Writers to Watch: Spring 2022

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Adoption narratives, genre-bending novels about the horrors and inequities of life, and promising collections round out this season’s notable fiction debuts, some of which are already making their way to a TV near you.
Decolonize This: Lisa Bird-Wilson

Like Ruby, the protagonist in Probably Ruby (Hogarth, Apr.), Saskatchewan Métis and nêhiyaw writer Lisa Bird-Wilson was raised by adoptive white parents in the 1970s, during a decades-spanning period when Indigenous children were systematically taken from their biological parents by the Canadian government and placed into foster care.
Ruby is Bird-Wilson’s U.S. debut. She published her first book in Canada in 2011, a work of nonfiction commissioned by the Gabriel Dumont Institute for Métis education and culture, an organization she now heads. A story collection followed, and then a book of poems. In 2016, she returned to fiction.
“I just started writing stuff about being adopted and being indigenous,” Bird-Wilson says.
Ruby is meant to embody and connect to a multitude of Indigenous perspectives, not just her own, and Bird-Wilson notes that the character came to her after speaking with white people who had adopted kids like her and responded defensively to her story collection at book events. Her work challenged the “colonial myth” that they had saved their adopted children from some kind of “horrible fate,” she says.
David Ebershoff, editor-in-chief at Hogarth, says Probably Ruby is an “in-house favorite” that stood out to him for two reasons. First, he’d never come across a story of an Indigenous adoptee; and second, he felt “great affection and love” for the character. He also pointed out that while it’s a story from Canada, it will resonate with readers in the U.S. It’s “not just a Canadian story, it’s a North American story,” he explains, in that it shows how for the Métis and other Indigenous peoples, the border is porous. The author adds that it’s “artificial.”
Bird-Wilson recalls that Ruby felt real to her after she discovered her laugh, which Ruby uses to protect herself—whether to dismiss her feelings or to shrug off other people—and to express genuine joy. “That’s when her character was able to just go and be as wild as she is,” she says.
A Recovered Goth: Isabel Cañas

Berkley editor Jen Monroe has high hopes for Isabel Cañas’s The Hacienda (Berkley, May), a reimagining of Rebecca in 19th-century Mexico. “I think we’re moving away from traditional suspense, and horror feels like the natural next place for domestic suspense,” Monroe says. She also notes how recent successful books like Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic have opened the door for commercial genre fiction that takes on racism.
Cañas, a Mexican American writer and PhD candidate in medieval Islamic literature now living in New York City, says she anticipated the Mexican Gothic comparisons and figures her timing helped land her a swift, competitive book deal last September. She greatly admires Moreno-Garcia, noting that they come from the same “very nerdy sci-fi fantasy and horror short story background” and that her success was inspiring. Still, she’s quick to point out that she’s “not a copycat.”
The Hacienda touches on similar themes of Mexican history—colorism, class difference, “the question of who holds land and who holds power, is echoed between the two books,” Cañas says—but it goes further than Mexican Gothic into the supernatural realm. Real ghosts haunt the house, and the protagonist, a young bride turned widow, relies on a priest friend’s witchcraft skills to ward them off.
Asked what drew her to writing a haunted house story, Cañas says she continues to be as afraid of the dark as she was at eight, growing up in a house built in the 1920s in the Chicago suburbs that she swears to this day was “totally haunted.” She began writing fiction with a series of YA manuscripts that she worked on with her agent, Kari Southerland at Bradford Literary, inspired by her interest as a “recovered goth child” in her Mexican ancestry, theology, and the Aztec gods of death and sorcery.
Cañas started The Hacienda in November 2019 and finished it at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns in a tiny Brooklyn studio after moving there from Chicago. “I was trapped in a tiny space,” Cañas says. “I think back to everybody being trapped at home, and I’m like, of course this was finished during lockdown. Could it have become itself at any other time?”
Love Life: Kate Folk

It’s rough out there in Kate Folk’s slightly tweaked present-day San Francisco. Male catfishing androids known as blots haunt dating apps, pretending to be viable boyfriend material until they get close enough to steal their target’s passwords and credit card info. So goes the setup of the title story in her debut collection, Out There (Random House, Mar.). After the story was published in The New Yorker last year, she signed a deal with Hulu to write an adaptation.
Lots of literary fiction writers are getting TV writing gigs and development deals nowadays. Folk says films are an influence on her work, but that she doesn’t write fiction with adaptations in mind. “When I wrote the stories, I felt like they were two completely separate fields, and I didn’t really know anyone else doing that kind of thing,” she recalls. But after film agent Will Watkins approached her agent, Emma Patterson, at Brandt & Hochman for something that might be well suited for adaptation, Folk says Watkins “immediately latched on to” her stories.
Folk does have a long-standing interest in film—she’d always wanted to work in the industry or become a director, and she worked at Videology in Brooklyn after graduating from NYU before moving to San Francisco in her 20s. She wonders if her interests as a writer happened to coincide with what might make a good movie, or if it’s simply a matter of good timing, given the film industry’s increased appetite for speculative stories. Whatever the case, “fiction writers do have a bit of leverage to adapt materials,” she acknowledges. “I’m coming in as a writer with ‘existing IP,’ as they call it, which seems like a really good way to get a foot in the door.”
Folk arrived in San Francisco a few years before the ubiquitous tech bros who represent the mediocre alternative to the blots in her stories. As the cost of living increased, she got by with teaching and support for her writing at the Headland Center for the Arts, which gave her a studio, and most recently with a Stegner Fellowship.
The stories in Folk’s collection represent years of work. In the end she’s pleased to find them cohering into something larger, with an emotional arc and the feeling of a “concept album.”
Welcome to Flavortown: Joseph Han
A Korean American family’s restaurant in Honolulu provides the nexus for Joseph Han’s ambitious and occasionally supernatural novel Nuclear Family (Counterpoint, June). Cho’s Delicatessen is poised to take off after getting its airbrushed seal of approval from Guy Fieri, but the business’s reputation is compromised after 20-something grandson Jacob is caught on video attempting to cross the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
Han was born in South Korea, and his parents sent him to Hawaii as a child to live with his grandparents. At the time, his grandfather worked at a restaurant. He says the story came partly from imagining what his family would be like if they had stayed in the industry, and from his ruptured relationship to Korean language and history as a result of his English education.
When Jacob attempts to cross the DMZ, it’s because his body has been possessed by the ghost of his grandfather, Tae-woo. Tae-woo’s home was on the northern side of the border, but he died in the south, and he’s spent his afterlife trying to return.
Nuclear Family is also a Hawaii story, and Han brings the two places together by featuring the 2018 false missile alert on the islands, which happened just before he began the first draft. “I found it was something I had to write toward and process,” he says, noting that the renewed blame of North Korea for the continued tension was frustrating, and that “Cold War relics” like the siren “continued to propagate a fear for one’s own safety.”
Han tackled the relationship between Korean Americans and the U.S. military in Hawaii in an earlier story titled “Fare,” in which Korean cabbies drive military families to tourist destinations. Published in Joyland, where he’s now an editor, it caught the attention of agent  Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic, who now represents him. “I was so excited to hear from her,” Han says, “because she represents Bryan Washington, one of my favorite writers.”
His editor at Counterpoint, Jenny Alton, says she was struck by the “humor and playfulness” in the writing, even as the book takes the reader through heavy themes of American imperialism and war.
On writing as a resident of Hawaii toward an outside audience about both Hawaii and Korea, Han says it was a “really nice goal to take on both in such a way that the reader can understand how these histories and our communities are entangled.”

Nightclubbing: Calla Henkel
Artist and writer Calla Henkel spent a year in Berlin right after the trial of Amanda Knox, an American student convicted of murder in Italy and later exonerated. The case inspired Henkel’s debut novel, Other People’s Clothes (Doubleday, Feb.), about two art school friends who room together in a true crime author’s apartment in Berlin and concoct an idea for a performance piece inspired by Knox that goes disastrously awry.
“I wrote this book more or less true to the timeline of my own year abroad, but filled it with pulp,” says Henkel, who now operates New Theatre, a bar and performance space in Berlin below her apartment. With her collaborator Max Pitegoff, she has exhibited documentary photography installations around Europe and at the Whitney Museum in New York City. She’s always had an interest in thrillers and grew up reading authors such as Carl Hiassen. “Thrillers are like math problems,” she says, “and I think there’s a type of poetry in that sort of math.”
In Other People’s Clothes, which is in development with Mark Gordon Pictures, Hailey, a young woman aware of her sexual power and objectification, becomes jealous of Knox for the attention she received. “How do you harness that power is I guess Hailey’s question,” Henkel says. “She’s like, ‘If I’m gonna be abused and used for my image, how can I in the end own it?’—which is why I find Amanda Knox’s Instagram so interesting, and also Brittany Spears being like, ‘Now I have my own Instagram.’ ”
Lee Boudreax, executive editor at Doubleday, notes Henkel’s ingenious choice to set a story of image-conscious young women just before the rise of social media, and immediately recognized it as a timeless story of female friendship. “It’s about the road from innocence to experience, where one woman kind of gloms onto the other in the hopes of being brought through that doorway into the hidden room beyond,” Boudreax says. While reading it during the first summer of Covid-19, she felt “completely transported to some hot sweaty druggy nightclub,” she says, “and I cannot tell you how much I loved that.”
The Double: Zain Khalid

Zain Khalid, a New Yorker whose Believer essay “How to Make a Bodega Sandwich” carries a particular resonance for those who left the city over the past couple years, fulfilled his lifelong dream of writing a novel with support from savings earned from punch-up work on TV scripts and other writing gigs. His bold, ambitious debut, Brother Alive (Grove, July), features three adopted brothers raised by an imam in Staten Island, including Youssef, a boy of Middle Eastern descent who has a double named Brother.
Khalid says the theme of the double has long captured his interest. “You know, keeping with that long literary tradition, the classic exploration of the Jungian shadow or whatever…,” he says. “But I also wanted to build the double as a sort of sublimation of structural theft, to explore what families, governments, the past, and even lovers can take from one another, and what kind of person that leaves behind.”
As for literary influences, Khalid says, “I pulled from a lot of places—Bruno Schulz, José Saramago, Akwaeke Emezi, James Salter”—he trails off, indicating that the list could go on much longer.
It’s a New York story, with rich descriptions of Staten Island’s Coolidge neighborhood, and it’s also a speculative story of a futuristic city in Saudi Arabia, which the brothers visit when they’re older. Khalid says it had to be set in New York because that’s where he grew up. “All the boroughs except for the Bronx, which is a stain…,” he jokes, adding that he’ll have to “move to Arthur Avenue and eat a lot of Italian food.” The city in Saudi Arabia draws on Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program, he adds, noting that “the cost of that city is born out in the tragedy at the center of the lives of the brothers.”
Agent Kent Wolf at Neon Literary says he discovered Khalid from a New Yorker “Shouts & Murmurs” piece, and that Khalid is “probably one of the most well-read writers I work with.” He says this is evident on the page, “but there’s also a real beating heart to his work, which makes it a living thing rather than an exercise.”
Peter Blackstock, v-p, deputy publisher at Grove, also references Emezi, saying he recognized the imprint of the Nigerian writer’s work when he read the manuscript, and was surprised and impressed by the shift to Saudi Arabia. “It blew me away with how much there was,” he notes. “It’s not a long novel, but it contains a huge amount.”
Vampire Daughter: Claire Kohda
As a British writer who is half Jananese, Claire Kohda says it took her a long time to figure out which literary heritage she could claim as her own, and which space she belonged in. “A lot of my earlier attempts at writing were too consciously Japanese or too consciously kind of English,” she says. “Or I was trying to be this thing that I wasn’t.”
As a critic, she’s happy to review literature in translation from Japanese, sometimes from Korean and Chinese as well, but doesn’t want to get pigeonholed for her own writing because of her ethnicity, such as having a book come out with a “Japanese woman’s face on the cover or a rising sun, or like chopsticks or something.”

A path forward came to her with the idea for a vampire story, which became Woman, Eating (HarperVia, Apr.). “The vampire worked because it’s this divided creature by nature,” she says. “It has a human body and human memories, but it has this demon side as well.”
Lydia, the young woman at the center, is an artist and a vampire with a complicated relationship to food. She’d love to eat sushi, but all she can have is blood, which her Malaysian-English vampire mother prepares for her. When her mother moves in to a nursing home, Lydia begins exploring her late father’s Japanese heritage.
Kohda’s editor at HarperVia, Tara Parsons, has a Japanese mother and says that at this stage in her career, she’s looking for books with stories she can see herself in, which made the manuscript instantly exciting for her. “There are so many layers to the book,” she adds, noting that the short length and propulsive story have helped it quickly build early buzz among booksellers.
Now Kohda is at work on an eight-part TV series adapted from Woman, Eating, after it was optioned by Heyday in a heated auction. “So much of the novel takes place inside Lydia’s head,” she says, describing the challenge of rewriting the story for the screen. “With TV you can’t just have her rolling around on the studio floor doing nothing. So it’s been interesting translating her kind of inner world into a visual world.”
A Long Journey: Tsering Yangzom Lama
Tsering Yangzom Lama was raised in a community of Tibetan exiles in Nepal. In Canada, where she settled with her family as a preteen, she began to see that she could become a writer, but it was a long time before she worked her way into writing about Tibetan people, the subject of We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies (Bloomsbury, May).
“There were decades of knowing the Tibetan identity to be really central to my family,” says Lama, who went on to become an activist for Tibetan independence and now works for Greenpeace as a storytelling adviser. But she had a hard time finding a way in through the “world of letters or literature,” she recalls, because she doesn’t come from an academic or literary background. “That’s not necessarily something that was central to my experience.”
In the novel, two young sisters flee their village in Tibet after the Chinese invasion in 1959. Their parents don’t survive the journey to Nepal. Once there, Lhamo, the oldest, encounters a man bearing a statue that had escaped destruction by the Chinese authorities and is alleged to have healing powers. Decades later, Lhamo’s niece, a scholar who lives with her in Toronto, comes across the statue, which had been loaned to a museum by an art dealer, and suspects it was stolen.
Lama and her agent, Michelle Brower at Aevitas Creative, met at an AWP event several years ago. Brower says she was struck by the quality of her writing, and that one of the things they talked about was that the novel is “not a book for white people about Tibet.”
Lama says, “When I think of the people who would really love a book that’s anti-colonial with a level of historical detail, it’s like maybe a hundred folks that are my good friends already.” Still, she aims for a big audience. “I want everybody to read this and understand it, but I’m also really trying to capture Tibetans’ sensibility.”
Brutal Honesty: Brendan Slocumb

In Brendan Slocumb’s high-velocity debut mystery, The Violin Conspiracy (Anchor, Feb.), a Black 20-something violinist is on the rise in the classical music world despite blatant racism. Then, his heirloom Stradivarius is stolen from his hotel room in New York City.
Slocumb, a classical violinist who lives in Washington, D.C., has performed with many symphonies and currently plays with the NOVA-Annandale Symphony Orchestra. Asked what he wanted to convey about the classical music world in his novel, he says, “I wanted to pull back the curtain and let everybody know this is how the sausage is made. Classical music is a very cutthroat profession, though it’s especially tough for people of color. And for a Black man in classical music, you know, we are almost nonexistent.”
In The Violin Conspiracy, Ray is refused entry to a wedding that he was hired to play at. When he was in college, fellow students muttered about him being there to fill a quota. At one point, a symphony’s music director assumes he would want to play Gershwin instead of something by one of the “ ‘real’ European composers,” Slocumb writes.
Slocumb’s agent, Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary, says he immediately latched onto Slocumb’s voice when he received a query. They worked together on a number of story ideas last summer, and Kleinman said the one about the stolen Stradivarius had the most potential. Slocumb banged out a draft in a few months. By November it sold to Edward Kastenmeier at Anchor, and Kleinman and Slocumb already have another one in the works. When they spoke with PW, it was during a break from a day spent working on edits.
“Jeff is really good about keeping me on a schedule for writing,” Slocumb says. He also notes Kleinman’s brutal honesty with Violin Conspiracy, which helped push him to bring “every bit of emotion out of a sentence.”
A New Master: Morgan Talty

“Burn,” the opener of Morgan Talty’s collection Night of the Living Rez (Tin House, July), evokes the short, sad misadventures in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. A man gets stuck in a swamp during winter after passing out with the water frozen around his long braids, while his friend Dee tries to buy drugs without any money. Later, Dee makes a triumphant gesture at redemption with the dealer.
For a fan of Johnson’s work, the comparison forms with an instant, pleasurable shock. Talty’s agent, Rebecca Friedman, and his editor at Tin House, Masie Cochran, felt it too, as did the author Tommy Orange, who provided a generous blurb for the collection. The stories take an empathetic and unflinching look at reservation life for citizens of the Penobscot Indian Nation, a small community near Bangor, Maine, where Talty grew up.
The stories triangulate between the characters’ relationships to one another in their community and to the outside world. “I mean, obviously different cultures have different experiences with colonialism,” Talty says, reflecting on his potential audience. “But at the end of the day, I’m very focused on these characters’ problems and how they’re unique to themselves, but also how we experienced them on a broader level. I’m writing it for Penobscot people, but non-Native folks as well.”
The collection is shuffled with stories of a boy named David about growing up on the reservation and glimpses of the struggling Dee, who might be an older version of David. “It has that feeling that a novel gives you,” Friedman says, “because you’re seeing the transformation of a character over time.”
When Cochran received the manuscript, her first reaction was, “I can’t believe this is a debut writer.” Thinking through the comparisons to older white writers such as Johnson, Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, she says the book stands on the shelf with her “all-time favorite collections,” but that “maybe the most important thing to say is that there aren’t really comp

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

American Survival: The Millions Interviews Jung Yun

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Too often, the image of the Midwest is blue-eyed white people with Peter-Jennings accents or white people sitting on tractors in well-worn overalls. Despite the population’s increasing diversity, midwestern-adjacent terms such as “heartland” or “flyover country” or “undecided voter” have even recently become synonymous for white. A daughter of Korean immigrant parents, I grew up in rural Minnesota, home of the world’s largest open pit mine.

Doing research on my hometown’s mining industry, I learned one of the earliest miners in our town was a Korean, someone who stowed away on a ship in the early part of the 21st century, probably to escape Japanese colonialism. Our town also had a (short-lived) Chinese restaurant run by an Asian family, and yet during our town’s “Ethnic Days” celebration, it was only white ethnicities—Norwegian, German, Irish, Finnish, Slovakian, Serbian, Swedish, Italian, Lithuanian, etc.—that were celebrated.

Thus, I’m often drawn to fiction that reflects the actual and not whitewashed image of the American Midwest. Jung Yun’s O Beautiful is about a young Korean American woman, Elinor, a former model and ambitious recent journalism school grad, who returns on assignment to her hometown in North Dakota, which is now overrun by roughnecks in the Bakken oil field boom. Yun explores this territory, riven by greed, economic decline, and the specter of climate change, her hometown heavy with memories but also coming to stand symbolically for a contemporary America, one more visibly diverse but also more divided than ever. The narrative explores Elinor’s life and what she thought she knew, and, on a larger scale, the immense anger of people fearing that their societal power and dominance is slipping and the anger of those who feel they have never had access to this power at all.

I don’t know if I want to describe a book as a punch in the face, but here I really do mean it as a compliment. O Beautiful starts with a beautiful Asian woman on the cusp of aging out of that beauty, being harassed by her overly interested seat mate (never too old for that!) … and later wondering if she’d been sexually assaulted while she was asleep. This is how the book starts, and it just rolls on from there.

The novel has to do with power, writing, a sense of home, fracking …and that’s just the beginning.

The Millions: Can you tell us how you got the idea for the novel, or how you started it?

Jung Yun: My parents lived in North Dakota until 2017, so whenever I flew home to visit them, I’d treat myself to a drive out west to the Badlands if I had time. (There are Badlands in North Dakota, and they’re beautiful! People often only associate them with South Dakota.) Those trips allowed me to see the oil boom change the western part of the state over an extended period, and I knew there was a story there based on the tensions I witnessed between the locals and the newcomers, as well as the tensions I experienced personally. Prior to the boom, I’d always felt conspicuous in that part of the state because I was Asian American, but during the boom, I felt wildly conspicuous because I was female. Being an Asian American female also added an extra layer of complication because people usually assumed I’d come to the area from somewhere else to find work in the service industry (e.g., masseuse, prostitute) which pissed me off, as you can probably imagine. In many ways, I still think of North Dakota as home, yet I often had to deal with people’s surprise and disbelief that someone like me had actually grown up there. The net effect was that I spent several years going back and forth to that part of the country, thinking about what constitutes “home” and how an oil boom might complicate people’s sense of belonging to a place or a community.

TM: Shelter, your first novel, was about another boom-and-bust cycle (or, maybe the false promise of a boom)—this time the mortgage crisis. Are there certain themes you are particularly interested in exploring?

JY: I tend to write stories about the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect, overlap, and complicate the lives of my characters. This is really what interests me as a writer and a reader, and what feeds some of the biggest questions I have about myself as a human being and humanity at large. With my first two novels, I was particularly interested in telling stories about characters living through large-scale economic phenomena like oil booms, recessions, and house market collapses. Growing up in an immigrant family, I was taught to believe in the value of hard work and pulling myself up by my bootstraps (what the hell is a bootstrap?). But what happens when hard work isn’t enough? What happens when something unexpected or even cataclysmic comes along and destabilizes the things a person has worked so hard for? And why does the American Dream often resemble American Survival for some, and how does that kind of precarity and inequity change people? Writing doesn’t necessarily resolve these types of questions for me, but it does provide a focused way of thinking about them.

TM: Both your novels (without giving away too many spoilers) have an overlay of violence, real and imagined, or misinterpreted. Do you want to elaborate on that?

JY: Similar to large-scale economic phenomena, I think violence has the capacity to interrupt well-established patterns of human behavior and cut through the facades we create and maintain for others. People who present themselves as “good” or “honorable” may shy away from intervening during an act of violence (or may inflict violence upon others behind closed doors), whereas the weakest or most selfish among us might step forward to help out of pure instinct. If all stories are based on some form of pattern disruption, I think these split-second moments when one has to act or react in the face of violence are fascinating and full of dramatic potential because all bets are effectively off.

TM: Your work has a propulsive mystery/thriller feel—do you enjoy/read this genre?

JY: Not really. I actually don’t think much about genre. I’m more interested in how quickly a writer pulls me into a story, whatever that story might be or how the publishing industry might classify it. I’m always wary when people recommend a book with a warning that “the first hundred pages are a little slow, but once it gets going…” Maybe I’m just an impatient person, but I enjoy cracking open a book and watching the story get going right from the start. I try to write with that same aim.

TM: What are you working on next? What’s your process for starting to think about what you will write next?

JY: I’m just starting the research for novel three, which is set in New York during the early 2000s. Right now, I’m just reading and watching things to help me remember what that time was like. Even though I lived through it, it feels so much more distant than two decades ago. It’s hard to imagine not having smartphones or social media or the ability to stream content while walking down the street or sitting on the subway. Tech did something to us. In some ways, it made the world seem smaller and more accessible. In other ways, it just broke us as human beings. I’m interested in telling a story about who we were back then, but I’m loath to say much more than that because it’s still so early. I’m in that very luxe stage where everything seems possible, and I want that feeling to last for a while.

The William Trevor Reader: “Nice Day at School”

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This is a good one that inverts the usual Trevor elements—the main character, Eleanor, is an adolescent girl rather than elderly spinster, and rather than backgrounding the proceedings with pervy energy, the perviness is the main event: all the girls in Eleanor’s grade are losing their virginity, and as Eleanor holds out, she worries about becoming an old maid like her teacher Miss Whitehead. It isn’t just the schoolgirls having sex, either. Everyone in Eleanor’s life, including, or perhaps especially her parents, are doing it constantly. Her father, a nightclub bouncer, works all night and expects to come home to an artery-blocking fry up and shag—on both counts, Eleanor’s mother grimly obliges. In their lower-class world, sex is the main (free) vice and compensation, and rather than the freedom it’s meant to represent, Eleanor intuits what it really means, especially for women: pregnancy, debt, dependency, dismal marriage, violence, and squalor. At the end of the story, looking at her parents, she thinks fondly of Miss Whitehead, who is “complete and alone, having discarded what she wished to discard,” and that Miss Whitehead’s enviable fate is unavailable to her parents, and by extension herself: “… for them it was too late to escape to a room in which everything was clean.”

Sex, in the usual Trevor story, is a kind of background noise that occasionally becomes audible. Its function, typically, is ironic—as the characters uselessly strain against their limitations and the straitening power of time and age, the erotic hum reminds them and the reader of what they stand to lose: simple pleasure, humanness, joy. In “Nice Day at School,” sex is the encroaching agent, the inescapable force of constriction and diminution, and time is backgrounded as the ironic element. Time, Eleanor has in excess, and yet it’s an ironically fruitless bounty considering what seem to be her available options: Miss Whitehead and her frigid, lonely abstention or her parents (and Mrs. Rourke, Mr. Crumm, Liz Jones, et al.) and their filthy hopelessness.

A side note about Eleanor’s father: depressing though he is, he’s also a figure of fairly tasteless comedy. A former professional wrestler with a bad back, the former “Prince of Hackney,” so-called, now works as a bouncer in a posh nightclub and makes up stories about meeting Princess Margaret and Mia Farrow. When he finishes his outrageous breakfast and disappears into the bedroom with Eleanor’s mother, he’s described as making “the same kind of noise as he’d made in the wrestling ring.” Eleanor’s father is a reminder that the popular view of Trevor as a paragon of quiet taste—one that I find myself reflexively holding—is not quite accurate. Trevor’s style and narrative choices are quiet and impeccable, but he is also fond of the grotesque, even outright caricature.

As with the odd moments of horniness and perversity, the grotesque in Trevor’s fiction serves as a kind of countervailing force against the central theme of loss and the stately tone of sadness. One of the things about Trevor’s fiction that works so well is that, in presenting one of literature’s most serious and depressing views of human existence, it still manages not to take itself too seriously. The peeks up the skirt, Liz Jones getting laid standing up in the schoolyard, and the wrestling grunts from the bedroom serve the dual function of leavening the proceedings while deepening them. These are, after all, not just naughty bits of fun—they are the (re)actions of human beings who, feeling the walls closing in, cast around for any grim pleasure that might provide a sense of agency and take their mind off their life.

In the words of Jarvis Cocker in Pulp’s great “Common People”:
You’ll never fail like common people, you’ll never watch your life slide out of view

And you dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do.
Trevor is not a class warrior. To my mind, for an Irish/English writer, he is only moderately concerned with class. It appears often in his stories, but usually as a secondary element that goes to character or else ratchets up other, more important tensions. But when he does write explicitly about the poor, as he is here, the sense of frustrated helplessness that pervades his work is amplified and sharpened.

See you next week, when I’ll be discussing “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Nagamatsu, Sanchez, Wang, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Sequoia Nagamatsu, David Sanchez, Weike Wang, 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.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How High We Go in the Dark: “Nagamatsu’s ambitious, mournful debut novel-in-stories (after the collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone) offers a mosaic portrait of the near future, detailing the genesis and fallout of an ancient alien plague reawakened from a Neanderthal corpse thanks to the melting permafrost in the Siberian tundra. Combining the literary and the science fictional, each subtly interconnected chapter examines a point of failure during the dying days of the great human experiment: in the social safety net, in marriages, in families, and in compassion for non-humanoid life-forms. As the flu-like pandemic intersects with increasing climate change and exposes society’s flaws, the characters bear witness to a massive extinction event happening to them in real time. Nagamatsu can clearly write, but this exploration of global trauma makes for particularly bleak reading: the novel offers no resolutions, or even much hope, just snapshots of grief and loss. (Those with weak stomachs, meanwhile, will want to skip the ‘Songs of Your Decay’ for its graphic descriptions of corpse decomposition.) Readers willing to speculate about a global crisis not too far off from reality will find plenty to think about in this deeply sad but well-rendered vision of an apocalyptic future.”

All Day Is a Long Time by David Sanchez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All Day Is a Long Time: “Sanchez’s shimmering debut uses rapid-fire prose and dark humor to sketch the hardscrabble coming-of-age of a boy on the Florida Gulf Coast. The troubled David tells of Xanax blackouts in high school classrooms, shooting up oxycodone and meth at home, running away at 14 to pursue a girl, and a series of stints in the Palm Beach County jail, before and after he turns 18. Flush with ‘energy, rage, and terrible longing,’ David burns through a series of behavioral therapists and rehab facilities and trades sex for meth. The school wrestling team becomes a temporary distraction before a full-on return to drug stupors and near-lethal blackouts. The frenetic scenes are saturated with panic, stress, and simmering desperation, and the narration can be overly gloomy; its saving grace arrives when David, already a casual reader of Descartes, takes a community college literature course, and new possibilities open up for him. Sanchez is a daring, clever writer: a passage on the particulars of smoking crack is as vivid as David’s sober awakening and his yearning to make amends with family. This gritty and engrossing account of a man traversing into and out of hopelessness will stay with readers.”

The Hard Sell by Evan Hughes

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hard Sell: “Journalist Hughes (Literary Brooklyn) takes a revelatory deep dive into the ignominious history of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Insys Therapeutics, the leadership of which was convicted in 2019 of federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. John Kapoor, the founder of the Arizona company, and others had bribed doctors to prescribe their fentanyl-based pain medication Subsys even when medically unnecessary. Insys also persuaded physicians to delegate seeking prior authorizations for insurance coverage to an Insys contractor, a practice that Hughes notes is tantamount to a kickback (‘If you write our product instead of the other one, we’ll pay for the grunt work’). Hughes does an excellent job of illuminating the inner workings of Big Pharma’s malicious practices; for example, it was routine practice for sales reps to document their pitches, and some of those notes referenced lies about the medications being pushed (such as OxyContin being less addictive than other opioids). To avoid legal jeopardy, several major drug manufacturers altered their record-keeping systems so as to eliminate the risk of an employee recording incriminating information. While the arc of this story won’t surprise readers familiar with the recent Purdue Pharma headlines, this is a powerful indictment of abhorrent industry practices. It’s a worthy complement to Gerald Posner’s Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America.”

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Joan Is Okay: “Wang’s profound latest (after Chemistry) portrays two generations of a grieving Asian American family. Joan, a 36-year-old self-possessed physician, works long hours at her Manhattan hospital’s ICU and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment despite the insistence of her well-to-do brother, Fang, that she move to Connecticut to be closer to him and his family. But when their father, who has lived in Shanghai with their mother ever since Joan went to college, dies after a stroke, Joan begins to feel unmoored. Their mother then returns to the U.S. after 18 years, only to be stranded in Connecticut due to the pandemic travel bans. Because of language barriers, her old age, and lack of a driver’s license, she depends on her children to get around and to communicate. Wang offers candid explorations of family dynamics (‘berating is love, and here I was at thirty-six, still being loved,’ Joan reflects after Fang shames her for not going with him and their mother on a fancy Colorado skiing trip), and Joan’s empathy for her ailing patients, as well as her disapproving brother and sister in law, are consistently refreshing. It adds up to a tender and enduring portrayal of the difficulties of forging one’s own path after spending a life between cultures.”

A Dream Life by Claire Messud

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Dream Life: “Messud (The Burning Girl) offers an intriguing if slight domestic drama. When Alice Armstrong’s husband, Teddy, gets a job in Sydney, Australia, she moves there with him and their two young children, Sadie and Martha, from New York City. Their imposing new house, dubbed Chateau Deeds after its owners, offers Alice ‘a hiatus from reality,’ but it also requires tremendous upkeep, which proves too much. The first two housekeepers Alice hires don’t work out, leading a friend to recommend getting live-in help. The choices presented by her applicants leave her feeling ‘assailed by the arbitrariness, the strange irrelevance, of her Australian existence.’ Alice hires Simone Funk, a choice that may be foolhardy—Simone tells wild, possibly tall tales about being a runway model as a teen. Simone also has an outburst that may be a red flag (‘Stuck-up cow. She doesn’t know the first thing about me,’ Simone says of a house guest). There is some chilliness between Alice and Simone, and things come to a head after it’s revealed that Simone has Alice’s daughters massage her. Messud keeps readers on tenterhooks waiting for a shoe to drop, and when it does, everything recalibrates. The story may be slim, but the writing is crisp—’Guilt swept across their features like a veil’—and so is Messud’s attention to detail. This is worth savoring.”

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2022 Book Preview

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In this, our first preview for Pandemic Year Three, we offer up nearly 200 books, with the hope that they can, in some small measure, act as a balm, an escape, a distraction, a source of pleasure, a reason for hope, a source of light in the darkness.

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January


The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan: Frida Liu doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices, and she can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her—except that one lapse in judgement lands her in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance. An arresting debut. (Marie)

The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi: Five Under 35 author Assadi’s first novel’s voice-driven narrative was classified “superstitious realism”—as in its telling was “slanted and opaque, scenes haunted and possibly dreamed”—by The Brooklyn Rail. Assadi’s second novel, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells, continues in a similar vein of enchanted and haunting narration, but in a different mode: Elle Rainer suffers from Alzheimer’s and she recounts through its haze tales of her life and love and losses on the island of Lyra, and the search for the source of its mysterious blue light. The end result is “a prophetic fever dream sprung from [Assadi’s] singular imagination,” according to Claire Vaye Watkins. (Anne)

Lost & Found by Kathryn Schultz: New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Schultz can write engagingly on everything from earthquakes to human error and now trains her lens squarely on herself, exploring how loss and joy can coexist if not coincide, examining a year where she lost her father and also fell in love. Marilynne Robinson says “Our lives do indeed deserve and reward the kind of honest, gentle, brilliant scrutiny Schulz brings to bear on her own life.” (Marie)

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara: After her blockbuster A Little Life, Yanagihara’s third novel is a triptych of stories set in 1893, 1993, and 2093. In 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). Then in 1993 Manhattan is besieged by the AIDS epidemic. And in 2093, the world is riven by plagues and totalitarian rule. Edmund White promisingly called it “as good as War and Peace.” (Marie)

Yonder by Jabari Asim: Somewhere in the antebellum South, a group of enslaved black people call themselves The Stolen. To their owners they are merely captives, property. Subject to the whims of tyrannical Cannonball Greene, they toil in his quarry by day, endure beatings at night, and suffer the heartache of having a loved one sold off without warning. The bonds that keep The Stolen together begin to fray when a mysterious minister fills their heads with the notion that freedom means the ability to choose things, large and small. Which leads to a freighted question: What would happen if an enslaved person risked everything for love? (Bill)

Free Love by Tessa Hadley: After hitting the bestseller lists with her previous novels Late in the Day and The Past, Tessa Hadley gives us the Fischer family living in leafy suburban tranquility in 1967. The social ferment of nearby London seems worlds away. But when the young son of an old friend of Roger Fischer’s visits one hot summer evening, his wife Priscilla is swept into an affair that upends the family’s conventional life and leads her on a startling quest for romantic love, sexual freedom and the truest version of her life. Hadley is, in the words of Hilary Mantel, “one of those writers a reader trusts.” (Bill)

I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg: After seven books of fiction, Attenberg, who EW calls a “master of modern fiction,” publishes a new memoir about finding a home in the emotional, artistic, and physical sense. Full of wit, charm, and sharp intellect, Attenberg doesn’t hold back as she takes the reader through the defining moments of her life, from growing up as the daughter of a traveling salesman in the Midwest, sleeping on couches, and self-funded book tours to living an independent life as an artist. Kristen Arnett says, “The book is an embrace. It is a love letter to work and to friendship.” (Claire)

All Day Is a Long Time by David Sanchez: Sanchez’s debut follows 14-year-old David as he comes of age on the Gulf Coast of Florida. When he runs away from home, David hits rock bottom over and over again through drug use, sexual trauma, and being stuck in the revolving door of jail-to-rehab, rehab-to-jail. Eventually, he finds a life raft in a community college literature class—and his life becomes imbued with much-needed hope. Justin Torres says, “This book has it all, not only does the harrowing story grip you from the start, but the voice is so insightful, so poetic, so absolutely alive to the world, that you won’t be able to put it down.” (Carolyn)

A Previous Life by Edmund White: White, now in his 80s and firmly ensconced as a major Man of Letters, traverses familiar terrain and new ground with his latest novel, A Previous Life. The central characters—the aristocratic Sicilian musician Ruggerio and his American wife Constance—agree to break their vow and write confessions about their previous lives. Ruggero reveals his many affairs with men and women—and, above all, his passionate love for the writer Edmund White. Given the autobiographical tilt of White’s earlier fiction (notably A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty), the appearance of a character named Edmund White was probably inevitable. It’s definitely delightful. (Bill)

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez: Puerto Rican siblings Olga, a hotshot wedding planner, and Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, a popular congressman, navigate their place in their rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood in Gonzalez’s debut. Set in the months surrounding the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Olga’s and Prieto’s secrets, as well as their family’s secrets, begin to bubble to the surface—and they have no choice but to face them head on. Rumaan Alam writes: “It’s a book about a New York that isn’t always celebrated, the one that belongs to immigrant communities; about money, class, and political power; about one vividly-imagined family and the very idea of the American Dream.” (Carolyn)

Devil House by John Darnielle: In his newest novel, author and The Mountain Goats’ singer-songwriter Darnielle (Universal Harvester) dissects the mega-popular, oft exploitative true crime genre. Gage Chandler, a one-hit-wonder true crime writer, moves into the “Devil House” where a grisly murder took place during the 1980s Satanic Panic. As he falls deeper into his research, into the case, into the memories of his past, he begins to question his work—who it serves and who it hurts. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says, “it operates perfectly on many levels, resulting in a must-read for true crime addicts and experimental fiction fans alike.” (Carolyn)

Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby: Whether they’re virgins, whores, witches, or warriors, the infamous and unknown women in Kirby’s experimental debut collection take the spotlight. “I want to be friends with all of the women in this collection who refuse to be anything other than exactly who they are,” Rachel Yoder writes. “A barnburner of a book that will set you ablaze with its clear-eyed brilliance.” (Carolyn)

Defenestrate by Renee Branum: The word itself—”defenestrate”—is sadly underused. If it recalls anything, then some history buffs might remember those unlucky emissaries at the “Defenestration of Prague” during the springtime of the Thirty Years War, but it’s a fantastic bit of language that we unfortunately rarely get to use (even while we hope that it doesn’t happen to us). Branum’s odd, lyrical, and gorgeous debut Defenestrate follows twins Marta and Nick as they trace the intricacies of a family curse wherein members of their clan are perennially fated to fall out of windows (a burden that began appropriately enough in Prague centuries ago). Evocative of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Branum’s novel is a magical realist family fable, an allegory about the heaviness of history and the lightness of dropping, because “Something in our bodies wants to fall… we splinter that easily.” (Ed)

Perpetual West by Mesha Maren: While historically shifting, the border between the United States and Mexico has always been permeable, communities on both sides having more in common with one another than they might with cities thousands of miles away, despite what demagogues might otherwise claim. Critically lauded novelist Maren’s sophomore effort Perpetual West is a reminder that there has never been a wall, but that the border is a mirror, and that the U.S. and Mexico have always existed in interdependence. Chronicling the cross-border lives of Alex and Elana, ethnically Mexican though adopted by white Pentecostals and raised in Virginia, Perpetual West embodies the continual draw that that country has on the imagination, that complicated fantasy about how to “Start over fresh… south of the border!” (Ed)

Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson: The nameless narrator of Wilson’s sly third novel runs into an old college acquaintance at LAX who invites him into the airline’s private lounge while they wait for their delayed flight to Germany. What follows is a story within a story of how Jeff once rescued a man from drowning in the ocean…and then became fixated on him. Lauren Groff calls it an “agile novel of ideas with unexpectedly sharp teeth” and Andrew Sean Greer declared it “the best book I’ve read in ages.” I myself loved this riveting and smart novel. And: the perfect ending will make you gasp. (Edan)

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, follows up her slim and beautiful novel about poets, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, with a modern retelling of The Brothers Karamazov. The story concerns the family who owns Fine Chao, a Chinese restaurant in Haven, Wisc. When patriarch Leo Chao is found dead, the three adult sons come under suspicion. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it “timely, trenchant, and thoroughly entertaining.” Jean Kwok says it’s “a gorgeous and gripping mystery.” (Edan)

Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi: The author of multiple YA novels and the adult novel Riot Baby again enters the world of adult fiction, and that world turns out to be a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the planet is rapidly emptying out, and those with no choice but to stay behind can do no less than try and make a go of it. Macmillan calls Goliath “…a richly urgent mosaic about race, class, gentrification, and who is allowed to be the hero of any history.” (Il’ja)

The Hard Sell by Evan Hughes: Praised as “revelatory” and as “compelling as a true crime documentary,” Hughes’s second book, The Hard Sell, follows the trail of big pharma start-up Insys and its pedaling of a synthetic opioid in deceitful and fraudulent ways so as to maximize profit and patient use. Think Purdue, think Sackler-like profit and greed, think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos level hubris. The Hard Sell grew out of Hughes’s 2018 story for The New York Times, “The Pain Hustlers” and has been called “a tour de force” by Patrick Radden Keefe, author of bestselling Sackler exposé The Empire of Pain. (Anne)

Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson: It’s the 1990s in Norway and a young mother misreads a word. Normally, nothing to worry about; just read it again. But in this, the latest novel from Øyehaug, who has made a mark with her “wily, mercurial prose” (Kirkus), there’s no second chance, and life goes on, though now with mother and daughter living in different dimensions. Separated for eternity but oblivious to the fact. Or not entirely oblivious—life in a parallel universe also comes stocked with lots of free-floating disquiet, unnamable regret, and a heightened sense of the weight of even a single word. (Il’ja)

Thank You Mister Nixon by Gish Jen: Another fantastic story collection from the renowned, award-winning author, Jen. Thank You, Mr. Nixon is an original, mind-blowing exploration of  U.S.-China relations/dynamics since China reopened its borders half a century ago. City girl Lulu Koo gets confused by the American obsession of walking “in the woods with mosquitoes”; Hong Kong parents make extreme efforts to reclaim their “number-one daughter” who now lives in New York; raised under the mantra “no politics, just make money,” Betty Koo grows up to reflect on her family culture. As always, Jen’s signature humor shines through these linked stories. The collection makes you laugh, gasp, wonder, and sometimes gives you pause. In those little moments when you pause to think, you are actually witnessing the astonishing transformations that have been reshaping the world and era we live in. (Jianan)

The Latinist by Mark Prins: The Latinist is a brilliant contemporary thriller about obsession, power, and control. Tess Templeton is a golden girl at Oxford University. Her mentor, professor Christopher Eccles, supports her whole-heartedly. However, just as Tess believes she will secure a promising position in the academic job market, she finds out Christopher has shattered her career picture. He is doing everything to keep her with him at Oxford. Tess struggles to find a way out of his control. Fortunately, she discovers an obscure ancient Latin poet that could potentially turn her into a rising star in academia. The Latinist reminds us of the Daphne and Apollo myth. The novel delves deep to question the blurring line between love and obsession, between a yearning for truth and a desire of power. (Jianan)

Biblioepsy by Gina Apostol: Who hasn’t used books as an escape? For Primi, who is living through the brutal Marcos regime in the Philippines, she is “a vagabond from history, a runaway from time” and sees her favorite authors and literature as a way through the revolution. Originally published in 1997, Apostol’s debut novel is finally available in the U.S. and a perfect read for these chaotic times. (Kate)

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho: Fiona Lin and Jane Shen have been best friends since second grade. As they grow into messy, restless adults, their connection is a constant reminder of their families’ complicated pasts and lingering insecurities. Their story—hilarious, poignant, and intense—offers a refreshing portrait of friendship in all its limitations and bounty. (Kate)

Manywhere by Morgan Thomas: A collection of short stories following queer and genderqueer characters in the South, spanning states and time. In a starred review, Kirkus praises these “Innovative stories that probe the ineluctable bond between storytelling and identity.” (Lydia)

Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka: Ansel Packer is a convicted serial killer soon to be executed. He’s just not quite ready to go; not until he gets some credit for his work. But the women whose lives he’s shattered—his mother, his wife, his sister-in-law, and the detective who stopped him—aren’t interested in celebrating him, not in life, not in death. Much more than a procedural thriller, HarperAcademic says, that Notes, examines “…our system of justice and our cultural obsession with crime stories, asking readers to consider the false promise of looking for meaning in the psyches of violent men.” (Il’ja)

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang: Any book that features an introspective, solitary woman living along in a big city is automatically added to my TBR pile. Wang’s debut novel, Chemistry, was an instant favorite, and her follow-up promises an equally complex and intelligent protagonist. Joan is an ICU doctor who is asking all the big, unknowable questions in the wake of her father’s death, and when she’s met with relentless uncertainty, that’s when the adventure begins. (Kate)

The Boy We Made by Taylor Harris: In this memoir, Harris shares the experience of looking for a diagnosis for her toddler son when she knew something was wrong, and how that bewildering and confounding experience of navigating the healthcare system as a Black mother also ended up revealing life-saving information about her own health. Deesha Philyaw says of the book: “Taylor Harris has masterfully captured the wonder and weight of the endurance race that is motherhood. Mothering in the face of illness and uncertainty as a Black woman is downright Olympian. Harris’ beautiful, crisp prose drew me right into her family’s journey. Their story is heart-wrenching, hopeful, and truly unforgettable.” (Lydia)

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu: Fans of Cloud Atlas and Station Eleven will love this spellbinding and profoundly prescient debut. It’s 2030 and a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter, where melting permafrost reveals the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus. Matt Bell calls this prescient debut “A book of incredible scope and ambition, a polyphonic elegy for the possible.” (Marie)

Velorio by Xavier Navarro Aquino: The novel follows the movements of an island utopian community in the aftermath of devastating Hurricane Maria. Justin Torres raved of the book “Velorio recognizes that neither utopia nor dystopia are finite states, that they exist alongside and even inside one another, like the hurricane and the eye, the empire and the island. Xavier Navarro Aquino takes us on a riveting, harrowing journey through the aftermath, where the natural violence of the storm is compounded by disaster capitalists; the dead haunt the living; impossible decisions are made and seemingly impossible futures are born.” (Lydia)

Strangers I Know by Claudia Durastanti, translated by Elizabeth Harris: In her first novel to appear in English, Durastanti composes a riveting portrait of a woman’s eccentric family and her binational upbringing in America and Italy. The book begins with the narrator presenting two different versions of how her parents, each of whom are deaf—“They spoke the same language composed of gasps and words pronounced too loudly”—met for the first time in Rome, both claiming that “they saved the other’s life.” The perceptive, witty narrator chronicles their intense, brief connection and her shambolic coming-of-age in a work that has been compared to Natalia Ginzburg’s. (Matt)

Wahala by Nikki May: A novel of three Anglo-Nigerian best friends whose dynamic is thrown off by the arrival of a glamorous, treacherous fourth. In a starred review, Library Journal wrote, “May seamlessly weaves love, betrayal, self-reflection, and Nigerian food, clothing, and customs into this fast-paced debut.” (Lydia)

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, translated by Elena Pala: In the second of his books to win the prestigious Strega Prize, the Italian novelist Sandro Veronesi tells the story of an ophthalmologist with a roving wife and a gambling problem, among other troubles that are clouding his vision. Publishers Weekly praised this “chaotic black comedy of blunders” for being “cleverly structured like a jigsaw puzzle,” and a rave in the Guardian proclaimed that “everything that makes the novel worthwhile and engaging is here: warmth, wit, intelligence, love, death, high seriousness, low comedy, philosophy, subtle personal relationships and the complex interior life of human beings.” (Matt)

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades: A polyphonic novel celebrating the lives of young brown girls in Queens. Raven Leilani says of the book, “An acute study of those tender moments of becoming, this is an ode to girlhood, inheritance, and the good trouble the body yields.” (Lydia)

Seasonal Work by Laura Lippman: This collection of 11 stories from Lippman hardly needs any selling, but just for the heck of it: if you’re into tales of “deception, murder, dangerous games, and love gone wrong,” this is for you; and if you’re a Lippman devotee and/or Baltimore superfan (synonymous?), rest assured that detective Tess Monaghan does indeed make an appearance. (Nick M.)

Violeta by Isabel Allende, translated by Frances Riddle: The novel’s titular narrator begins with the story of her birth—a rather ominous entry into this world, replete with a storm, lost electricity, and the scourge of the Great Influenza pandemic. Illness, quarantining, fear, and resolve shape the family. Violeta’s expansive tale is told to her grandson Camilo, a Jesuit priest—an appropriate framing for a confession of generational and historical scope. (Nick R.)

High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez: A memoir of coming of age as a queer Latinx man, taking place in spaces disparate as a cockfighting ring in Nicaragua, a drag queen convention in Los Angeles, and a doctor’s office. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “A brilliant and provocative interrogation of sex, gender, race, and love.” (Lydia)

Fuccboi by Sean Thor Conroe: This novel was the last editorial project of the late Giancarlo DiTrapano of Tyrant Books, and was then acquired by Little Brown (read a profile of Conroe here.) The book is an exploration of toxic masculinity that Sheila Heti says, “Got under my skin in the way the best writing can.” (Lydia)

No Light to Land On by Yara Zgheib: A novel about a young Syrian couple separated by the Muslim ban on the eve of their child’s birth, and the hellish limbo of bureaucratic cruelty. Hala Alyan says of the novel, ““A masterful story of tragedy and redemption, an entire history told through the prism of a single Syrian couple, beginning and ending with love.” (Lydia)

Call Me Cassandra by Marcial Gala: As a young boy in the Cuba of the tumultuous 1970s, Rauli feels misunderstood by his family and drawn to the myths of the Greeks, especially the Trojan war and the visions of Cassandra. Gala’s novel travels from Cuba to Troy to Angola, interweaving Rauli’s story with the story of Cuba. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “A haunting meditation on identity and violence.” (Lydia)

South to America by Imani Perry: Brilliant scholar and writer Perry explores the southern U.S., complicating the narratives that persist about it today with real encounters of people and communities. Kiese Laymon says of the book, “South to America marks time like Beloved did. Similarly, we will talk not solely of books about the south, but books generally as before or after South to America. I have known and loved the South for four decades and Imani Perry has shown me that there is so much more in our region’s fleshy folds to know, explore and love. It is simply the most finely crafted and rigorously conceived book about our region, and nation, I have ever read.” (Read Perry’s 2021 Year in Reading here.) (Lydia)

Sticker by Henry Hoke: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, Hoke’s “memoir in twenty stickers” weaves memories of different stickers with reflections on his hometown of Charlottesville, site of the infamous violent fascist march that held the attention of the world. Jocelyn Nicole Johnson called it “Funny, nostalgic, and weird in the best possible way.” (Lydia)

A Dream Life by Claire Messud: The great Messud returns with a novel set in Australia, wherein a family moves from New York of the 1970s to a giant mansion by the Sydney Harbor. In what must be one of the best blurbs of all time, the legend Helen Garner says of the novel, “A perfect frolic of a book, puffed on breezes of beauty and wit: it waltzes you through a little fear, a little darkness, and tips you out, refreshed and laughing, into the sun.” (Lydia)

February

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti: This is a touching, funny, and philosophical novel about a woman looking to find her place in the world. When Mira leaves home for school, she meets a charismatic woman named Annie, who, as the publisher describes, “opens Mira’s chest like a portal.” After Mira’s father dies, she enters the strange dimension of acute grief and finds a world of insight inside. As the publisher says, it’s a “contemporary bible, an atlas of feeling, and an absurdly funny guide to the great (and terrible) things about being alive.” (Claire)

Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong: The fiction debut from acclaimed poet Birdsong, Nobody’s Magic tells the story of three women from Shreveport who have albinism, and the way their lives intersect. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “a stunning achievement,” and Angela Flournoy describes the novel as “a world full of complex, memorable characters who feel real, with stories unlike any I’ve read before.” (Lydia)

In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs: in this memoir, writer and perfumer Tanaïs—that’s right, perfumer not performer—reckons with their American Bangladeshi Muslim femme experiences, via stories of childhood, love, psychedelics, and fragrances. In addition to personal history, In Sensorium is “an interrogation of the ancient violence of caste, rape culture, patriarchy, war, and the inherited ancestral trauma of being from a lush land constantly denuded…because of colonization, capitalism, and climate change.” Body and scent as history, herstory, theirstory. (Sonya)

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The eighth book by pithy stylist Manguso happens also to be her debut novel. She’s written across genres—from poetry collections to nonfiction works (OngoingnessThe Two Kinds of Decay), and her previous book, 300 Arguments, is an aphoristic autobiography. Her novel, Very Cold People, is an “empathic bildungsroman” about a young girl coming of age in an austere (and very cold) Massachusetts town. Lauren Groff says Very Cold People “knocked me to my knees” with a story that “is devastatingly familiar to those of us who know the loneliness of growing up in a place of extreme emotional restraint.” (Anne)

Recitatif by Toni Morrison: The literary giant Morrison’s first published story, and the only short story she ever wrote, is now republished for the first time since 1983 with an introduction by Zadie Smith, who writes, “When [Morrison] called Recitatif an ‘experiment’ she meant it. The subject of the experiment is the reader.” (Lydia)

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James: The second installment of James’s Dark Star trilogy now arrives, continuing the grand saga of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and has been greeted with great acclaim. In a starred review, Booklist writes, “If Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a penciled comic panel, Moon Witch, Spider King is the version rendered by James the inker: the geography, myth, magic, and people of this epic setting are revisited to add shading and detail in a recursive procedure that results in a vibrant tapestry begging for infinite return trips.” (Lydia)

Antiquities and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick: The present edition centers on Ozick’s masterful novella—Antiquities—about the struggles of a former trustee of the long-defunct Temple School for Boys who’s trying to write his memoirs while fending off senescence. But the modern world just keeps butting in on memory. The volume includes four previously uncollected stories by the author: “The Coast of New Zealand,” “The Bloodline of the Alkanas,” “Sin,” and “A Hebrew Sibyl.” (Il’ja)

Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell: In this story, Gonzalo, an obscure Chilean poet, isn’t much good at relationships, but just maybe his ex-stepson and budding poet Vincente will prove to be. The thing that has always made Zambra’s writing irresistible (to me, anyway) is his attention to the seemingly inconsequential matters that render our lives so flush with consequence. Chilean Poet will almost certainly amble along Zambra’s wonderfully original, laconic literary path. (Il’ja)

The Boy with a Bird in His Chest by Emme Lund: Lund’s debut novel is a magical realist queer allegory that follows a young boy who finds out as a teenager that a bird named Gail lives in his chest—a revelation that has his mother spiriting him away and sending him to live with a cousin with whom he navigates the shoals of growing up in a thorny world. Andrew Sean Greer called it “a modern coming of age full of love, desperation, heartache and magic. An honest celebration of life and everything we need right now in a book.” (Lydia)

Clean Air by Sarah Blake: In a follow-up to her gorgeous, award-winning debut, Naamah, poet Blake explores the post-climate apocalypse where tree pollen poisoned the air and killed billions. Ten years later, the survivors (including Izabel, a restless mother, and her family) live in domes and have begun to build a new normal—until an unknown person begins slashing through the barrier and exposing people to the deadly air. Angie Kim writes, “Clean Air is an amazing blend of page-turning mystery, important commentary about environmental destruction, and poignant portraiture of maternal love.” (Carolyn)

Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black: A father writes letters to his son on his deathbed, making amends for years of silence and the rifts caused by his reaction to his son’s coming out. The letters share stories of his past and the past that came before them in rural Arkansas, back to the days of slavery and the fallout of the intervening years. Jesmyn Ward calls the novel “a perfect song.” (Lydia)

Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World by Sasha Fletcher: Fletcher’s debut is a surreal comedy about endless debt and the perversities of American life. Amelia Gray raves, “Fletcher’s full-throated talent shines in this tender, funny, time-jumping novel spanning faith, love, and the modern world. A bold and open-hearted work, like nothing else.” (Lydia)

How to Be a Revolutionary by CA Davids: A novel connecting China during the Great Leap Forward and the Tiananmen uprising with Apartheid-era South Africa through the story of a South African diplomat posted in China and her explorations of Langston Hughes’s travels in China with a Chinese friend who eventually disappears. Publishers Weekly calls it “exquisite and eye-opening.” (Lydia)

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas: Jonas’s unnamed narrator—a 50-something, tenured English professor at a small liberal arts school—finds herself at the center of a campus scandal: her husband is under investigation for having inappropriate relationships with his students. As she navigates the notoriety, she finds herself becoming deeply sexually obsessed with her new colleague, Vladimir, a young, married novelist. A book that explores power, gender, and desire, which Adrienne Brodeur calls “a whip smart and ferociously clever tale of swirling allegiances, literary rivalries, and romantic tripwires detonating hidden mines.” (Carolyn)

Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman: As the Crime columnist for The New York Times Book Review, author of The Real Lolita, and editor of Unspeakable Acts, Weinman is one of the best at getting beyond sensation to understand the intersection of crime and our larger culture. This book is her investigation into the wrongful exoneration of killer Edgar Smith and how his editor, the women who loved him, friends, and the courts were among those he manipulated into helping set him free—only for him to re-offend again. Booklist calls it, “a psychologically fascinating must-read.” (Claire)

Wildcat by Amelia Morris: Morris’s debut explores new motherhood and toxic female friendships set against the backdrop of contemporary Los Angeles. Our own Edan Lepucki said of the book, “Wildcat is that rare novel I’m always in the mood to read: at once laugh-at-loud funny and deeply serious, page-turning and smart. Amelia Morris tackles contemporary motherhood—with its social media-induced peer pressure, its confusing isolation, its complicated beauty—with the sharpest wit and a tenderness that takes my breath away. I loved this book. I want to press it into the hands of…everyone.” (Lydia)

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb: Why are priceless string instruments so hard to keep track of? Yo-Yo Ma left his Stradivarius cello in a cab, and two other musicians have in recent decades forgotten their multi-million-dollar violins in a taxi and on a train. In Slocumb’s debut novel, a talented Black violinist from rural North Carolina faces this nightmarish scenario when his priceless Strad goes missing before a music competition. From this setup, Slocumb composes a mystery around the disappearance of the violin and the painful racial history of its provenance. An added bonus: the author has provided an accompanying playlist. (Matt)

Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh: The abortion debate gets personal in Haigh’s timely sixth novel. Claudia, a counselor at the Mercy Street clinic, smokes weed to cope with the stress of guiding young women through the choice of their lives while a rabidly pro-life activist shames women online for visiting the clinic and plots to travel from his remote cabin to “save” Claudia. “I’m just going to say it: Jennifer Haigh is the greatest novelist of our generation,” says Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year. “And Mercy Street is her best novel yet.” (Michael)

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer: Three novellas—Cowboy Graves, French Comedy of Horrors, and Fatherland—from the Chilean master. The final tale focuses on a young writer of poetry—the genre that defined Bolaño’s vision. Bolaño once noted that Nicanor Parra claimed the best novels are written in meter, while Harold Bloom said the best contemporary poetry is written in prose; the novella form is the perfect synthesis of both modes. (Nick R.)

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: A “tour de force of economy, precision, and emotional power,” says Otsuka’s publisher about her new novel; and I utterly believe it. This is what Otsuka does—spare yet unforgettable novels that know exactly what they are about and how to convey their depth of meaning. Here she plumbs the inner lives of a group of recreational swimmers—their quotidian needs, and the fragility of their minds and bodies when these needs are disrupted. I am really looking forward to this one. (Sonya)

How to Be Normal by Phil Christman Though the Midwest is by far the largest geographical region of the United States, diverse in culture, history, and ideology, it’s still often slurred as “flyover country” and reduced to a set of often inaccurate red state stereotypes. Writer, professor, and theorist of the middle American sublime Christman complicated those tropes in his excellent set of essays Midwest Futures, which was both narratively and structurally innovative in how it moved beyond the tired tropes of a million New York Times think pieces. In his follow up How to Be Normal, Christman presents essays on a variety of topics ranging from race and masculinity to religion and pop culture, all written in the tone of a subversive self-help guide. Engaging a belles-lettristic negative capability, Christman takes on the big subjects while always remembering that the point of criticism is to more fully be a person, part of “our little attempts that we make at building a home in this world.” (Ed)

When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry: In the latest from the author of We Ride Upon Sticks, two identical twins—brothers who fell out years before after one rejected the monastic life they shared—set out across Mongolia to find a great lama reincarnate. The brother who remained a monk, Chulun, struggles to get along with his estranged twin, Mun, a task that only gets more difficult as the terrain pushes their differences to the breaking point. Throughout, Chulun wrestles with questions of faith and brotherhood, along with the futility in trying to hold on to one set of beliefs in a world that seems to change by the minute. (Thom)

Dead Collection by Isaac Fellman: An archival love story between a TV star’s widow and an archivist with a condition (vampirism) that keeps him hiding in the basement. Jordy Rosenberg called it “A moving and provocative novel, that caresses the decay nibbling at the hard edges of postmodern officescapes, exposing a sexy, neurotic, cinematic vampire love story bubbling up from the ruins.” (Lydia)

Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You by Ariel Delgado Dixon: Two sisters in a desolate town in New York support each other when their parents disappear, spending stints in homes for troubled teens. Joy Williams calls the book “Eventful, complex, admirably structured, relentless, and spooky.” (Lydia)

The Maiden of All Our Desire by Peter Manseau: Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and cofounder of the excellent religion website Killing the Buddha, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, Manseau writes excellent books at an unnerving pace. Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead saw Manseau traveling pilgrimage routes to investigate relics, The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost told a story at the intersection of technology and spiritualism, and Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son followed his own unusual autobiography. The Maiden of All Our Desires shows Manseau turning to fiction for the second time in his career, but his interest is still in the lived experience of faith. Evoking both Umberto Eco and Lauren Groff, The Maiden of All Our Desires unfolds in a single day at a convent during the 14th-century Black Death, in which issues of belief and heresy are engaged, and the individual must face the enormity of history. (Ed)

Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan: Kaplan was twice a finalist for the National Book Award, in 1976 and 1981, for O My America! and Other People’s Lives, and her short fiction is collected here for the first time, vibrant stories of post-war Jewish New York. Vogue says the collection “fizzes with the urbane energy of J.D. Salinger, Grace Paley, and Deborah Eisenberg—a restless delight.” (Lydia)


Cost of Living by Emily Maloney: An essay collection by an emergency room technician who came to the work after her teenage suicide attempt put her into the tortuous cycle of medical debt—a burden that might touch anyone who has the misfortune of needing medical care in our broken American system, where a broken leg can lead to financial ruin. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves, “Maloney artfully unpacks the fraught connection between money and health in her brilliant debut collection. Maloney is masterful at beginning in a place of skepticism and ending with empathy, all while weaving in her own fascinating story.” (Lydia)
New Animal by Ella Baxter: This strange, sexy, wonderful novel by Australian author Baxter follows a woman who works in her family’s mortuary and processes the grief of a loved one’s passing by an exploration of local kink clubs. Kirkus wrote in a bewildered but supportive review, “this unusual novel navigates the most treacherous of emotional territories—the fault lines between love and grief, sex and death—with a deliberate lack of grace and real charm.” (Lydia)

Away to Stay by Mary Kuryla: A novel of the Inland Empire following a working class immigrant family struggling to keep afloat and housed in an unforgiving economy. Lexi Freiman says of the novel, “Kuryla has an unflinching eye for the dark strangeness of domestic life and her ravishing prose only deepens the provocation. A powerful and stunningly original book.” (Lydia)

March

Digital Communion: Marshal McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age by Nick Ripatrazone. At The Millions we’re lucky to have Ripatrazone as a contributing editor, since he has consistently proven himself to be one of the most astute commenters on culture and religion writing today, at sites like Image, Rolling Stone, LitHub, and here. His latest book Digital Communion investigates the religious implications of the celebrated Canadian media theorist Marshal McLuhan, a figure who first explicated the philosophical implications of television. In Ripatrazone’s hands, the Jesuit educated McLuhan is restored to being “the greatest prophet of the digital age.” In our own era of communion administered through Zoom and mindfulness apps that incorporate Zen onto your smartphone, Ripatrazone makes a brilliant argument as to what McLuhan has to say about the benefits and perils of digital faith. (Ed)

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo: From the author of We Need New Names, which The New York Times called “A deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel,” comes a novel charts the fall of Old Horse, the long-serving leader of an oppressive regime in a fictional country, but inspired by the coup in November 2017 of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. The novel centers on Destiny, who has returned from exile to witness the revolution, and a chorus of animal voices, who call out the absurdity of contemporary politics and, according to the publisher, help “us see our human world more clearly.” (Claire)

Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde: A naïve young woman with idealistic hopes of fighting climate change follows a charismatic leader to a remote island in the Bahamas. She joins a band of eco-warriors only to discover that things aren’t what she expected. This debut novel follows Hyde’s 2016 story collection, Of This New World, and wrestles with similar themes of utopia. (Hannah)

Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis: In this pre-apocalyptic novel, every person on Earth has a dream that tells them the world will end in November. Lyd, a once-successful novelist who has become a deeply dysfunctional agoraphobe, is forced to leave her home for the first time in years in order to protect her teenage daughter, Mott, who is determined to write her own first book before the world ends. The pair embark on a road trip through a strange and menacing world, fleeing from their dangerous ex-husband/father, David, who believes that they should be forced to spend their last days in his home. Appleseed author Matt Bell called it “the best new novel I’ve read in ages.” (Adam P.)

Body Work by Melissa Febos: The memoirist and essayist has written an insightful and innovative craft book addressing the grueling work of intimate personal writing. Alexander Chee said of the book, “Melissa Febos has written one of the most liberating books on the subject of writing that I can think of.” (Lydia)

Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra: Returning to fiction after a two-decade hiatus, Indian writer Mishra delivers a new novel that explores the high cost of unbridled ambition. At the center of Run and Hide is Arun, who gets a ticket out of his hometown when he’s accepted at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. There he makes two friends who will cut any corner to succeed, and soon they’re living a Gatsbyesque life. Arun withdraws, but he is lured out of seclusion by a journalist who is writing an expose of his former friends’ chicanery—and will teach Arun that we can run from our origins, but there’s no place to hide. (Bill)

The Last Suspicious Holdout by Ladee Hubbard: Spanning 15 year—from 1992 to 2007—this collection from the author of The Rib King focuses on a single Black neighborhood in “a southern sliver of suburbia.” In “There He Go,” a young girl copes with her itinerant home life by telling herself stories about her absent grandfather. In “False Cognates,” a formerly incarcerated lawyer struggles to pay tuition at his troubled son’s elite private school. Throughout, characters from one story pop up in another, giving the collection a unified narrative weight. (Thom)

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou: An Asian American PhD student desperate to claw her way out of academic hell? Sign me up, please! Even better, Alexander Chee calls this an “Asian American literary studies whodunnit.” Ingrid Yang finds herself in the midst of solving a mystery tied to a late canonical Chinese poet that leaves her questioning everything from her romantic life to her academic career. Oh, and her best friend is named Eunice Kim. For everyone with a Eunice Kim in their life, let’s kick off our inaugural book club with Disorientation. I’ll bring the soju. (Kate)

We Had to Remove This Post By Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault: Employed as content moderators at a social media company, Kayleigh and her colleagues watch and evaluate endless streams of the most horrifying and disturbing content the Internet has to offer. The unending violence and hate begins to take a toll and the team, and Kayleigh, fall apart. Ling Ma writes: “This novel gives us an acid glimpse into a new form of labor existing today, a job that extracts an immeasurable psychic toll. Fascinating and disturbing.”  (Carolyn)

Border Less by Namrata Poddar: Poddar’s debut, which was a finalist for the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, is divided in two sections tracing the migratory journey of Dia Mittal, an airline call center agent in Mumbai who supports her family and who is looking for opportunity, leaving on a journey that brings her together with South Asians from across the spectrum of class and circumstance. A beautiful narrative approached with what Ananda Devi calls “heart-breaking delicacy and precision.” (Read Poddar’s 2021 Year in Reading here.) (Lydia)

A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande: A love story of the Mexican-American War about the romance between a Mexican healer and an Irish American soldier who defects and joins the fight for Mexico’s freedom, forming an Irish battalion. Julia Alvarez writes of the novel, “Grande integrates a sweeping Tolstoyan vision and command of language with her very own Latin American popular traditions…This is indeed a grand and soulful novel by a storyteller who has hit her full stride.” (Lydia)

Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton: Essayist and critic Newton’s first book length work is memoir, a fascinating combination of a journey to find out more about the flamboyant characters in her family going back generations, mixed seamlessly with “America’s Ancestry Craze,” her Harper’s article about the genealogy craze that has become a serious even all-consuming hobby for many Americans. An unflinching exploration into the history of a troubled family tree and the universal but also peculiarly American need to discover “roots.” (Marie)

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole. This debut coming-of-age novel is a love story set in Kentucky during the run-up to the 2016 election. It centers on Owen Callahan, an aspiring writer who moves back home to Kentucky to live with his Trump-supporting uncle and grandfather. He takes a job as a groundskeeper at a local college, in exchange for writing classes. There he meets Alma Hazdic, a writer in residence who hails from a Boston, and whose immigrant family is much more liberal than Owen’s. They are from different worlds, and as they begin to fall in love, Alma struggles to understand Owen’s complicated relationship with his conservative relatives and his home state. (Hannah)

Homesickness by Colin Barrett: The good folks at Grove Atlantic say that Homesickness contains “…eight character-driven stories.” Here’s what I say: Young Skins, Barrett’s first short story collection (2015), destroyed me. So good. I’m not paid to be objective, and it would be impossible anyway since Young Skins won ALL the awards, not just the Irish ones. With an ARC of Homesickness in hand, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d read Barrett’s grocery lists should he choose to publish them. A major writer in the making. No less than Anne Enright calls his work “lyrical and tough and smart.” Anne Enright is correct. Expect stories of the down and out, the oddballs and misfits, the working class. Characters with flaws and nary a tidy, dignified outcome within sniffing distance. (Il’ja)

A House Between Earth and the Moon by Rebecca Scherm: A House Between Earth and the Moon is a page-turning exploration of a potential human future. As climate change makes our planet less and less habitable, scientist Alex accepts an offer from giant tech company Sensus to set his lab in outer space on Parallaxis. However, as soon as Alex and six other scientist arrive in the outer space, they become the hard laborers of Sensus. Yet, they persevere, hoping they will reunite with their families soon. On Earth, wildfires and storms are tormenting humanity. People struggle not only with the elements, but also with the surveillance of the Sensus phones. How can humanity find a way out of these apocalyptic events? Contemporary literature does not lack dark sci-fi to warn us of the possible futures that we are headed toward. But A House Between Earth and the Moon dedicates its most vivid imaginations to not only a scary future, but to human tenacity and the power of love. (Jianan)

A Novel Obsession by Caitlin Barasch: Naomi Ackerman wants to write a novel, but she’s having trouble coming up with a novel-worthy idea. She meets a man; she’ll write a novel about love! The man has an interesting ex-girlfriend; maybe Naomi should write about her instead. But first she’ll have to get to know her. Lies unfold; chaos ensues; the line between fact and fiction, real life and invented, blurs and then disappears. In a starred review, Kirkus calls Barasch’s “dread-laden psychological novel” of a debut “an incisive study of female friendship…smart, jarring, and funny.” (Kaulie)

Mecca by Susan Straight: Straight’s return to fiction in the time of Covid, Mecca follows her recent memoir and shares with it a fascination with California and the generations of dreamers and desperates who have made their home in the west. At the novel’s core is the Latinx community of Southern California—highway patrolmen, ICU nurses, animal control workers, gardeners; representatives from the web of people who sustain others’ golden dreams—and the interconnected lives of characters facing drought and fire as well as ICE and viruses. A novel of “fierce compassion” (PW) and “a hymn to all that have called the Golden State home” (Walter Mosley). (Kaulie)

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton: The Secret History meets Fight Club, sort of, but younger, more feminine, more queer. In Burton’s second novel, sensitive Laura transfers to a Maine prep school, the alma mater of her favorite novelist, a Byronic figure who died tragically young. There, she finds her place in the cultish chapel choir, a group fervently devoted to the novelist and held in thrall by their charismatic leader, Virginia. Laura becomes infatuated with Virginia, but when charisma turns dangerous, she has to decide how deep her devotion goes. (Kaulie)

Páradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes: In her second novel to reach the U.S., Melchor moves from Hurricane Season’s rain-soaked villages into an upscale apartment building called Páradais. There, two boys from different economic strata find common ground: drinking and scheming. Translator Hughes deftly rendered Melchor’s vivid, powerful prose in Hurricane Season, so buckle up for what’s next. (Nick M.)

How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman: “I’m not a fan of the moral filter in fiction,” Bergman has said in an interview. “I don’t want to write about what we should think, feel, or do. I want to write about our ugly, exquisite humanity, our desperate inner selves navigating the world’s obstacles.” Bergman’s characters are unfailingly human—steeped in paradox and grace—and her new collection is pensive, playful, and ambitious. Stories like “The Heirloom” and “Peaches, 1979” alone are masterclasses in dynamic detail, in the lineage of Jayne Anne Phillips. Equally talented as a writer of nonfiction—about subjects ranging from the environment to music to family—Bergman is a sensitive, essential writer. (Nick R.)

Let Me Count the Ways by Tomás Q. Morín: A memoir from the skilled poet (most recently, the collection Machete) and translator of Pablo Neruda. Morín has described his memoir as an exploration of “what it was like for me to grow up in a rural town in South Texas surrounded by a culture of drugs and machismo,” the formative influence of the men in his family, and how he tried to cope with the struggles of his youth. “My parents taught me early that their love had its limits,” he writes early in the book. “I wish I could have mapped out their love. My counting is a way for me to return the things people have made to the blueprint stage.” (Nick R.)

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali: This debut novel from Londoner Ali, is the story of young man torn between family and love, culture and individuality. “Honest” is a word that comes up repeatedly in blurbs and reviews (emotionally, absorbingly, heartbreakingly). “Unafraid of the gray areas of race, faith, sexuality, and love,” writes novelist Lillian Li. (Sonya)

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler: In the seventh novel by the Man Booker finalist, the reader travels back to 1822, where the Booth family—progenitors of John Wilkes Booth—move to a farmhouse near Baltimore to live their lives in seclusion. Over the next 16 years, the family has 10 more children, and Junius Booth, the family’s unstable patriarch and a Shakespearean actor, trains his children for their own careers on the stage. But the background for this training is a country descending into civil war—and one of the Booth children starting down a path that ends with his name in infamy. (Thom)

Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett: Irish author Bennett’s second novel, a Bildungsroman in which a woman recounts the upbringing that led to her becoming a writer, takes us through the unnamed narrator’s childhood in a town west of London. As she grows up, she develops a unique attention to detail, not to mention a growing pile of books and manuscripts. As she navigates her own relationships and her own connection to literature, she forges the talent that leads to her eventual career. (Thom)

Homo Irrealis by Andre Aciman: In his new essay collection, the author of Call Me by Your Name expounds on topics that range from subway poetry in New York to the legacies of Sigmund Freud, W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust, and more. Aciman focuses on the power of the imagination to shape our memories, using himself as an example—though he admits his readings of certain authors may be “erroneous,” they shaped him nonetheless, and so they retain a certain power. This contradiction (among other things) gives the book its narrative throughline. (Thom)

Red Paint by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe: A memoir of a poet and artist from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack tribes who weaves her experience in the punk scene with her experience as a child moving around the Pacific Northwest, and the influence of her great-grandmother, a linguist who helped to preserve her indigenous language of Lushootseed. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the memoir “an engaging, poetic, educative examination of the search for home and personal and cultural identity.” (Lydia)

Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde: A novel of the dispossessed of Lagos, Nigeria—poor, queer, sex workers, rogues, and how their lives intersect. Marlon James says of the novel, “You don’t read this novel. You swan dive into its sea of gods and monsters, lost girls, violent boys, and well-behaved people both righteous and wicked. And when you finally surface, that sound will be you, gasping in wonder.” (Lydia)

April

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow: This debut bildungsroman, a blend of fact and fiction, draws on three generations of the Stringfellow family’s involvement in the civil rights struggle. It opens in 1995 when 10-year-old Joan New, her mother, and sister seek refuge from her father’s violence at the ancestral home in Memphis. There Joan comes of age while painting portraits and learning family history and secrets—among them that her grandfather was lynched and her grandmother was a mistress of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Stringfellow, an attorney and poet, told Book Pipeline: “I hope girls growing up in the North Memphis projects will read it and say, ‘Wow, somebody wrote a story about me.’” (Bill)

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: Another twisty, intellectually meaty novel of the uncanny and otherworldly from Mandel, longtime Millions staffer and bestselling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. This one spans 500 years, from 1912 to 2401, and features a bestselling author visiting Earth from her moon-based colony on a book tour, where she must field a million and one questions about her novel about a “scientifically implausible flu,” while the news warns of a mysterious new virus. That Mandel herself found herself answering a million and one questions about her own pandemic novel during the present pandemic no doubt lends this plot element some verisimilitude. (Michael)

Binding the Ghost by Ed Simon: Simon’s essays are some of the true hidden gems in our contemporary literary world. After the deconstructionism and with the rise of cultural studies, literature is often used as a vehicle to form a political conversation. “Art for art’s sake” seems to be a tradition that we now consider not only outdated but also narrow-minded. Binding the Ghost helps restore our pure pleasures in reading literature as what literature actually is. Simon’s essays are never dogmatic. He guides us through a theological perspective and inspires us to meditate on the many significant, yet often neglected, literary evolvements: the development of the alphabet, the mystic power of punctuation, how the novel and Protestantism construct a relationship with people. Binding the Ghost sings a genuine, beautiful hymn to the magic and wonder of poetry and fiction. (Jianan)

The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Extraordinary Century―From the Civil War to the Cold War by Bill Morris: Our own Morris (Motor City Burning, American Berserk) is back with a work of nonfiction that mixes the personal with history and traces the life of his grandfather, John Morris, who was born into a slave-owning Virginia family during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War. In a starred review, Kirkus, hailed the book—which covers everything from Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition to the horrors of Jim Crow, two World Wars, and the advent of nuclear weapons—as “An entertaining combination of domestic and world history,” adding “[Morris] does a superb job of recounting a life amid a series of significant decades. His imaginative ‘mongrel’ approach—a mix of…biography, history, reportage, memoir, autobiography, and, when the record runs thin, speculation that flirts with fiction—is successful. An entertaining combination of domestic and world history.” (Adam B.)

Song for Almeyda & Song for Anninho by Gayl Jones: The new flow of published work from the brilliant and elusive Jones continues with this extension of the universe of Palmares, a love story for two of its characters entirely in epic verse. (Lydia)

Forbidden City by Vanessa Hua: Hua follows up her extraordinary novel A River of Stars and the collection Deceit and Other Possibilities with a novel that illuminates a figure from history—Mei, Mao Zedong’s protege and lover, a teenager who came from her village to be a dance partner for party elites. Hua deftly explores a tumultuous period in what Maxine Hong Kingston calls “an intriguing and suspenseful story.” (Lydia)

Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones: Jones—tennis reporter, Pulitzer Prize finalist (for her profile of Ramsey Orta, who filmed the police killing of Eric Garner), philosophy professor, fiction writer, too—is indisputably of exquisite mind. In her first book, Easy Beauty, she investigates and interrogates the Western ideals of beauty philosophically and experientially, as a woman living assessed, judged, and often othered for her own disabled body. Cooper Jones’s examination is performed with “the rigor and precision of Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson,” according to playwright Sarah Ruhl. The resulting book is “utterly remarkable,” according to The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Anne K. Yoder)

The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe: Singer-songwriter, actress, fashion icon, producer Monáe has written a book, y’all. Building on the Afrofuturistic mythos of her third album Dirty Computer—a totalitarian, mind-controlling world where queerness, race, gender plurality, and love are all subjugated—Monáe has collaborated with a team of creatives on this collection of stories that “fully explore what it’s like to live in such a totalitarian existence…and what it takes to get out of it.” If anyone can speculate engagingly on such liberation, it seems to me Monáe can. (Sonya)

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan: Described as a sibling novel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Candy House begins with tech entrepreneur Bix Bouton and his venture called Own Your Unconscious, wherein people can download and view their own memories, and share and exchange the memories of others. The rest of the novel explores the consequences of such a phenomenon, and as with Goon Squad, it spans decades and narrative styles, from the omniscient to the epistolary, to a chapter told in tweets. Technology, intimacy, privacy—these are subjects Egan has tackled before, and with such brilliance and formal daring. I cannot wait! (Edan)

Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson: The fantastic critic and memoirist follows up Negroland with another work of memoir that uses a physiology as its architecture: the human nervous system. Vivian Gornick called it “one of the most imaginative—and therefore moving—memoirs I have ever read.” (Lydia)

Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon: Chaon’s eighth book and fourth novel tells the story of Will Bear—a man who, at 50, has been living off the grid for nearly half his life. He’s never paid taxes, never held a full-time job, and never been in a monogamous relationship. What he has done is carry out “errands” for his employer, a powerful organization whose exact nature Will remains hazy about. One day, Will gets a call from a stranger on one of his burner phones, a woman in her 20s who claims to be his long-lost daughter. She needs his help, she says. One problem? The people she needs help dealing with might work with Will’s employer. (Thom)

Shelter by Lawrence Jackson: A memoir of homecoming, by a Black son of Baltimore who returned to the city to teach at Johns Hopkins, buying a house for his sons in a covenanted, predominantly white neighborhood and reflecting on the paradoxes of the city. The memoir weaves his own story of making a home for his family with a history of the city. Edward P. Jones raves: “There are an endless number of wonderful things to say about Lawrence Jackson’s Shelter―from luminous to breathtaking to just being outright admirable.” (Lydia)

The Unwritten Book by Samantha Hunt: Hunt publishes her first book of nonfiction, a work of memoir and literary inquiry that begins when Hunt finds her late father’s unfinished manuscript. Maggie Nelson said of the book, “I can’t remember the last time I read something so heavy with grief and darkness that made me feel so accompanied in the human condition, so inspired to return to my life with more curiosity, love, and wonder.” (Lydia)

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang: A novel set against the background of the American West during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, following a young woman from calligraphy school to a San Francisco brothel to the mountains of Idaho. Ann Patchett called Four Treasures of the Sky “an engulfing, bighearted, and heartbreaking novel.” (Lydia)

Search by Michelle Huneven: Huneven’s fifth novel is based in southern California and revolves around a Unitarian Universalist Church and its search for a new minister. Food writer and memoirist Dana Potowski agrees to join the committee, thinking it will be fodder for a new book. The committee’s choices bring her lots of colorful material but when it comes time to make the decision, Dana finds herself more invested than she realized, and fights for her choice. (Hannah)

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Michael Favala Goldman: It’s no secret we’re often woefully late to read and celebrate foreign authors here in the States—case in point is the 50 year lag in the (re)translation of celebrated Danish poet and author Ditlevsen’s devastating memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy. This “brilliant” and “stunning” accomplishment is one of the most oft-cited books on this year’s “best of” lists despite Ditlevsen having died nearly half a century ago. The one upside for us English language readers is the remaining trove of her work that awaits us. Next up is Ditelevsen’s story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, never before translated to English. It features precisely observed stories from the 1950s and ‘60s, quiet and understated tales of characters yearning and struggling to escape the roles assigned to them while not knowing quite what they’re looking for. (Anne)

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li: Think Indiana Jones but with generations of filial piety and Chinese history behind him. In Li’s debut novel, questions of art and the diaspora are explored as a group of Chinese-American students ransack museums of priceless Chinese art and return it to their homeland. Part thriller, part crime fiction, and part intriguing examination of identity, Portrait Of a Thief is the heist novel art history majors have been waiting for. (Kate Gavino)

Happy for You by Claire Stanford: Stanford’s debut novel follows Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, a young woman at a personal and professional crossroads, as she leaves academia for a research job in Silicon Valley. Tasked with developing an app that helps people quantify their happiness, a struggling Evelyn must find a way back to her own joy. “Happy for You is the optimal novel for the strange times we find ourselves in,” writes Rachel Khong. “This is a book for anyone who’s ever looked around at this brave new world—and wondered about your own place in it.” (Carolyn).

Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson: Probably Ruby is about a Métis woman in her 30s, whose life is spinning out of control. In interwoven narratives, the novel brings together Ruby’s story, from being given up for adoption and raised by white parents to how she finds meaning in kindship and her roots. Imbolo Mbue calls the novel “a celebration of our universal desire to love and be loved.” (Claire)

Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart: The follow-up novel to the Booker prize-wining Shuggie Bain, exploring masculinity, love, queerness, and growing up in Glasgow. In a starred review, Kirkus writes, “You wouldn’t think you’d be eager to return to these harsh, impoverished environs, but again this author creates characters so vivid, dilemmas so heart-rending, and dialogue so brilliant that the whole thing sucks you in like a vacuum cleaner.” (Lydia)

A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn: The L.A. writing community has been anticipating this debut novel from one of our most passionate and engaged members since we learned of its sale. Inspired by Chadburn’s Filipina heritage and her own time in the foster care system, A Tiny Upward Shove begins with a young woman’s death and her transformation into an aswang, or Filipino shapeshifter, able to venture into the minds and experiences of those she has known—including her own killer. Hector Tobar writes: “Melissa Chadburn is a fiercely original, brave writer. She writes with the voice of the survivor she is, finding the lyrical and the deeply human in seemingly dark and impenetrable landscapes.” (Edan)

Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker follows her beloved first novel, Godshot, with this collection of stories about desperate people in Central Valley, California: a woman who steals a baby from a homeless shelter, a mother and son selling dreamcatchers along the highway, teenagers taking too many risks online. Stephanie Danler writes that this book is “astonishing…absolutely devastating” and Lauren Groff calls Bieker “an absolute crackling talent.” (Edan)

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda My interest in this debut novel was first piqued when I read about it in Ruth Ozeki’s Year in Reading for The Millions. I love the title. And a mixed-race vampire, you say? Lydia is a young woman in a London sublet, rooming with artists, away from her vampire mother for the first time. She can only consume blood—and, yet, she doesn’t want to. She wants to be an artist. Kohda, is a British book critic and violinist, and of her debut book, Ozeki writes, “The spell this novel casts is so complete I feel utterly, and happily, bitten.” (Edan)

End of the World House by Adrienne Celt: In Celt’s exhilarating, inventive third novel—the follow-up to Invitation to a Bonfire–Bertie and Kate are long-time friends who take a trip to Paris before Kate moves from Silicon Valley to LA. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the world weren’t, essentially, ending in a slow-motion apocalyptic buffet that includes terrorist attacks, pandemics, and freak weather brought on by climate change. When Bertie and Kate get a chance to tour the Louvre on a day it’s closed, they find themselves in a time loop and must figure out how to rediscover one another, and get to the bottom of their tension, codependence, and resentment. This book about love, friendship, and the cruel nature of time is catnip for fans of Groundhog Day and Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. Rufi Thorpe writes: “Reading Adrienne Celt is like being granted access to a secret kingdom, another layer of reality you didn’t know existed.” I agree. (Edan)

Nobody Gets Out Alive by Leigh Newman: Alaskan Newman follows up her memoir Still Points North with a collection of short stories that show her home state from all angles, from its sprawling suburbs to wilder regions haunted by the frontier past. Newman debut collection includes prize-winning stories “Howl Palace” and title story, “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” which centers on a bride who returns to her hometown of Anchorage only to blow up her own wedding reception. (Hannah)

Post-traumatic by Chantal Johnson: A lawyer at a New York psychiatric hospital deals with her own trauma at home, self-medicating and unraveling as the high-wire act of professionalism and personal trauma becomes untenable. Myriam Gurba raves, “Chantal V. Johnson has blessed us with a cool, stylish, and violently funny novel about survival. It made me smile, laugh, cringe, shiver, and think. Like life, Post-traumatic is richly triggering and highly recommended.” (Lydia)

The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell: In her new memoir, essayist Caldwell explores her struggles with PMDD, a severe form of PMS that drastically affects her mood and mental well-being. Caldwell describes her attempts to treat her condition, and how it affected her relationships and sense of self. I’m here for any memoir that talks honestly about women’s health issues, but the truth is I’d read whatever Caldwell writes. (Hannah)

The Odyssey by Lara Williams: An employee on a cruise ship is selected by her captain for a bizarre mentorship program, and her adherence to it breaks up her life. Mateo Askaripour says of the book, “I have never read anything like this, which is a testament to Lara Williams’s craft, as well as her fearlessness in diving into the more absurd, cringeworthy, and downright uncomfortable aspects of life.” (Lydia)

Rouge Street by Shuang Xuetao, translated by Jeremy Tiang: Shenyang, a major city in Northeast China, was once a thriving industrial hub under Mao Zedong. But as China transforms into a market economy, the once glorious city finds itself burdened with various social ills: poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, alcoholism. Born in Shengyang, Shuang Xuetao presents a vivid picture that captures the various voices of Shengyang’s natives. Undefeated by life, Shuang’s characters fight a giant fish to survive beneath a frozen lake, consider burning a sorghum field for revenge, and imagine leaving their tough neighborhoods in a flying machine. Shuang’s stories are fundamentally about hope, aspiration, and resilience. (Jianan Qian)

Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen: The debut novel from poet and Rona Jaffe Award winner Chen, Activities of Daily Living follows Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant in New York, as she struggles to work on a “project” about the renowned and elusive performance artist Tehching Hsieh when she’s not working a mindless day job. The deeper she gets into her project, the more of her own life slips in. Highly recommend for: fans of Chen’s poetry; fans of Olivia Laing and/or Ben Lerner; anyone who’s ever found themselves consumed by art; anyone who’s fighting the very nature of time (and, really, who isn’t?). (Kaulie)

An Unlasting Home by Mai Al-Nakib: It’s 2013, and though Sara, a professor of philosophy, returned to Kuwait 11 years ago, her feelings about her country remain… complicated, and only more so after a class on Nietzsche leads to an accusation of blasphemy and the threat of execution. In the 1920s, her grandmothers, still only girls, are beginning to make the choices that will shape their lives; a generation later, Sara’s mother is planning a political life while her ayah leaves her own children to mother Sara. An Unlasting Home, the debut novel from the author of The Hidden Light of Objects, follows the lives of five women and, through them, of Kuwait itself through a long century of change. (Kaulie)

At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter: From one of Japan’s most celebrated writers and translators—Ono’s won the Mishima Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, the country’s highest literary honor, among others—At the Edge of the Woods is an eerie allegory of climate apocalypse and unnatural nature. A family moves to, well, the edge of a wood, which turns out to be full of dark laughter, figures that appear and disappear, sounds of violence and gnashing teeth. Bryan Washington calls it “beautiful and seductive,” writing “Ono illustrates modern life’s horrors alongside the wonder of the unknown” and “balances wonder and disquiet with incomparable grace and precision.” (Kaulie)

Out There by Kate Folk: The debut collection from Folk, Out There is, as Chang-Rae Lee puts it, “wondrously perverse, often creepy and hilarious, and always sneakily heartbreaking.” The title story, first published in The New Yorker, sees a San Francisco woman seek love through a dating app despite the threat posed by stunning artificial men designed by foreign hackers. Other stories dig even deeper into the eerie and weird—a void slowly swallows the world; patients battle a bone-melting disease and a dangerous hospital-ward love triangle—but most uncanny of all is Folk’s own voice, imaginative, sharp, and unsettling, human and alien together. (Kaulie)

People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated by Tiffany Tsao: First published in Indonesia 40 years ago, this story collection from celebrated author Darma gets a second life—and an English translation—as a Penguin Classic. Across seven stories set in the gridded streets and rented rooms of Bloomington, Ind., Darma’s characters navigate their morbidly funny lives in this meditation on alienation, failed connection, and the universal strangeness of the human mind. (Kaulie)

Ruin by Cara Hoffman: A collection of anarchistic stories from a founding editor of the Anarchist Review of Books and celebrated author of So Much Pretty, Be Safe I Love You and Running. American society is falling apart; Ruin is a look at what it may look like to survive the collapse, if survival was as surreal and funny as it was brutal. A little girl disguises herself as an old man, a dog begins to speak, separated lovers communicate across the penal colony via technical drawings. The New York Times Book Review has said Hoffman “writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain,” and in Ruin both the pain and poetry are present in force. (Kaulie)

True Biz by Sara Novic: Set in a boarding school for deaf students, Novic’s novel follow teens and adults navigating the personal and the political in a novel that Alexandra Kleeman calls “Rollicking, immersive, and boldly, exquisitely felt…delves into the deepest questions about community, communication, and collective action, inviting the reader into a world of language made new.” (Lydia)

Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur: This novel takes us to 1970s rural South Korea, where a young girl named San who is ostracized from her community meets a girl called Namae. Following a moment of physical intimacy, Namae violently rejects San, setting her on a troubling path. This novel is one of Shin’s first, written while she was in her 20s. The author of the worldwide sensation Please Look After Mom, Shin is one of the most widely read authors in Korea and the first South Korean and first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize. (Marie)

I Was the President’s Mistress! by Miguel Syjuco: A rollicking polyphonic novel from the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize for Illustrado. A satire of political scandal, social upheaval, and absurdity, of which Salman Rushdie says, “This brilliant black comedy is a wild, and wildly unpredictable, ride through the dark side of the Philippines. Miguel Syjuco is his country’s most original and unflinching literary voice.” (Lydia)

Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett: Ghostly narrators, omniscient after death; a drop-out medical student returned home to take care of her dying father; her brother, fresh out of rehab; her oldest friend, a missing addict the local police refuse to search for. Also, hallucinated animals. The second novel from the author of Rabbit Cake, Unlikely Animals is, as our own Lydia Kiesling writes, “a warm, joyful, generous novel about families and human frailty—an homage to the dead and a celebration of the living, one that embraces the complexity and fullness of both.” (Kaulie)

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad: In a literary noir set in Lahore, a chief of police moves through the red light district, caught up in a conspiracy to cover up the murder of a young woman and revisiting his own memories of being abducted as a child from the same neighborhood. Anthony Marra calls the novel “mesmerizing. That a novel so epic in scope can remain so intimate at heart is nothing short of astonishing.” (Lydia)

Some of My Best Friends by Tajja Isen: Catapult editor-in-chief and voice actor Isen publishes a collection of essays on how issues of race and identity surface in both the cartoon and the literary arenas, and how efforts at change have faltered. (Lydia)

All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond: The debut novel from the prolific story writer and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast is also one of the first titles from Zando Projects, a new independent publisher founded by Molly Stern. The novel tells the story of two teenage girls on the trail of a mystery, a “mashup of Jane Eyre and The Wire.” Hector Tobar says of the book, “Almond, a master of the short form, has now set himself loose on a vast canvas, giving us a rollicking, wide-ranging, unpredictable novel. This book is sharp, fast-moving, juicy…a wild ride and a great deal of fun.” (Lydia)

May

The Evening Hero by Marie Myung-Ok Lee: In the Millions’ own Lee’s long-awaited new novel, a Korean immigrant pursuing the American Dream must confront the secrets of the past or risk watching the world he’s worked so hard to build come crumbling down. Dr. Yungman Kwak has worked as an obstetrician for 50 years, treating the women and babies of the small rural Minnesota town he chose to call home. But a letter arrives, and Yungman faces a choice—he must choose to hide his secret from his family and friends or confess and potentially lose all he’s built. The Evening Hero is a moving and darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores. (Adam P.)

Either/Or by Elif Batuman: This novel is a continuation of the story of Selin, Batuman’s protagonist from The Idiot, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK. It’s 1996 and Selin, the one in her family who got to go to Harvard, is now in her sophomore year. Guided by her literature syllabus and more worldly peers, she tries to figure out how to live a worthwhile life. (Claire)

Essential Labor by Angeles Garbes: Garbes wrote a modern classic of pregnancy with Like a Mother, and she follows that with another major contribution to the nonfiction of caregiving and childrearing, with a challenge to reshape the way we think about caregiving and family life in a book that seamlessly weaves together memoir and cultural analysis. This is an incredibly resonant book in pandemic year three, a book I wish we’d had long ago, and a book I’ll never forget. (Lydia)

The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara: A sweeping, biting, elegant book for our time that follows the imprisoned daughter of a tech mogul who began life as a Dalit worker on an Indian coconut plantation before launching an invention that would reorganize the world and profoundly upend his place in it. A novel that explores tech, race, class, politics, and power, from a journalist who was previously the Wall Street Journal’s first Facebook beat reporter, The Immortal King Rao is also one of the only American novels by a Dalit author. R.O. Kwon calls it “Utterly, thrillingly brilliant. From the first unforgettable page to the last, The Immortal King Rao is a form-inventing, genre-exploding triumph.” (Lydia)

Trust by Hernan Diaz: The Pulitzer Prize finalist follows up his brilliant western In the Distance with Trust, a story of the Wall Street tycoons of the Gilded Age with a reality-bending literary mystery at its heart, in keeping with the postmodern historical beauties of In the Distance. Of the novel, Rachel Kushner said, “Its plotlines are as etched and surreal as Art Deco geometry, while inside that architecture are people who feel appallingly real. This novel is very classical and very original: Balzac would be proud, but so would Borges.” (Lydia)

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub: What would you do if you could travel back to 1996? Personally, I would go to the book launch of The Secret History and ask Donna Tartt for style advice. But Alice Stern, heroine of Emma Straub’s fifth novel, has a much better mission: make the most of her time with her eccentric novelist father, Leonard. If you think you know the rules of time travel, think again and pick up this thoughtful, insightful exploration of the complicated connections between parents and children. (Kate)

Valleyesque by Fernando Flores: The followup to Flores’s acclaimed Tears of the Truffle Pig, this collection of stories from the U.S.-Mexico border gathers up tales as disparate as a muralist taken on a journey by a Zapata tee-shirt, or a young Lee Harvey Oswald. Matt Bell calls Flores “one of the rare truly singular fiction writers of our time, and his stories are endlessly innovative, surprising, and fun.” (Lydia)

Circa by Devi S. Laskar: The second novel from poet, photographer and author Laskar, Circa follows Heera and her friend Marco as they try to navigate their changed lives and find a way back to each other after their youthful rebellion leads to a sudden and devastating loss. Heera also must balance the expectations of her Bengali-American family with her own desire for freedom and the life in New York she imagined she’d lead before the night everything went wrong. As lyrical and rebellious as Heera herself, Circa comes highly recommended for fans of Claire Messud’s Burning Girl. (Kaulie)

Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman: When young, queer Brooklynite Eve posts nude photos of herself one night, she sets off a series of events leading her to Olivia and Nathan—and soon the three begin an affair that’s equal parts thrilling and distressing. Raven Leilani writes: “Acts of Service doesn’t kiss you first; it gets right to it—depicting the liquid frequencies of need and power with a thoughtful, savage eye.” (Carolyn)

Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej: A chance meeting at an artists’ residency leads a young, queer artist headlong into a sexual affair with an older, established choreographer. This sensual and gripping coming-of-age explores desire, art, obsession, and selfhood. Ling Ma calls the debut “a darkly sensuous tale of awakening that will quietly engulf you in flames.” (Carolyn)

Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces by Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Abdelmahmoud is a culture writer for BuzzFeed and host of the CBC’s podcast Pop Chat. This collection weaves together a story of his life, from arriving in Canada at age 12 from Sudan and his teenage years in a homogenous city to learning to become, “every liberal white dad’s favorite person in the room.” The essays reflect on how experiences and environment shape our identity, covering everything from The O.C., to wrestling, and the long shadow of colonialism. As the publisher says, it’s a book, “with the perfect balance of relatable humor and intellectual ferocity.” (Claire)

Companion Piece by Ali Smith: The title says it all: Smith’s latest novel is a companion piece to her beloved seasonal quartet. As with the previous titles in the collection, it is a time-sensitive work that attempts to capture the way we live now. (Hannah)

The Year of the Horses by Courtney Maum: The author of Costalegre and I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You returns with a touching and insightful memoir of depression and healing. Maum has a privileged past, a mortgage, a husband, a healthy child, and a published novel—she feels no right to her depression, but that does not make it go away. When other treatments fail, she returns to her childhood passion of horseback riding. Maum alternates timelines and braids historical portraits of women and horses into her own story in The Year of the Horses, an inspiring paean to the power of animals that Lisa Taddeo calls “A memoir of power and beauty and pain that moves across the world like the beautiful horses that carry it.” (Adam P.)

We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart: In the midst of grieving her mother, college freshman Mallory strikes up an all-consuming affair with an older, married, and enigmatic woman. Unsure of who she is and what she wants, Mallory must come to terms with how the relationship upended her life and who she wants to become in the aftermath. About Hart’s debut novel, Meg Wolitzer says: “Michelle Hart’s first novel is a haunting study of solitude and connection, moving and memorable.” (Carolyn)

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley: Only a year away from its 10th anniversary, Cleveland-based independent publisher Belt has compelled writing mavens in New York to finally pay attention to the rich literary culture of the industrial Midwest. Long focusing on new nonfiction, reprintings of classic rust belt titles and their celebrated city anthologies, Belt’s first novel is Foley’s Boys Come First, an account of three Black gay friends in Detroit that upends popular expectations about race, class, gender, sexuality, and masculinity. Foley’s novel evokes Brian Broome in its hilarious and very millennial perspective on what it means to be a 30-something as the first quarter of this century comes to a close, a love letter to gay Michigan, which receives less attention than New York, San Francisco, or Atlanta. But as Foley writes in his Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, it’s still a “city that works hard, gets tired, gets defeated, and picks itself up every day and keeps going.” (Ed)

The Shore by Katie Runde: Life in a vacation town isn’t all sunshine and sea breezes; when the last tourists leave and the weather turns sour, locals and longtimers are forced to reckon with their families, choices, and secrets. In Runde’s debut novel, The Shore, a mother and her two daughters, year-round residents of idyllic Seaside, face enormous tragedy and change. Rather than fall to pieces, they react in erratic ways—one daughter pretends to be a middle-aged mother on an Internet forum, for example—but they never really lose each other. Our own Lydia Kiesling calls The Shore “a delicious page turner” and “a deft, deep meditation on illness, grief, and loss…a lovely, expansive look at the hard work of caregiving, saying goodbye, and keeping on.” (Kaulie)

Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin: Stegner Fellow Conklin publishes her debut collection of short stories, each following queer, trans, and gender non-conforming characters as they navigate life and look for connection. Lorrie Moore said of the book, “Lydia Conklin writes with humor and tenderness about the way we love now. Rainbow Rainbow is an impressive and beautiful collection.” (Lydia)

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama: A debut following a family over 50 years of exile and migration, from Tibet to Canada. Maaza Mengiste says of the book, “We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies showcases a writer of rare talent and uncompromising vision. In these pages that speak of exile and loss, of longing and sorrow, Tsering Lama also manages to remind us–with startling beauty and compassion – how much can still survive. This novel is a testament to a people’s resolve to love, no matter what. A triumph.” (Lydia)

Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney: Part notebook, part audiovisual anthology, Barrera’s hybrid essay Linea Nigra is not your typical book on motherhood. Instead it’s a collection that serves as representation—a comprehensive “compilation of images, citations, and references from women who have conceived of pregnancy, birth, and lactation through art and literature.” (Nick M.)

Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman: Seven siblings remember two pivotal events in their collective life, all their own way: the death of their mother and one sibling’s teen pregnancy. The novel explores the fallout from these events in what Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, calls “a superbly executed saga.” (Lydia)

Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera: A novel following a Dominican family in New York City as they face family drama, gentrification, and family secrets. Naima Coster calls the novel “The rare book that manages to be chilling, fun, and profound all at once.” (Lydia)

The Red Arrow by William Brewer: A debt-saddled writer down on his luck ghostwrites a doctor’s memoir until the doctor disappears, leaving him in limbo and sending him toward an experimental psychedelic treatment. Charles Yu writes, “The Red Arrow is bold and thrilling—a work of unbridled imagination. Unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.” (Lydia)

A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times by Meron Hadero: Winner of the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and the Restless Books Prize, Hadero’s collection of short stories traces borders and migrations. In the citation, the Restless Books Prize judges write, “With enormous power and wonderful subtlety, Meron Hadero grants us access to the inner worlds of people at moments when everything is at risk.” (Lydia)

Mirror Made of Rain by Naheed Phiroze Patel: When Noomi breaks out of her privileged circle of partying to forge her own path as a journalist in Mumbai, she falls in love with a man and then finds the marriage plot leads her to the same self-destructive impulses and familial patterns she fought to avoid. Brandon Taylor says of the novel, “Everything feels so lush and gorgeous as the story at the heart of the novel emerges and eventually coheres to devastating effect.” (Lydia)

Be Brief and Tell Them Everything by Brad Listi: Creating art is hard in a vacuum, but it’s never created in a vacuum. Artists have lives, writers have families, and each of us is simply trying our best. In this dark, touching, and often funny work of autofiction, Listi examines the grandeur and minutiae of work, parenting, and let’s face it, simply existing. (Nick M.)

June

Nighcrawling by Leila Mottley: The debut novel by the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate follows a young woman trying to support herself, her brother, and an abandoned neighbor child in gentrifying Oakland, turning to nightcrawling prostitution as a job until she becomes a key witness in a police scandal. Ayana Mathis says of the novel, “Leila Mottley’s commanding debut, inspired by the life events of one woman’s struggle for body and soul against crushing exploitation, is fierce and devastating, rendered with electrifying urgency by this colossal young talent.” (Lydia)

Greenland by David Santos Donaldson: A feverish novel within a novel taking the outer frame of a writer on a three-week deadline to write an entire book from the perspective of Mohammed el Adl, E.M. Forster’s Egyptian lover who once spent six months in a jail cell, an intense and frenetic process that eventually has him merging his own memories with those of his subject, blending past and present. (Lydia)

Blithedale Canyon by Michael Bourne: The Millions’ own Michael Bourne publishes his debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, following the down-and-out Trent Wolfer who comes out of rehab and lands in his hometown near the San Francisco Bay, running into a beautiful woman he knew long ago, now a single mother of two. The novel chronicles the pull of home and the way a place changes over time, and it paints a portrait of a man trying very hard to get something right. Teddy Wayne says the novel “is an ode to the pleasures and pains of the return to the familiar, to the gravitational pulls of addiction, old friends, and Springsteen on a car stereo, but mostly of home. Blithedale Canyon is a tenderly nostalgic and page-turning portrait of a man who can’t control his worst impulses, written by an author in full command of his own tools.” (Lydia)

The Invisible Things by Mat Johnson: While orbiting Europa, a moon of Jupiter, the crew of The Delaney discovers a domed city on the surface that upon closer inspection turns out to be “a funhouse mirror of the United States” (Penguin Random House). And the inhabitants are all alien abductees. And they’re holding elections. And their politics are polarized, their environment is scaring them, and there’s an emerging NIMBY movement. Maybe, the delocalized locals conclude, it’s time to move. Sounds like another trippy ride through the mechanics of survival from this modern master of allegory. (Il’ja)

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh: Since her debut in 2015 with the disquieting but darkly funny novel Eileen, Moshfegh has proven herself to be one of the most immaculate crafters of disturbed, unreliable first-person narrators. From the nameless performance artist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation who drugs herself into a coma to the disturbed widow investigating a murder that may or may not have happened in Death in Her Hands, Moshfegh’s voice is part Dostoevsky, part Poe, and entirely her own, as filtered through a jaundiced millennial sensibility. If anybody would be apt to get into the weird head space of our current moment it’s Moshfegh, who in her new novel, Lapvona, written during Covid lockdown, ironically imagines a medieval setting of depraved feudal lords and witchy, cunning women. Fantasy might seem more the realm of a Robert Jordan than Moshfegh (the title of the book is the imagined kingdom where the narrative is set), but as the author told Vox, “In a time where there has been so much trauma and loss…Humanity finds purpose where it can. It’s like flowers growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk.” (Ed)

Avalon by Nell Zink: One of our most original novelists returns with an updated Cinderella story. Bran’s Southern California upbringing is anything but traditional. After her mother joins a Buddhist colony, Bran is raised on Bourdon Farms—a plant nursery that doubles as a cover for a biker gang. She spends her days tending plants, slogging through high school, and imagining what life could be if she were born to a different family. And then she meets Peter—a charming, troubled college student from the East Coast—who launches his teaching career by initiating her into the world of art. The two begin a seemingly doomed long-distance relationship, and Bran searches for meaning in her own surroundings—she knows how to survive, now she must learn how to live. (Adam P.)

Learning to Talk by Hilary Mantel: For those whose only familiarity with two time Booker Prize winning author Mantel is her crystalline trilogy of historical fiction based on the life of Henry VIII’s counselor Thomas Cromwell—Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror & the Light—the rerelease of her 2003 collection of short stories Learning to Talk might come as a surprise. Learning to Talk features no palace intrigue, no Renaissance poets, or Reformation disputes, but it’s, if anything, more representative of Mantel’s oeuvre. These interconnected short stories take place in a nameless, northern English hamlet that’s “scoured by bitter winds and rough gossip tongues.” Mantel eyes provincial culture and dashed dreams, the hardship of work and the inscrutability of families. If the Cromwell trilogy shares anything with these stories, it’s a sense of what it means to come from nowhere and wish you were from anywhere else. (Ed)

Raising Raffi by Keith Gessen: As a mother of three kids, I’ve read Gessen’s essays about parenting his son Raffi with interest, in part because Raffi sounds a lot like my oldest son: at once brilliant and completely maddening. In an essay for The New York Times Magazine, Gessen writes about how Raffi doesn’t like sports, and for N+1 (the magazine he co-founded), he writes about choosing a school for Raffi. I was pleased to learn Gessen has penned an entire book about life as a father, charting the first five years with his son. As a novelist, translator, and journalist, Gessen is sure to be thoughtful about an experience that so many have delighted in and grappled with. (Edan)

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog, translated by Michael Hofmann: For those who thought Werner Herzog made movies, that’s likely still true. But now Herzog, 79, is sending out his first novel. Penguin Random House says it “tells the incredible story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who defended a small island in the Philippines for twenty-nine years after the end of World War II.” I don’t know what you could possibly expect me to add to that. (Il’ja)

The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter: We all live like celebrities now: we polish up our social media profiles, edit our identities, and keep in the closet the aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to show others. However, we seem to find it ever more difficult to understand who we are and where we belong. The Angel of Rome is a stunning story collection in which all the characters try to reconcile with those contemporary paradoxes. An adolescent girl scrambles to live up to the image of her glamorous, absent mother. An elderly couple has to cope with a fiction writer who fabricates tales out of their lives. A movie star in recovery has a one-night stand with the world’s most scathing critic. Walter’s signature witty humor lights up those darkest sides of humanity. These stories are funny, provocative, inspirational. After reading the collection, your understanding of the perhaps overused phrase “reinventing oneself” may never be the same. (Jianan)

X by Davey Davis: Davis follows up their fantastic debut, The Earthquake Room, with a novel about politics, sex, identify, and power that follows Lee, a sadist whose brief encounter with the dominating X leads to a race against the clock to keep X from being swept up in a government removal program for “undesirables.” Torrey Peters raved: “Davis is an astounding writer, seemingly unconstrained by taboos and waist deep down in the maw of life, examining what the rest of us shy away from—never more than here in X, the rare book that can thrill and entertain, while simultaneously causing you to question everything about how you’re living.” (Lydia)

Mother Ocean Father Nation by Nishant Batsha: Batsha’s debut novel explores the fallout of the colonial system that brought workers from India to the Pacific, and the fractures that occurred during the subsequent era of independence and change, following a young woman from her island home to the San Francisco Bay. Amitav Ghosh called it “A moving saga about the experience of Indian migrants in the South Pacific.” (Lydia)

Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky: In the author’s fifth novel, a modern day masterpiece of swimming pools, trademark turkey sandwiches, climate change, Ashley Judd, and an ill-advised romance, an unhinged narrator contemplates her future after losing her home to a hurricane. (Marie)

More Than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez: Gutierrez’s debut is a stylish literary thriller about a true-crime aficionado wrapped up in a case where a woman married two men, and one husband murdered the other. Julia Fine says of the novel, “As addictive as a real-life whodunnit, with thoughtful attention to the ethical implications of the true crime genre, More Than You’ll Ever Know explores how we entangle ourselves one choice at a time, and what it costs to unravel the damage.” (Lydia)

Nuclear Family by Joseph Han: Set in the days leading up to the 2018 false missile launch alarm, Han’s novel follows a Korean family in Hawaii, franchising their lunch restaurant and watching with alarm as their son is caught trying to sneak across the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Bryan Washington says of the novel: “Joseph Han’s novel is heartfelt and propulsive, immersing readers in a narrative whose questions of family, borders, queerness, and forgiveness constantly surprises and astounds.” (Lydia)

Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch: The author of such dystopian fiction as The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and the memoir The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch has an unmatched gift for capturing stories of people on the margins—vulnerable humans leading lives of challenge and transcendence. In this novel, she offers the story of Laisvė, a motherless girl from the late 21st century who is learning her power as a carrier, a person who can harness the power of meaningful objects to carry her through time. (Marie)

The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran: The first novel in 13 years from the author of Dancer from the Dance, which was published in 1978 and called in Harper’s “An astonishingly beautiful book. The best gay novel written by anyone of our generation.” The new novel follows a man as he watches the decline of a friend, reflecting on all the other loved ones he has lost in the years before. (Lydia)

Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley: On a quiet night out with friends, Lola, a soon-to-be-married New Yorker, ducks out for cigarettes and runs into an old boyfriend. And then another. And … another. What at first seems like mere coincidence turns into something far stranger as Lola must contend not only with the viability of her current relationship but the fact that her former boss, a magazine editor-turned-guru, might have an unhealthy investment in the outcome. “Cult Classic is a romantic comedy set in a new age mind control cult on the Lower East Side,” Crosley told Entertainment Weekly. “My hope is that what sets it apart from every other romantic comedy set in a new age mind control cult on the Lower East Side is that it’s also a mystery.” (Michael)

Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta by James Hannaham: The latest from the PEN/Faulkner winner (for the novel Delicious Foods) introduces us to Carlotta Mercedes, a trans woman who wins parole after more than 20 years in prison. Since Carlotta transitioned during her sentence, her family and friends have never known her as a trans woman, and she struggles to reconnect with her son and the rest of her family. All the while, she’s forced to comply with onerous parole restrictions, which make it nearly impossible for her to stay out of jail. (Thom)

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: A multigenerational western saga about a “wildly entertaining and complex family,” Fajardo-Anstine’s debut novel has been described as a “cinematic, epic story” written in “lyrical, unpretentious prose.” Set in 1930s Denver, the novel is centered around Luz Lopez, who becomes the seer and keeper of her Latinx and Indigenous family stories. (Sonya)

Dele Weds Destiny by Tomi Obaro: Obaro’s debut follows three friends at university in Nigeria who reunite decades later in Lagos, and find out where life has taken them and what it still has in store. Rumaan Alam said of the novel: “This enchanting debut is an affectionate portrait of a three women at middle age, cannily exploring the ways the self is forged in youth. With an admirably light touch, Tomi Obaro documents how class, race, faith, and power define the lives of women in Nigeria and America, past and present.” (Lydia)

The Seaplane on Final Approach by Rebecca Rukeyser: A woman in pursuit of sex and adventure goes to work in a tourist lodge on a remote Alaskan island. What could go wrong?! Carmen Maria Machado said of the book: “I didn’t realize how much I needed this lusty, funny, heartbreaking book until I devoured it in a single sitting. The Seaplane on Final Approach is a novel set at the edge of the world, about people who belong everywhere and nowhere and the vast, unknowable wilderness of desire. A sharp, flawless debut.” (Lydia)

The Midcoast by Adam White: Ed Thatch, a Maine man from a lobstering family, strikes it big, and his old high school acquaintance Adam is curious about his immense success when he attends a party at his mansion. Like any guest worth his salt, Adam snoops around the house and comes up with quite the catch: a file with disturbing images of a burned body. Channeling Balzac (“Behind every great fortune is an equally great crime”), White, a high school teacher and lacrosse coach, dredges up the long-submerged origins of the Thatch money in this dark social portrait of a small Maine town. (Matt)

Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: Yes, that Tracy Flick. The protagonist of Perrotta’s beloved 1998 novel Election, the one Reese Witherspoon played in the movie. She’s back, now a single mom working as an assistant principal at a high school in the New Jersey suburbs. Deep in the mid-career blues, she learns that her school’s principal is planning to retire, give Tracy a shot at the top spot. But this is Tracy Flick, so nothing is ever easy. (Michael)

A Trail of Crab Tracks by Patrice Nganang, translated by Amy B. Reid: In the third installment of Patrice Nganang’s historical fiction trilogy, a father “chronicles the fight for Cameroonian independence through the story of a father’s love for his family and his land,” and in the process reveals to his son “the long-silenced secrets of his former life.” (Nick M.)

Brown Neon by Raquel Gutierrez: Ranging from memoir to criticism to travelogue, the essays in Gutierrez’s collection serve as “meditation[s] on southwestern terrains, intergenerational queer dynamics, and surveilled Brown artists that crosses physical and conceptual borders.” By exploring the places where stories are set, Gutierrez reveals more about who’s in them. (Nick M.)

Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen: Chen follows up Bury What We Cannot Take with a novel that takes on fashion, crime, and friendship through the story of two women who create a global empire out of a counterfeit handbag scheme. As someone who has sported a fake bag or two in her time, I cannot wait for this novel that sparked a television bidding war and which Claire Messud called “Sly and thoroughly compelling.” (Lydia)

Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo: The first short story collection by the celebrated author of Three Women features nine arresting stories about love, desire, and the modern attention economy, among other things. In the titular story, a mysterious group of cool, beautiful girls manage a dating service called Ghost Lover, which comes up with pre-written texts for people to send to their love interests. In another, three women at a ritzy Los Angeles fundraiser compete to win the attention of a feted guest of honor. As is the case with Taddeo’s most famous work, readers can expect a nuanced portrayal of desire. (Thom)

Nevada by Imogen Binnie: Binnie’s 2013 debut, a queer and trans literary classic, gets a deluxe reissue from MCD this year. The novel—a finalist for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Trans Fiction—tells the story of Maria, who’s trying to uphold her punk values while living as a young trans person with no money. When her girlfriend breaks up with her, Maria steals her car and drives west, eventually meeting a new friend named James, who reminds her of her younger self. As Maria assigns herself the tentative position of trans role model, she has to grapple with her place in the world—and what she wants. (Thom)

The Millions Top Ten: December 2021

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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The House on Vesper Sands
6 months

2.
3.

The Book of Form and Emptiness
4 months

3.


The Morning Star
1 month

4.
8.

Cloud Cuckoo Land

3 months

5.
9.

These Precious Days: Essays
2 months

6.
10.

Beautiful World, Where Are You

3 months

7.
6.

Crossroads
3 months

8.
4.

Bewilderment
4 months

9.
7.

Matrix: A Novel
3 months

10.
5.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
5 months

I need you to hold on. The surge is real, cases are rising, but the vaccines work. It’s decoupled: your likelihood of ending up in the hospital is reduced if you’re vaccinated, which is all along what the vaccines were supposed to do. But, remember: a small percentage of a bigger number can still produce a big number. We aren’t out of the woods.

Oh, right, we were talking about books. In that case, I still need you to hold on, Millions readers. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus remains on our list, but it’s in precarious position. We have the unprecedented chance to put a book from 1921 into the Hall of Fame, but we need two more strong showings from y’all. If you haven’t read Ed Simon’s piece on Ludwig Wittgenstein, you must. Here it is. Here’s a second link to it in case you didn’t click it the first time.

Carrying on. This month we bid farewell to Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake, which rode six straight strong showings into our site’s Hall of Famed sunset.

In its place, we welcome newcom—oh, no, wait we’ve seen you before, surely? Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose novel The Morning Star joins our ranks in the third spot. Knausgaard is no stranger to Millions readers but it may surprise you to learn he’s not yet made the Hall of Fame .

Will he this time? We’ll see.

This month’s near misses included: The Magician, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Intimacies, Harlem Shuffle, and When We Cease to Understand the World. See Also: Last month’s list.

The William Trevor Reader: “The Hotel of the Idle Moon”

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It feels safe to say that no other writer of great stature wrote more often than William Trevor about old people. Only Alice Munro comes close—perhaps V. S. Pritchett. Here’s an incredibly stupid admission: when I first encountered Trevor, it made perfect sense to me that he would write so much about old people, since he so perfectly embodied the platonic ideal of an old person. Those twinkly, wise eyes! That signature Irish walking hat! I was in my 30, in the late aughts, when I first read Trevor, and he was in his late-70s. It did not occur to me that he had not always been in his late-70s, that many of the multitude of stories were written when he was my age at the time.

But enough about my stupidity, which I would prefer to reveal slowly over the course of this project, rather than all at once in an information dump. I mentioned Trevor’s interest in the elderly in a previous entry, the way aging is simpatico with his central theme, i.e. coming to terms with one’s life. But it’s more than that. Advanced age and accompanying senescence are, if not an obsession, a fixation. Sometimes, with writers, you viscerally sense the person, place, thing, idea, or general theme that quickens their pulse—you can hear the fingers tap that much faster on the typewriter. With Charles Portis, it’s cars, or more broadly, mechanical objects; with Ottessa Moshfegh it’s any bodily-related function: peeing, pooping, barfing. I sense, in Trevor’s stories, that quickening when it comes to senility, sundowning, the general incapacity of age.

In several of these stories we’ve covered already, an old person’s vulnerability provides a key plot point: Miss Winton’s fuddled inability to wrest control of the situation in “The Penthouse Apartment;” Miss Efoss becoming overwhelmed and subsumed by the Dutt’s desire for a child in “In at the Birth;” General Suffolk’s progressive drunkenness and weakness in “The General’s Day.” Even the titular Miss Smith, a relatively young person, undergoes a sort of premature dotage. This week’s story, “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” provides the most explicit version of this yet, as a pair of married con artists, the Dankers, invade the country home of the ancient Marstons and their equally ancient servant Cronin. They likely poison Lord Marston, and proceed to consign the Lady and Cronin to a small wing of the house while they convert the rest into a hotel. Cronin dreams of cutting their throats with a razor strop, but in the end, he understands it to be absurd that he “imagined himself a match for the world and its conquerors.”

One feels Trevor taking a kind of perverse pleasure in the plight of the Marstons and Cronin, bulldozed as they are by this purposeful, evil people. I found myself speculating about Trevor’s Irishness, wondering if there was a connection to the history of Ireland, regularly occupied by an outside force since the Romans. Further along in The Collected Stories, Trevor explicitly addresses The Troubles, but I wondered if there’s something more general in the Irish psyche that responds to the drama of encroachment—Joyce’s fiction is, as well, shot through with narratives of helplessness and submission: for example, Gabriel Conroy’s and Leopold Bloom’s effulgent, ecstatic paralyses; Ulysses, stripped of its extravagant language, is the story of a man wandering in circles as his wife cuckolds him. Joyce’s language itself can be read as a defense mechanism, a coded linguistic bulwark devised by a genius with a siege mentality.

What encroaches more assiduously than time? What enemy is more relentless than age? Trevor is especially, unusually responsive to the problem of dementia (“Cheating at Canasta,” one of his most famous later stories, regards a man on vacation at the behest of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife). In “The House of the Idle Moon,” the senescence of the house’s nonagenarians is like an accomplice working in concert with the Dankers. As the Dankers slowly take over, landscaping the apple orchard and beginning to rent the rooms to guests, age subsumes Lady Marston and Cronin. And in that subsumption, I detect a delicious release, a giving over to chaos, meaninglessness, and loss. When it’s far too late to stop the Dankers, we get this exchange between Cronin and Lady Marston:
‘It has no meaning: The Hotel of the Idle Moon. Yet I fear, m’lady, it may in time mean much to us.’

Lady Marston laughed quite gaily. ‘Few things have meaning, Cronin. It is rather too much to expect a meaning for everything.’
Next time around, “A School Story.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Schulz, Attenberg, Yanagihara, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Kathryn Schultz, Jami Attenberg, Hanya Yanagihara, 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.
Lost & Found by Kathryn Schultz
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lost & Found: “‘Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,’ writes Pulitzer Prize winner Schulz (Being Wrong) in this stunning memoir. As Schulz recounts, she contended with the pain and ecstasy of both narratives colliding when she fell in love with her future wife, C., 18 months before Schulz’s father died. She explores the grief of loss and joy of finding through penetrating reflections on the life of her father, a deep thinker with an endless appetite for the world; an ‘intimate study of [her] beloved’ wife; and philosophical forays into literature, poetry, and art. She ruminates on the ‘intrinsic pleasure of discovery’ in quest narratives, is reminded how ‘the entire plan of the universe consists of losing’ when C. reads her Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and thinks of her father’s memorial service, one of the ‘greatest parties I ever attended,’ when remembering C. S. Lewis’s quote that ‘we all have… many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst.’ By the end of these exquisite existential wanderings, Schulz comes to a quiet truce with her finding that ‘life, too, goes by contraries… by turns crushing and restorative… comic and uplifting.’ Schulz’s canny observations are a treasure.”
I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Came All This Way to Meet You: “Novelist Attenberg (All Grown Up) meditates on the virtues and vices of an unscripted life in this sparkling memoir. In vivid essays, Attenberg recalls her couch-surfing years in her 20s, an assault she survived in college (‘That moment remains a burning hot coal in my chest’), and teaching fiction in Vilnius, Lithuania, as a ‘newly moderately successful writer’ in 2013. She writes of her decision to eschew tradition in pursuit of art and adventure, but how, at age 40, she began to envy her more grounded, married friends: ‘I did not want… the husband, the kids. But I did want that refrigerator full of food.’ The tension between rootedness and wanderlust makes for brisk descriptions of locale: from Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification, where she ‘had birthdays… and went broke several times,’ to New Orleans, where she wrote ‘religiously, daily,’ to a chapel made of bones in Portugal. Though her narrative flits around in time and space, her writing emerges as a bedrock from which to both grow and settle into. From the vantage point of 2020, she observes: ‘We are all homebound…. We can’t go back to the same way…. Everything is just sideways.’ Tilted or upright, Attenberg’s story shines with wit and empathy.”
The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Stars Are Not Yet Bells: “Assadi (Sonora) returns with a lyrical and melancholic tale of grief, love, and a marriage’s open secrets, narrated by a woman who has Alzheimer’s. In 1941, Elle Ranier and her jeweler husband, Simon, moved from New York City as young newlyweds to a remote island off the coast of Georgia in search of a variety of jewel akin to diamonds and known locally as the ‘blue legend.’ Many people have drowned while seeking the minerals, which are believed to lie at the bottom of the ocean, and Simon’s fruitless search eventually leaves his business in shambles. Now, in 1997, Elle remembers her previous lover, Gabriel, in Brooklyn, whom she arranged to work with Simon on the island after claiming he was her cousin, and who died shortly after they arrived. Then, in 1961, Simon grows close with a geologist hired to prospect for the jewels. Elle’s reminiscences become hazy as a result of her Alzheimer’s, though ‘for a while, life remained in [her] bright dreams,’ which evokes a sense of magic with images of mermaids and fairies. As the story of the trio’s arrival to the island and their subsequent misfortunes gradually unfolds, Elle circles around the secrets about her and Simon’s relationships with other men. The beauty of Assadi’s prose and the splendid depiction of a love that transcends death make for a singular rendition of an oft-told story. This will leave readers undone.”
Yonder by Jabari Asim
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Yonder: “Novelist and cultural critic Asim (We Can’t Breathe) delivers a searing and redemptive story of slavery and survival. Set in the antebellum South, it is narrated primarily by enslaved people who call themselves the ‘Stolen’ and white people ‘Thieves.’ To sustain themselves through the cruelties of their owner, Cannonball Greene, a philandering pseudo-intellectual planning a study of Africans in America, the Stolen rely on their rituals and bonds. Inspired by myths of the Buba Yalis, Zander, a teen, believes he will one day fly like his African ancestors. Cato eases the shattering grief of his lover’s death by adding her name to the seven words chosen by the elders for each Stolen at birth, in the belief that ‘words were mighty enough to change [their] condition.’ William doubts the power of all words, trusting action instead. When he stops Cupid, the plantation’s slave foreman, from bullying Zander one night, the two men fight. Cato steps in and kills Cupid, then helps William bury him in the woods. Faced with Greene’s rage, the others, heeding the promises of freedom offered by an itinerant Black preacher, consider a risky escape. Asim convincingly portrays what W.E.B. Du Bois would later term ‘double consciousness’ among the Stolen: ‘All of us have two tongues,’ an unnamed Stolen says, distinguishing between the ‘lament cloaked in deception’ used for their enslavers and the rich, transgressive language used among themselves. At once intimate and majestic, the prose marries a gripping narrative with an unforgettable exploration of the power of stories, language, and hope. With a bold vision, Asim demonstrates his remarkable gifts.”
Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shit Cassandra Saw: “Kirby’s excellent debut collection follows a series of women empowered by new circumstances, sometimes with fantastical results. In ‘A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,’ a man tells a woman to smile, and she responds by revealing a mouthful of fangs, which she uses to bite off the man’s hand, ‘crack[ing] the bones and spit[ting] them out.’ Another woman in the same story uses her ‘laser eyes’ to transform a man who gropes her into the exact change for her bus fare. In ‘The Best and Only Whore of Cwm Hyfryd, 1886,’ the women of a Welsh settlement in Patagonia are generally too tired to have sex with their husbands, leaving the job to a sex worker. That woman, meanwhile, writes letters home to her brother and pretends to be married. The prose is sharp and calibrated to suit each of Kirby’s temporally and geographically diverse settings. She is even able to wring pathos from a story written in the format of a Yelp review, narrated by one of the rare male voices in the book, in the very funny ‘Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star,’ in which reviewer Gary F.’s account of a miserable night at the Crab Shack slips into a chronicle of his crumbling marriage. It’s all accomplished through risk-taking and assured, well-developed craft. This is remarkable.”
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mouth to Mouth: “Wilson (Panorama City) explores the intertwined fates of two inscrutable men in the Los Angeles art world of the early 2000s in this shifty work of psychological suspense. The unnamed narrator, a novelist delayed at the airport on his way to Berlin, runs into an old college acquaintance, Jeff Cook. Jeff invites the narrator to the first class lounge, where he tells him a long story. Twenty years earlier, while strolling along the beach, Jeff resuscitated a drowning stranger, Francis Arsenault, a successful art dealer who showed no interest in his savior. Jeff, by contrast, attempted to learn everything about Francis, and ingratiated his way into Francis’s gilded life—insisting to the narrator that his motives, though obscure even to himself, were not necessarily mercenary. Francis is a prickly figure, a ‘master manipulator’ whose bullying and shady business practices caused the upright Jeff to belatedly question whether Francis was worth saving. Though the frame narrative can feel contrived, and Francis might not be as memorably monstrous as, say, Graham Greene’s Harry Lime, the extended scenes of self-fashioning and occluded vision make good use of Patricia Highsmith’s influence. There’s plenty of satisfaction in watching the characters navigate the blurred line between plausibility and truth.”
The Boy We Made by Taylor Harris
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Boy We Made: “Essayist Harris weaves a medical mystery, love story, parenting memoir, and tale of survival in her stunning debut. When Harris’s sweet-natured 22-month-old boy, Tophs, started showing a host of inexplicable symptoms—including hypoglycemia, developmental delays, and speech and language difficulties—she was forced to reckon with the ways in which his health issues stoked anxiety issues that she’d spent most of her life battling. In writing that is heartfelt and raw, she recounts her distress at the evasive explanations that she received from doctors as her son underwent test after test, while braiding in reflections on motherhood (‘Being a Black mother in a… country, built for whites was hard’), faith, and the idea of existing within liminal spaces: ‘Caught somewhere between ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet’…. It was getting harder to see what, if anything, was being formed in Tophs, in me, or in us as a family through this search for answers.’ Though medical professionals believed Tophs had ketotic hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood glucose levels drop unexpectedly, Harris and her husband never received a conclusive diagnosis. But out of that uncertainty grew a love and calmness that Harris couldn’t have foreseen, and a story of acceptance that mesmerizes with its vulnerability: ‘He had always been my son…. It was my job to let him be.’ This is astounding.”
High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about High-Risk Homosexual: “In this crackling debut, Gomez recounts his coming-of-age as a queer man, passionately exploring what it means to celebrate one’s identities and to make space for joy in the most unlikely places. ‘In a world desperate to erase us, queer Latinx men must find ways to hold on to pride for survival,’ he writes, ‘but excessive male pride is often what we are battling, both in ourselves and in others.’ In essays packed with dry wit and searing cultural insight, Gomez blows open this paradox as he contends with the difficulties and traumas of compulsory heterosexuality that were forced upon him growing up in his Nicaraguan family. He brings readers on an exhilarating trip through his teens in Central America, where bloody cockfights at his uncle’s bar pulsated with machismo; reflects on meeting a group of encouraging trans sex workers, whose simple freedom both terrified and enticed him as a young gay person; recounts his awkward attempts to navigate hookup culture in his early 20s in Florida; and reflects on how taking PrEP instantly labeled him medically as a ‘high-risk homosexual.’ The result transcends a simple coming-out story to instead offer a brilliant and provocative interrogation of sex, gender, race, and love.”
Wahala by Nikki May
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wahala: “In May’s breezy if overdramatic debut, the mutual friendship of three Anglo-Nigerian women is threatened by an interloper, a Russian Nigerian on a revenge trip. Isobel Adams holds a particular grudge against each of the successful and ambitious women who have been best friends for 17 years. There’s Boo, one of the numerous children Isobel’s father had with multiple women; Ronke Tinubu, the daughter of the man who had an affair with Isobel’s mother, and who now dates the man Isobel wants; and Simi, Isobel’s friend since they were five years old, who describes Isobel in a conversation with the others as ’embarrassingly rich,’ and whose father has been in a longtime feud with Isobel’s. May’s characters, despite all their accomplishments and intelligence—Ronke is a dentist, Boo has a PhD in bioinformatics, and Simi works as a brand executive for a fashion house—are easily taken in by Isobel, due to Isobel’s willingness to help open doors for them. After Isobel manipulates her way into the trio’s lives, someone in their orbit winds up violently killed. While some of Isobel’s destructive behavior is outlandishly implausible, May’s nuanced exploration of race and gender makes this refreshing. This will leave readers intrigued to see what May does next.”
Call Me Cassandra by Marcial Gala
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Call Me Cassandra: “In Cuban poet and novelist Gala’s lyrical and elegiac return (after The Black Cathedral), a young man grows up feeling stifled by life in Castro’s Cuba. At 10, Rauli Iriarte is effeminate and bookish, imperiled by the strict gender roles embodied by his violent brother, drunken father, and unsympathetic school board. He’s more comfortable in the company of his mother and his father’s Russian mistress, Svetlana. As it happens, Rauli is also Cassandra, the Greek prophetess of ancient myth, cursed with the knowledge that he will die as a young soldier in Angola, where he is dispatched as part of the Cuban Intervention. There, on ‘a continent full of ghosts, the ghosts of kings, dark ghosts of dark wizards,’ he is simultaneously swept up in the Trojan War and forced to relive The Iliad’s cycle of death and carnage. Lodged irrevocably between genders, historical periods, and legends, Rauli—who’d rather be acknowledged as Cassandra—must find meaning and purpose in a life he knows to be tragically foreshortened. It’s a fascinating premise, but not a whole lot happens. Still, Gala’s prose, elegantly translated by Kushner, perfectly conveys the protagonist’s dual realities (‘We are but shadows set on the canvas of this life, my Zeus,’ he thinks, while on the battlefield). In the end, the author offers a singular invocation of immortality.”
Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Øyehaug (translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Present Tense Machine: “The playful and poignant latest from Øyehaug (Wait, Blink) unfurls the alternate realities that separate a mother and daughter. In 1998, Anna misreads the word ‘trädgård’—Swedish for ‘garden’—as the nonsense word ‘tärdgård,’ and the slip-up sends her into a parallel universe. Her two-year-old daughter Laura has never existed, and she eventually gives birth to two new children, Peder and Elina. In the other universe, Laura grows up with no memory of Anna, and now an adult, she lives with her musician partner, Karl Peter, and is pregnant with her first child. Both women study literature, and they both sign up to take part in the same group piano concert of Satie’s ‘Vexations.’ Yet while they’re sure something is missing from their lives, they fail to recall their bond. Øyehaug employs a metafictional narrator who frequently addresses the reader, noting that she’s writing while riding a bus and feeling dislocated, or reflecting on a Youtube video about astrophysics. Some of the mundane details of Anna’s, Laura’s, and the narrator’s lives slow the story, but the ruminations on existence and purpose consistently captivate. Ultimately, Øyehaug steers this to a wholly satisfying conclusion.”
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about To Paradise: “Yanagihara’s ambitious if unwieldy latest (after National Book Award finalist A Little Life) spins a set of three stories in New York City’s Washington Square over 200 years. David Bingham lives in the utopian ‘Free States’ of 1893. He rejects a proposed arranged marriage with another wealthy, older man, opting to pursue a love match with a music teacher who lives a hardscrabble life. At a dinner party in 1993, the host’s oldest friend is dying from AIDS as the other guests consider the meaning of one’s legacy. One of them, also named David Bingham (this one a native Hawaiian paralegal), is cautiously optimistic about his relationship with his wealthy older boyfriend, Charles Griffith. A century later, a woman named Charlie Griffith deals with dystopian conditions such as a series of pandemics and a totalitarian society in which the press and homosexual relationships have been outlawed, and struggles to build a meaningful relationship with her husband. The stories are united by the characters’ desire for love as their freedom is diminished. The prose in the first section effectively conjures the style of Henry James, but there’s too much exposition and not enough character development in the final section, where the author spends too much time building out the future world. There’s a great deal of passion, but on the whole it’s a mixed bag.”

Sarah Manguso Takes a Novel Approach

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Sarah Manguso’s books reflect an ongoing processing of thoughts, themes, and experiences. Ongoingness, published in 2015 and composed of aphoristic short paragraphs (many just a sentence long), describes her habit of keeping diaries. Most of her works, she says, don’t look like books until she’s nearly done with them.
Manguso began with poetry (2002’s The Captain Lands in Paradise, 2006’s Siste Viator), then collaborated with Dave Eggers and Deb Olin Unferth on a volume of short stories, 2007’s One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box. Her work earned her the Rome Prize that year, and in 2008 she published The Two Kinds of Decay, a well-received memoir about dealing with a rare autoimmune sickness, which established her fragmented prose style.

With 2012’s The Guardians, a fractured work of nonfiction, she explored the circumstances around her friend’s suicide. After that, she received support from a Guggenheim fellowship and continued teaching at various universities, having worked as an adjunct at Columbia, among other schools.
Manguso, 47, is seated in her kitchen in Los Angeles, where she moved several years ago from Brooklyn. She is wearing her hair straight in a medium bob with rectangular framed glasses. A gray tabby cat is underfoot, and she’s surrounded by a series of original Jenny Holzer prints from the artist’s Truisms series.
She acquired the prints in the late 1990s, when she was living in a small apartment in Brooklyn, where they took up all the wall space. Now, in her bright, airy house, they’ve got more room to breathe. “They’ve just been around me ever since,” she says. “I think of them as this mantle of language that keeps me well and safe.”

The Truisms are just there in the background, Manguso explains; she doesn’t think about what they say. It may not be the content that’s important, but the pithy form of Holzer’s messages—which consist of all-caps black text on white backgrounds and which were ubiquitous on New York City streets in the 1970s and ’80s—provides an obvious clue to the formation of Manguso’s style. Holzer: “Decadence Can Be An End In Itself.” Manguso, from 2018’s micro-essay collection 300 Arguments: “Sometimes ill-informed choices have good outcomes.”
Manguso’s latest, Very Cold People (Hogarth, Feb. 2022), follows a girl named Ruth as she comes of age in 1980s Massachusetts, in a town built in the colonial era. The project didn’t start as fiction. For decades, she had wanted to write her “Boston book,” she says, about the whiteness, class differences, and intergenerational trauma that were prevalent in the 400-year-old town she grew up in outside of Boston.
She imagined the book would be nonfiction, but, she says, “it turned out that memoir wasn’t a large enough form to contain everything.” Ruth is not Manguso, and though Ruth is deeply perceptive about her family members, friends, and neighbors, there’s no indication that she will become a writer. Rather than tell her own story, Manguso uses Ruth to convey a painful series of stories about how she, her family, and her friends are impacted by the town in various ways.
“So,” Manguso says, “despite the fact that I’ve spent my entire career saying I would never write a novel, that I had no interest in writing a novel, I realized this was the form I needed.”
PJ Mark, Manguso’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit, says his client “had already mastered precision in her nonfiction,” so, in a way, “fiction seemed inevitable.” Mark thinks the form gives her “a freedom to explore characters and plot with ferocity.”
Manguso left Massachusetts in her early 20s, and it took just as many years of being away for her to write Very Cold People. Though she spent over a decade in Brooklyn, she credits her contrasting new surroundings in Southern California with giving her the perspective she needed.
She calls her hometown an “active palimpsest—a lot messier and more scribbly and complex than L.A.,” noting that people in the Northeast are much more class conscious than those in California. In Massachusetts in particular, Manguso says, class seems a more present force. Social classes that had been determined in the 17th century remained at the forefront of peoples’ minds in the 1980s, when she was growing up. “That was something really important that I wanted to write about,” she says.
The societal forces operating in Very Cold People’s fictional town of Waitsfield are determined by heritage, with founding families whose members trace their roots to the Mayflower voyage at the top of the pecking order, even if they don’t have any money. Living in houses that have passed through their families for hundreds of years, they enjoy a status that can’t be bought, which keeps Ruth and her Italian father and Jewish mother feeling hopelessly lesser than.
When Ruth is a young girl, her mother develops a habit of clipping photos of strangers in the newspaper’s wedding notices and sticking them on the fridge. Her anxiety about class status prompts her to look down on some relatives and ingratiate herself with others. When Ruth is a teenager, her family moves into a new house in a tonier part of town where a woman from the colonial Cabot family once lived. However, because the house was built in the early 20th century, Ruth’s parents don’t achieve the social status the move presumably should have brought.
Meanwhile, Ruth waits until she’s old enough to get out. The name of the town, Waitsfield, is a clear metaphor for the condition she’s frequently subjected to. “A kid in the ’80s would have the skill of being able to wait with nothing to do, nothing to read, no friend to text,” Manguso says, remembering her own experience as a Gen-X kid. As a writer in the age of screens, she developed an “opposite skill, which is to keep the information away.”
Among the subjects of Ruth’s interest is the pervasive instances of sexual assault that surround her. One friend’s bedroom is frequented by the girl’s father. Another friend’s brother tickles her after her showers until her towel falls off. Another friend sleeps with a tennis coach. After Ruth’s gym teacher gropes her, she reflects, “I understood that it was wrong, but, after my first thought, which was that maybe this is normal, I found it sweet. I knew that, on some level, he liked me.”
By the end of the narrative, serious mental health episodes and tragic circumstances befall most of the girls. “Everything is based on the fact that all the girls in Waitsfield are going to be touched, molested, raped, abused, neglected, and just, you know, in many cases destroyed,” Manguso says.
The style of Very Cold People is subtle, marked by the accrual of short essayistic paragraphs separated by empty lines. The dark material is alternately conveyed with understatement and frank facts, but there’s always a sense that Manguso gives great care to Ruth, and to the reader, by bringing clarity and honesty to her protagonist’s observations. It’s bold and distinctive, like her past work, which hasn’t always been appreciated by gatekeepers. (When Ongoingness was out for submission, one editor suggested she forego publishers and, instead, publish it on a mom blog.)
Manguso says she’s lucky to have people on her side who help turn her work into a “marketable product.”
Mark notes that Manguso’s writing “commands—demands—attention.” He thinks she “always knows exactly the kind of book she wants to construct and why, and what she wants to say.”
Manguso says her success has freed her from “having to do a lot of other jobs,” aside from her current job teaching at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her smile widens and a line from Holzer can be glimpsed in the frame behind her head: “You don’t know what’s what until you support yourself.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Letter from the Collapse

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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of monsters are born.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930)

“Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go… The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”—Bo Burnham, Inside (2021)

In our corner of Northern Virginia, we were fortunate to never see the dead birds. Yet throughout the Mid-Atlantic—a cardinal on the pebbly beaches of Delmarva or a sparrow on the Jersey Shore, a finch like an omen in front of Independence Hall or a bluebird as a threat on the steps of the Capitol—the creatures started to die by the thousands. With little sense of this new plague, experts recommended the removal of bird feeders. And so I dutifully took down the tall model where I examined mourning doves over morning coffee and listened to woodpeckers on the birches, watched the hawks who flew above, and the sleek, elegant crows speaking in their own impenetrable tongue. The Allegheny Front, an environmental show on Pittsburgh’s WYEP, posted a photograph of an afflicted robin found in Erie, Penn. Laid out in a cardboard box decorated with spruce leaves, it looked like the otherwise pristine creature was sleeping, the only sign of its illness the thick crust on her sealed eyes. An affect not unlike the wisps of cotton that escape from underneath the lids of taxidermied birds. “The phenomenon has since spread through 10 states,” writes Andy Kubis at The Allegheny Front, “including West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, and in 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties.” Observers noted neurological symptoms, birds unable to fly or crashing into the ground; the dead animals, found framed by the brittle, yellow grass of sweltering June, with the characteristic discharge from eyes and beaks.

Ornithologists proffered hypotheses, noting that the avian pandemic accompanied the cicada Brood X. Those creatures we couldn’t avoid seeing, skeletal eldritch horrors bursting from the earth and their own bodies: red-eyed grotesqueries whose incessant droning permeated the humid air for weeks, who dropped from branches and through car windows like something out of a horror film. Between the dead birds and the cicadas, the summer had a Pharaonic glean, intimations of Exodus. A surreal poetry to these chthonic beings, the existential crisis of their lives spent hibernating for 16 years, only to emerge and then die. “Happy the Cicadas live,” wrote Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Death, though quoting Xenarchus. Our dog took to biting them in half and pushing them between the slots of our deck’s wooden planks, casting them back to hell. By the time they disappeared, without even bothering to say goodbye, I’ll confess that we missed them. But in their brittle, green bodies there was an answer to the bird pandemic, for it seemed that people had attempted to poison the cicadas, and after ingesting their pesticide-corrupted corpses the birds were killed instead. The “sense of cosmic significance is mostly unique to the human relationship with birds,” writes Boria Sax in Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, but not apparently to those squeaked out by some bugs, the same people who undoubtedly water their lawn during a drought, or who buy the last 10 chickens during the coming food shortages.  Trillions of cicadas emerged; to avoid them was an impossibility, but you only had to bear them for a short while, and yet people unable to reason that there is no eliminating something of that magnitude and too impatient to wait decided that they knew better. Is there a more perfect encapsulation of the American mindset in these dwindling days?

I’d be amazed if you couldn’t sense it—the coming end of things. A woman sits by her grandmother in a St. Louis, Miss., ICU, the older woman about to be intubated because Covid has destroyed her lungs, but until a day before she insisted that the disease wasn’t real. In Kenosha, Wisc., a young man discovers that even after murdering two men a jury will say that homicide is justified, as long as it’s against those whose politics the judge doesn’t like. Similar young men take note. Somebody’s estranged father drives to Dallas, where he waits outside of Deeley Plaza alongside hundreds of others, expecting the emergence of JFK Jr. whom he believes is coming to crown the man who lost the last presidential election. Somewhere in a Menlo Park recording studio, a dead eyed programmer with a haircut that he thinks makes him look like Caesar Augustus stares unblinkingly into a camera and announces that his Internet services will be subsumed under one meta-platform, trying to convince an exhausted, anxious, and depressed public of the piquant joys of virtual sunshine and virtual wind. At an Atlanta supermarket, a cashier who made minimum wage, politely asks a customer to wear a mask per the store’s policy; the customer leaves and returns with a gun, shooting her. She later dies. The rural mail carrier who has driven down the winding, unnamed roads of a northwestern Oregon hamlet for over three decades notes to herself how the explosion of annoying insects on her windshield seemed entirely absent this summer. A trucker who lives in Ohio blows his airline break, and when trying to get a replacement finds that it’s on backorder indefinitely. Walking across Boston Common this October, and two men holding hands and heading toward the duck boats realize that they’re both sweating under their matching pea coats. It’s 83 degrees. On the first day of July, my family huddles in our basement; a tornado has formed in the District of Columbia, and is rapidly moving across the National Mall.     

Everyone’s favorite Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek snottily gurgled it a decade ago, writing in Living in the End Times that the “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point,” and identifying four horseman in the form of environmental collapse, biogenetics, systemic contradictions, and “explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.” Not everyone claims to see the gathering storm however, especially those who are most responsible, though if they do, they’re silent about it in their New Zealand compounds. Degenerated, chipper, faux-optimism is a grift during our epoch of dusk; Jeff Bezos expecting us to clap when he shoots Captain Kirk into space; Elon Musk mouth-breathing about cryptocurrency and terraforming the rusty soil of Mars, as if we haven’t already heated one planet too much; Peter Thiel promising us that there will be a digital heaven where all of the billionaires can download their consciousness unshackled from the material world, and we can serve alongside them as Egyptian slaves entombed with their masters, clicking on PayPal,and Amazon and Facebook for a silicon eternity. Such promises are the opposite of hope, they’re only grinning assurances of dystopia instead of apocalypse. Besides, such things are chimerical; ask not for whom the Antarctic ice shelf collapses, or for whom the ocean acidifies, or for whom the temperature rises at 3 degrees Celsius, it does all these things for Bezos, Musk, and Thiel as much as you and me. Ours is the age of Covid and QAnon, supply chain breakdown and surveillance capitalism, food shortages and armed militias, climate change and bio-collapse. We’re merely in a milquetoast interregnum as we wait for monsters to be born in a year, in three. If poets and prophets have traditionally been our Cassandras, then on some level everybody knows that a rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem right now, though despite that one sees perilously little grace, kindness, and empathy. Even the insanity of those who believe whatever conspiracy theory happens to give them scant meaning intuit that the insects are disappearing, the waters are rising, and the absence of 700,000 lives means that something is askance.

“The world sinks into ruin,” wrote St. Jerome in 413, some six decades and change before the final sack of Rome that marks the Western empire’s fall. “The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire,” he noted of the Visigoth Alaric’s siege. Hard not to imagine that some didn’t realize that the end was coming, shortages of pungent garrum made in Mauretania, a scarcity of Cappadocian lettuce and Pontic fish. In 410, the Emperor Honorius recalled all legions from Britannia to defend the eternal city from the Visigoths who would soon traipse through its burning streets. Envision that horde, ascending the marble steps of the Senate, in furs and horned helmets, brandishing their red standard and crowding through the halls of that once august and solemn space. Can you even countenance it? The Romanized Celts requested from the emperor the return of defensive legions, and in his rescript Honorius “wrote letters to the cities in Britain urging them to be on their [own] guard.” The United States Postal Service will be late in delivering packages, because of supply chain shortages there is no chicken available at the Stop & Shop, the power grid will be down this winter in Texas. You’re on your own. As civil society crumbled, Romans turned to all variety of superstitions and occultisms, cults and conspiracies. As Edward Gibbon noted in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the “zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.” Stop the steal! Lock her up! Make America GREAT again! Living on a heating planet filled with dying animals and governed by either the inept or the insane, and it’s hard not to feel a bit strange going to work, buying groceries, saving your salary, as if everything were normal. “We live as though we are going to die tomorrow,” wrote Jerome, “yet we build as though we are going to live always,” or, as David Byrne sang, “Why stay in college? Why go to night school?… I ain’t got time for that now.”

Whenever comparisons are made between Rome and America, there’s always somebody who denounces such language as not just histrionic, but clichéd. The latter is certainly fair; ever since the founders obsessed over republican virtue we’ve imagined that the Potomac is the Tiber, and we’ve parsed (arch-royalist) Gibbon’s history for clues about our falling. Copies of Plutarch and Livy were brought to the Continental Congress, and the most popular colonial American play was a turgid script by Joseph Addison about Cato (it would be performed at Valley Forge). The young Republic declared itself to be a “Novus ordo seclorum,” a “New Order of the Ages,” in conspicuous Latin borrowed from Virgil’’s Aeneid, while the Federalist Papers were written under pen-names like Caesar, Brutus, and Publius and John Adams attributed his worldview to Cicero. Roman symbolism was replete, as in the fasces that would adorn the Senate located on Capitol Hill. When George Washington deigned not to hold a third term, he was compared to the noble dictator Cincinnatus who dropped his sword for a plow, which was enough virtue that by 1840, four decades after the first president’s death, and the sculptor Horatio Greenough rendered the general as a muscular Jupiter in a toga. By the final year of the Civil War, and the first president was depicted underneath the Capitol dome as a purple robed Roman god in “The Apotheosis of Washington”. The Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, all of it neo-classical ridiculousness. Gore Vidal recalled in United States Essays: 1952-1992 that his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, remarked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the bloated buildings of Washington that “At least they will make wonderful ruins.”  

Vidal, that classical patrician, wrote that “Empires are dangerous possessions… Since I recall pre-imperial Washington, I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruption of the simpler, saner city of my youth.” Hardly a postbellum pose, for critics have feared that the Republic would slide into an Empire before the Constitution’s ink was dry. Naturally there is also fear of collapse, and long has there has been foreboding about the decline and fall of the American Empire. On the top floor of the austere New-York Historical Society, there is a pentad of paintings by the unjustly forgotten landscape artist Thomas Cole, a series known as “The Course of Empire.” Rendered between 1833 and 1836, Cole was disturbed by both the vulgarity of Jacksonian Democracy and the brutality of Manifest Destiny. A member of the Hudson Valley School who reveled in the sheer grandiosity of the nation’s natural spaces, Cole imagines in “The Course of Empire” a fantastical country from its primitive state of nature, through an idealized agrarian state, into a decadent imperium, an apocalyptic collapse, and finally desolation. Overlooking each painting is the same mountain peak, roughly the shape of Gibraltar’s rock, the one consistency as Cole’s civilization follows the course of its evolution, a reminder that nature was here before, and despite how we may degrade it, will still be here afterwards. The penultimate landscape, entitled simply “Destruction,” presents the denouement of this fantastic city, a skyline of columned, porticoed, and domed classical buildings in flames, bellowing smoke partially obscuring that reliable mountain; vandals flooding the streets, murdering and raping the city’s citizens, pushing them into the mighty river that bisects it. A triumphant monumental statue is now decapitated. With its wide marble buildings and its memorials, Cole’s city resembles nothing so much as Washington D.C., though when he lived the capital was more provincial backwater than the neoclassical stage set it would become. Cole made a note that “the decline of nations is generally more rapid than their rise,” concluding that “Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.”

Enthusiasm for such parallels, along with attendant breathless warnings (including the ones that I’m making) have hardly abated. In just the past decade, there have been articles entitled “8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire” by Steven Strauss in 2012 at Salon, Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry’s “America now looks like Rome before the fall of the Republic” from 2016 in The Week,  Tim Elliot’s 2020 piece at Politico entitled “America is Eerily Retracing Rome’s Steps to a Fall. Will It Turn Around Before It’s Too Late?,” Vox’s essay from that same year “What America Can Learn from the Fall of the Roman Republic” by Sean Illing, and Cullen Murphy’’s succinct “No, Really, are we Rome?” from The Atlantic of this year. Just to dissuade those who parse such things, Tom Holland wrote “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is” for The New York Review of Books in 2019. With an article that reprints Cole’s painting underneath the headline, a pull-quote reads “There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall.” Well, with all due respect, the second law of thermodynamics mandates that everything has to fall apart, but Holland’s point is taken that in a more immediate sense, comparisons of America to Rome tell us little about the latter and everything about the former. But for those who see the comparison as tortured beyond all reasonableness, the truth can be bluntly stated as follows: our current problems aren’t like the fall of Rome because they’re far, far worse. Would it only be that we faced the collapse of the U.S. government, or authoritarianism, or even civil war, because the rising average temperature per year, the PH of the oceans, and the biodome’s decreasing diversity are things unheard of on the Earth since the Permian-Triassic extinction of more than 250 million years ago, when 70 percent of life on land perished and almost 95 percent in the seas did.     

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Wallace-Wells describes the five previous mass extinctions that shaped evolution, explaining that four of these “involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.” Before the Permian-Triassic extinction, the land was occupied by the fin-reptile dimetrodon and the hog-shaped Lystrosaurus, the abundant atmospheric oxygen supported massive dragonflies and centipedes, and the oceans were plentiful with mollusks and trilobites. For some still unexplained reason the amount of carbon dioxide rapidly increased, which in turn triggered the release of methane, so that this feedback loop “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead,” as Wallace-Wells writes. “We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster,” he explains. If we didn’t know what caused that warming 250 million years ago, we know what’s doing it now—us. Should the worst case scenario of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change come to pass, then in the coming century the exponential increase in warming will result in an ice-free arctic, obliteration of the coastal cities where two-thirds of humans live (no more Venice and Amsterdam, New York and Miami), the mass destruction of farm land, continual massive wildfires for which we will look back fondly on the summer of 2021, never-ending hurricanes and tropical storms, heat waves, droughts, desertification, new pandemics, and at worse the acidification of the ocean and the resultant perishing of most things that live beneath the waves. Short of a social or political revolution to reorient the world away from the cannibalistic capitalism which has brought us to this moment, we’ll read Gibbon as halcyon (assuming anyone is around to read).

This summer I threw a little digital life buoy out into the whirlpool of Twitter, another one of those horseman of dystopia, and asked others what it felt like to be living during what could be the apocalypse. Mostly I discovered that my anxiety is common, but one gentleman reminded me that there were Medieval millenarians and Great Awakening Millerites awaiting their messiahs who never came, and that they were all mistaken. That is, if you’ll forgive me, exceedingly stupid. There have been times when I was sure that I was going to die—the shaky prop plane flying low to the ground between Philly and the Lehigh Valley and the erratic driver going 20 miles over the speed limit who almost side-swiped me on a stretch of I-95 in Massachusetts—but just because I survived shouldn’t lead me to conclude that I’m immortal. Armageddon isn’t any different. My critic, though, seems to be in the minority—most people have that sense of foreboding, picking up whatever cries are coming from the Earth that the summers feel hotter, the animals scarcer, the sky sometimes glazed an ungodly glow from the redness of western fires. “The piers are pummeled by the waves;/In a lonely field the fain/Lashes an abandoned train,” wrote W.H. Auden in his 1953 poem “The Fall of Rome,” perhaps about his own justified fears regarding nuclear conflagration. I imagine the poet placing his wrinkled, droopy, hang-dog face to the ground and picking up on those frequencies that are today a cacophony, the “Private rites of magic” that now mark the fascists of one of our only two parties, how “an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK” reminding me of the striking heroes who are leaving the degrading and barely remunerated labor of late capitalism, how the “Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss” in a warm arctic, and my beloved “Little birds with scarlet legs… Eye each flu-infected city.”

From the Greek, “apocalypse” means to “uncover” hidden knowledge, so for those of us anticipating what the future holds, it’s been the apocalypse for a while. What are you to do with this knowledge? Our politics operate on inertia and project onto individuals a responsibility that was always vested in the powerful themselves. Perhaps you should ditch your car, turn off your air conditioning, recycle, give up meat, and begin composting, but do that because those thing are good for your soul, not because you’re under any illusions that “Not The End of the World” is a consumer choice. Be neither a defeatist nor certainly an accelerationist, however, for avoiding the boiling of the oceans and the burning of the air must be what we put our shoulder to the door for. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Waiting for transformation like it’s the messiah isn’t preferable to collectively willing that transformation, but I know not what that will look like because I’m not a professional revolutionary. The signs that are appearing in the windows of McDonald’s and Subway, Starbucks and Chipotle, from workers tired of being mistreated and underpaid is the largest labor rebellion in a generation, the totally organic Great Resignation spoken of everywhere and reported on nowhere—it gives me hope. It gives me hope because that dark faith, the capitalism that has spoiled the planet, isn’t inviolate; a confirmation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s promise that “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings.” A corollary is the welcome mocking of fools like Bezos, Musk, and Thiel. Just the widespread awareness of our situation is promising, not because I valorize despair, but maybe if there are a billion little apocalypses it will somehow stave off the big Apocalypse. The whole of the law is treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t cross a picket line, the rest is all theory. Now, go, and study.   

Finally, I’m only a writer, and the most recondite type, an essayist. Could there by any role for something so insular at the end of the world? In The Guardian, novelist Ben Okri recommends “creative existentialism,” which he claims is the “creativity at the end of time.” He argues that every line we enjamb, every phrase we turn, every narrative we further “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.” I understand climate change as doing something similar to what Dr. Johnson said the hangman’s noose did for focusing the mind. It’s not words that I’m worried about wasting, but experiences. What’s needed is an aesthetic imperative that we somehow live in each moment as if it’s eternal and also as if it’s our last. Our ethical imperative is similar: to do everything as if it might save the world, even if it’s unlikely that it will. Tending one’s own garden need not be selfish, though if everyone does so, well, that’s something then, right? I’m counting the liturgy of small blessings, noting the cold breeze on a December morning, the crunch of brown and red and orange leaves under foot, the sound of rain hitting my office window, the laughter of my son and the chirping of those birds at the feeder who delight him. I’ve no strategy save for love. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a lyric that was introduced to me by a Nick Ripatrazone essay. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Harjo enumerates all of the quiet domestic beauties of life, how the “gifts of earth are brought and prepared” here, and “children are given instructions on what it means to be human” while sitting at this table, where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and/remorse. We give thanks./Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and/crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” That, finally, is the only ethic I know of as the oceans flood and the fires burn, to be aware of our existence at the kitchen table. When the cicadas come back in 17 years, I wonder what the world will be like for them? I hope that there will be bird song.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia