TM:  They definitely resonated with me and some of my memories of childhood and finding a way to look back and reconsider what that means as an adult.

JB:  Could you say a little more about why and in what ways?

TM:  My parents were the first to go to college and I was a scholarship student in private schools, and reading your books I could feel and relate to what it felt to be in those spaces and not fitting in. The ways that as an adult you recenter what you value and what it meant.

JB:  I hear that. And what I eventually learned, at the level of craft, was how to more insistently, consistently, praise the forms of social life that made the sorts of educational spaces you’re describing here livable for me.

TM:  The Sobbing School opened with a poem about Henry Box Brown, which was a poem about the fear about being defined by trauma, and Owed is very much a refusal to think that and celebrating what helped define you.

JB:  I don’t think I knew how sad I was supposed to be until I spent real time in the sorts of places we were just talking about. Does that make sense?

TM:  It does. We knew we didn’t have money, but so many people there defined us as lacking not just money, but so much more than that.

JB:  It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to attend an elite private high school, and spent my mornings and afternoons with the other scholarship kids—and this was quite a diverse group, it bears mentioning—all taking various buses and trains to get to Rye, NY that I realized I was supposed to understand my life as a tragic story. Arriving at this place was meant to represent a narrative shift. This was the moment where everything would change for the better if I made it through. A number of the poems in The Sobbing School reflect my attempt to work through some of that, how forms of this logic persisted through my educational experiences as an adult.

In Owed, I’m elaborating upon the grounding assumptions that structured my first collection, and its opening poem in particular, which is centrally concerned with the historical figure Henry Box Brown, as well as the larger relationship between trauma and performance. I discovered, writing the second book, another set of organizing questions. Who is to say that the places which formed me were ones defined, primarily, by lack and deprivation? What if my aesthetic sense as a seven-year-old of what was valuable, what was beautiful, was much more worthy of exploration? I wanted to honor that perspective. I wanted to honor the vantage of the living, irreducibly complex human beings from my neighborhood who supported that first book and posted my poems on Instagram and sent me notes about what it meant to see the places we grew up represented in a book. I had to work through, differentially, a certain angst about not being or belonging to the old neighborhood anymore in the same way. In this second book, I wanted to kick things into another gear, and assert a set of principles about what beauty is, what poems can accomplish.

TM:  As you were learning to write poetry and thinking about what writing for the page meant, who did you read and who were you looking to?

JB:  You already mentioned one of them: Patricia Smith. And especially her collection, Teahouse of the Almighty. I carried it with me everywhere. I’ve been on tour since I was twenty years old. I started performing at colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, when I was quite young, so this reading practice while on the train, or plane, or in the back seat of a cab, was the training ground for me to become a poet whose work could live a full life on the page. Smith was one of those people who helped me to make that leap. Lucille Clifton was another. William Matthews. Amiri Baraka. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.S. Merwin was central. Especially because at this time I was thinking so much more about nature poetry for my larger, critical theory project. This interest brought me to people like Merwin and A.R. Ammons, who was also influential. You’ll see that more in the new book project I’m working on. Those are the first people I was reading. I was also engaging more consistently with authors I first met through the national spoken word scene. People like Sonia Sanchez, who I met at a poetry slam when I was nineteen years old. Thinking about her work in the context of the Black Arts Movement was helpful to me. June Jordan. B.H. Fairchild. Robert Hayden. This constellation of writers became my base, my foundation.

TM:  Was Terrance Hayes a big influence on you? I’m thinking especially of the influence of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin on Owed.

JB:  For sure. I actually just taught his American sonnets alongside Wanda Coleman’s and my students loved it. I’m teaching a literature course with about fifty of them on Zoom right now, and the experience has been absolutely surreal. I met Terrance at the Hurston/Wright Foundation summer workshop that he led maybe five or so years ago. His work was formative for me, especially Wind in a Box. After discovering that book, I read his collections out of sequential order—Hip Logic then Lighthead then Muscular Music—before reading the most recent two in rapid, chronological succession. As a poet just starting out, I was blown away. I didn’t know you could do those sorts of things with poems.

TM:  You mentioned teaching and you’re at Dartmouth and I’m curious how you’ve had to reteach thinking—sorry, rethink teaching. [laughs]

JB:  “Reteach thinking” is interesting! I want to linger with that slip for a bit, because it resonates. I have always been interested in discovering—in part through my ongoing practice as a reader and teacher—more about what thinking is or can be, how that process is honed, sharpened, beautifully complicated by collective study. There is always some of that involved during a new class. What I’ve discovered anew teaching this course is how much of the classroom teaching business simply does not work without tremendous buy-in from students. This has, of course, always been the case. And perhaps if you’re especially charismatic and can get up and be James Brown for two hours no matter who is in the audience, it doesn’t matter if students are all that interested or vocal. But for me, looking at fifty students on Zoom panels is only a productive pedagogical exercise because they do the reading, and we can have a collaborative, productive discussion where people have interesting things to say about what the work makes them feel, what it helps them to imagine. It’s clear that we’re all going through it. I have gotten any number of emails from students dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Folks whose economic situation has changed during the pandemic. And in some of these messages, they’re apologizing because they feel like they can’t participate in the class in the same way. I always want to reassure them, in the spirit of Lucille Clifton, who taught me this lesson: Your work is not your life. This class is not your life. Your life is your life.

Put another way, I have had to re-think what exactly is that we’re doing here, and why. The class is called “Modern Black American Literature: Education, Abolition, Exodus!.” In this first section, we are discussing the ways that 20th and 21st century Black writers render schooling in their works, how for so many of them—and here we’re talking about Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others—unforgettable moments of racial antagonism and alienation occur in the classroom. In Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” for example, the theory of double consciousness, as he narrates it, has its roots in a moment of racist encounter with a classmate. That’s when he sees the Veil descend. Teaching this material in our current context has been instructive. So many of my students, since I have come to Dartmouth, tell me that they are taking classes in Black literary studies because they want to learn how to be more thoughtful, decent people. That’s a tall order for literature. But it’s brought me back to a series of first questions. What is the philosophical content of African American literature, of Black poetry, as such? What does it make and demand of us? How might we think together about a way to save our souls and be good to one another? How do books, songs, poems, help us get part of the way there?

TM:  It is a tall order. And it sounds like you’ve managed to find a routine this year in the midst of everything.

JB:  My wife and I are expecting our son to arrive any day now. Before that, we moved from our old place. Finding a routine has been difficult, but it’s also been absolutely necessary. I had to finish these books. In part because I’m under contract, but also because I’m not going to have a lot of time to work on any of this stuff soon. That knowledge changed my relationship to writing. I had to wake up, feed our dog, Apollo, go for a run with him, and put in my hours with the poems and prose every single day. In that window, I wrote a new monograph, which you will all hopefully see soon, and put the final touches on Being Property Once Myself and Owed. It’s been a wonderful journey. I look forward to what the future holds.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Knausgaard, Davies, North, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Peter Ho Davies, Anna North, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

In the Land of the Cyclops by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Land of the Cyclops: “In this dense and thought-provoking essay collection, Knausgaard (My Struggle) once again displays his knack for raising profound questions about art and what it means to be human. While Knausgaard brings complexity to his studies of paintings and photographs, analyzing the function of myths in German artist Anselm Kiefer’s paintings and wondering ‘how are we to understand’ Francesca Woodman’s mid-20th-century photographs, the essays pick up when Knausgaard writes about literature. Among the most successful pieces are ‘To Where the Story Cannot Reach,’ which contains his musings on craft and his relationship with his editor (whom Knausgaard has ‘absolute trust in’); the title essay, which asks, ‘What is literary freedom?’ when writers are told ‘what they should and shouldn’t write about’; and an exploration of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (‘If [it] were published today, there is no doubt in my mind that tomorrow’s reviews would be ecstatic’). In ‘All That Is Heaven,’ he eloquently compares art to dreams, writing, ‘art removes us from and draws us closer to the world, the slow-moving, cloud-embraced matter of which our dreams too are made.’ Though unevenly paced, the volume tackles knotty subjects and offers nuggets of brilliance along the way. These wending musings will be catnip for Knausgaard’s fans.”

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself: “Davies (The Fortunes) delves into fatherhood in his thoughtful latest, intertwining musings on pregnancy, marriage, family life, and work. The unnamed narrator, a writer and creative writing professor, makes the difficult decision with his wife to terminate their pregnancy after the fetus tests positive for mosaicism and their doctor gives them a long list of potential birth defects. A subsequent successful pregnancy brings new fears over their son’s development, as the couple processes their internalized shame over the abortion and their son’s potential autism (‘Abortion is shameful, because pregnancy is shameful, because sex is shameful, because periods are shameful. It almost makes me relieved we had a boy,’ the wife says). Davies explores their emotions in unflinching honesty, as the narrator contends with lingering fears over getting their son tested for autism. Davies’s smooth prose and ruminations on language (a synonym for ‘imagine,’ the narrator considers, is also ‘to conceive’) are the stars of this work. While an anticlimactic, philosophical conclusion somewhat undermines the narrator’s character development after he embraces his role as a father, it resonates with the key theme of paradoxes. Davies’s meditation on the complexities of parenthood is at once celebration and absolution, finding truth in human contradictions.”

The Prophets by Robert Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Prophets: “This is a first novel, but I hope it took years and years to write since it is so powerful and beautiful. It is an antebellum story of a flourishing Mississippi plantation some people refer to as ‘Nothing’ and others call ‘Elizabeth,’ the name of the owner’s mother. This is a love story of two gay enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel (not their original African names), who’ve been assigned to look after the horses and who work together in perfect harmony in the barn.

With astonishingly real details, Jones creates a convincing picture of slave life, everything from transportation in ships (where those captives who had died from hunger or wounds or disease were just thrown overboard) to the arrival, in this case, at a vast cotton plantation, where they are branded, forced with whipping to work harder and faster, insulted, mocked and, if they’re female, raped.

Jones’s women are all sharply delineated, starting with the ‘king’ of a tribe in Africa, a woman-warrior who lives with her several wives. The main women on the plantation—Be Auntie, Sarah, Puah, Essie—have their own clearly delineated identities and complex psychologies. What is unprecedented in this novel is its presentation of the two gay male slaves, each endowed with his own personality, which never merges with a stereotype.

In fact, Jones’s compassionate understanding extends even to the whites (who are referred to as toubab, a Central African locution): ‘When they approached, she had figured out something that had been like a splinter in her foot: the easy thing to believe was that toubab were monsters, their crimes exceptional. Harder, however, and even more frightening, was the truth: there was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them.’ Which is not to say Jones lets his slave owners off easily. They were hypocritical Christians, sadists who raped their chattel, who worked their slaves until they could do no more and called them ‘lazy’: ‘They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.’ Whites kidnapped black children and then called slave parents ‘incapable of love.’

The lyricism of The Prophets will recall the prose of James Baldwin. The strong cadences are equal to those in Faulkner’s Light in August. Sometimes the utterances in the short interpolated chapters seem as orphic as those in Thus Spake Zarathustra. If my comparisons seem excessive, they are rivaled only by Jones’s own pages and pages of acknowledgments. It seems it takes a village to make a masterpiece.”

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Buck: “Askaripour eviscerates corporate culture in his funny, touching debut. Darren, a young Black man, lives with his mom in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood and manages a midtown Manhattan Starbucks. He’s content with his life and girlfriend, Soraya, but people tell him he could do more—he was valedictorian at Bronx Science, after all. Opportunity knocks when Darren persuades Rhett Daniels, the CEO of tech startup Sumwun and a Starbucks regular, to change his usual order. Rhett is impressed (his response: ‘Did you just try to reverse close me?’) and invites Darren to an interview, which leads to a sales job before he understands what the company actually does (it’s a platform for virtual therapy sessions). Darren makes good money, but struggles to keep up his commitments to his family and Soraya as Rhett pulls him into heavy after-hours partying. When an employee in China is charged with murder, Sumwun crashes, and so does Darren’s life. In an author’s note, Askaripour suggests the book is meant to serve as a manual for aspiring Black salesmen, and the device is thrillingly sustained throughout, with lacerating asides to the reader on matters of race. (‘The key to any white person’s heart is the ability to shuck, jive, or freestyle. But use it wisely and sparingly.’) Darren, meanwhile, is alternately said by various white characters to resemble Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier, MLK, and Dave Chappelle, while he struggles to hold onto a sense of self, which the author conveys with a potent blend of heart and dramatic irony. Askaripour is always closing in this winning and layered bildungsroman.”

After the Rain by Nnedi Okorafor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about After the Rain: “Upon Chioma’s arrival to the remote Nigerian village where her great-aunt and grandma live, heavy, unseasonable rain begins to fall, in this vibrant, succinct graphic adaptation by Jennings (Kindred) and Brame (Baaaad Muthaz) of Okorafor’s short story ‘On the Road.’ On the third night of rainfall, a boy with brains busting out of his broken skull calls on Chioma and declares her ‘it.’ A Chicago detective, Chioma isn’t easily shaken by gore, but even she isn’t able to grasp the strange happenings that follow, the unknowable entity that stalks her, and what that entity will do when it catches her. Though, the original is open to interpretation, the adaptation, which was created in conjunction with Okorafor, outright states a moral to the story: ‘I am Nigermerican… and where those two parts meet is where I am whole again,’ slightly marring the enigma of the ending. But Brame’s bold and arresting use of color and shading lends an unnerving atmosphere to the setting, while his attention to facial expressions injects the panels with emotion. This mostly faithful adaptation honors Okorafor’s voice and paints a potent portrait of Nigeria and its folklore.”

Outlawed by Anna North

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Outlawed: “North’s knockout latest (after The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) chronicles the travails of a midwife’s daughter who joins a group of female and nonbinary outlaws near the end of the 19th century. Eighteen-year-old newlywed Ada, unable to conceive a child, fears she will be accused of witchcraft, a fate common to the women in her Dakota territory community. After Ada’s former friend has a miscarriage and accuses Ada of casting a spell on her, Ada’s mother helps her flee to a nunnery, where a Sister suggests she join a nearby gang known as Hole in the Wall. Ada becomes a ‘doctor’ to the motley group led by the Kid (to whom no gender pronouns are attributed—’‘Not he, not she,’ Elzy said. ‘The Kid is just The Kid’’). The outlaws plan to create a town where nonconforming people can belong. The tense plot takes many turns through Ada’s increasingly violent adventures with the gang, beginning with a botched holdup of a wagon laden with gold. As the novel barrels toward a surprise ending, it’s further strengthened by Ada’s voice and reflections, which preserve a sense of immediacy: ‘distances that had once seemed vast were now so small that my enemies could cross them in an instant.’ The characters’ struggles for gender nonconformity and LGBTQ rights are tenderly and beautifully conveyed. This feminist western parable is impossible to put down.”

Must-Read Poetry: January 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich 

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

Pretty Tripwire by Alessandra Lynch

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

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

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

Stay Safe by Emma Hine 

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

Not for Luck by Derek Sheffield 

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

The Visible Woman by Allison Funk 

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

Pandemic Life by the Numbers: The Golden Five

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Five people

Our social worlds have contracted — my inner pod is down to five. We “check in.” We trade links and photos by text. We don’t beat around the bush, we say what we’re feeling & thinking, what’s happening in today’s hanging-in-there news—textable snippets, emojis emojis emojis.
We make phone dates (Zoom & FaceTime feel like “work” now). Some of us are single, some are hunkering down with partners / families. Those of us who live alone feel acutely but do not readily verbalize the painful fact of long stretches without physical touch. Thank goodness for the dog, who is honorary number six.

Five pounds

In the beginning, I moved in with my sister. Together we cooked creative meals to stay sane, to feel warm and nourished and connected. We ate well. In the evenings we watched “Kim’s Convenience Store” with my nephews and ate large portions of sweets or bowls-full of crunchy salty things. We ate badly. Then my nephews went to sleep, and out came the wine and whiskey. We drank too much.

We talked late into the night about how grateful we were, how anxious we were, how hard life was even before pandemic (dredging up our childhood as the wine flowed); how a totally different kind of weirdness and uncertainty had replaced the former difficulty, and how life was always stressful and frightening, pandemic or no pandemic … so hey, let’s drink some more. We put on weight.

In the middle, I moved back to my own apartment. Subscribed to a vegetable delivery service and cooked a lot and did yoga and turned over a healthier leaf. Summer came, and the endless heat wave sucked away my appetite. I went back to work. I rode my bike from uptown to downtown and back again. Outdoor activity made everything seem just a little normal, intermittently pleasurable. Most of the weight came off.

In part two of the middle, election season took over, and everything went to shit again. Night-snacking, drinking, over-eating hangover, more anxiety-snacking, more drinking; rinse and repeat. The stakes (political, existential) were enormous; the possibility of compounded disaster utterly real. Heaviness—of body and spirit—returned.

In part three of the middle, the election came and went, and I began to sleep better. That particular anxiety—considering seriously leaving the country, starting a new life away from the daily tyranny of the idiot monster—quieted. But with the change of seasons and raging infections, venturing outside and the simplest tasks became again nerve-wracking. Keep your distance; move briskly; avert your face; wash wash wash your hands.

In the end, now—part one of the end—it’s those five pounds. I feel them all the time, weighing me down physically and mentally. They are the pounds that keep you from feeling ready and energized when you wake; in-the-zone while you work; relaxed in your clothes and in your soul. You know what I mean. I’m pretty sure you do. We won’t be feeling fully energized or relaxed again for some time.

Five minutes

For many of us, life has slowed down. No more rush-hour commuting, running from work to gym to kids’ soccer practice to the nursing home to a meal with friends. We’re doing less because less is do-able. Our stresses are more about isolation, destabilization, reorientation; less about time…

…if we lean into it, that is. We could, certainly, fill up that time with other multi-tasking, time-crunching activities. I’ve found myself opting for “five more minutes.” Slow it down, pause, take a moment. It’s just five minutes, but you begin to see—the meaningfulness of small increments.

Five minutes earlier means sitting with a cup of coffee, savoring it, and thinking of nothing at all before starting on a day of brain-squeezing work. Five more minutes allows for a slow stroll to and from the subway, on which non-mission-critical thoughts can occur (I miss her, I wonder how she’s doing), neighborhood storefronts, new and old, get noticed (order takeout this weekend, they look like they need business), and notes for an essay or story can be written in a notebook (Five Minutes; The Golden Five?). Five more minutes means biking up the hill, working up a good sweat and burn, then cruising down the other side with the wind in your face, instead of avoiding the hill altogether; or it means not running that red light, not nearly slamming into a pedestrian or, worse, a car. Five more minutes gives the dog five more minutes of gleeful sniffing and one or two more doggie encounters—the value of which could be, who knows, infinitely greater than what five minutes of comparable pleasure means to us.

Sometimes it’s not about what you do or don’t do in those five minutes; it’s about gentle transitions from one thing to the next. If you do yoga, you’ve heard this, about the signals you send to your self when you jerk your body around, from standing to sitting, from sitting to kneeling, from left to right. With five more minutes, you can finish doing X; take a breath; move calmly, maybe even gracefully, into Y.  It makes a difference. It makes all the difference.

Five dollars

Many of us have less work and less money. We are also spending less and/or differently. In NYC, the loss of bar & restaurant life is (I know, cry me a river, in the grand scheme of things it probably sounds melodramatic) tragic. Certainly it’s tragic for restaurant owners and workers, and for the city’s economy. For consumers, refraining from gathering in bars & restaurants in NYC is like… living on the coast and having no access to the ocean.

Structure helps. A plan. The eating-out budget is diminished, but I want these restaurants to make it. So it’s all about 5-dollar takeout lunches, a couple times a week. Mamoun’s falafel. Bahn-mi from Saigon Shack. Tofu shrimp in garlic sauce (the 1/2 portion) from my local Chinese takeout. Lebanese Zaatar. Curry beef or roast pork pastry from Fay Da bakery. Two cheese slices with can of soda from pretty much any pizza joint. A whole wheat everything bagel with a shmear of lox cream cheese from Bo’s. For a healthy option, a green protein smoothie from the smoothie place run by Big Russ’s barber shop. And yes, even occasionally steam table oxtails and collard greens (well-managed, socially distanced, sanitized setup) from Jacob’s Soul Food.

Five more months

Who’s to say — though the real-science people have been basically right all along. Five more months seems likely. Buckle in. Mask up. Take a breath, or two, or five. Check in with your single friends. Check in with your partnered friends. Spend your stimulus money on restaurants if you can. Don’t give away or let out your clothes yet: we’ll all find our better selves and our energy again on the other side.

Image credit: Pexels/cottonbro; Photos courtesy of the author.