Another Person’s Words: Poetry Is Always the Speaker

Blessedly, we are speakers of languages not of our own invention, and as such none of us are cursed in only a private tongue. Words are our common property; it would be a brave iconoclast to write entirely in some Adamic dialect of her own invention, her dictionary locked away (though from the Voynich Manuscript to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, some have tried). Almost every word you or I speak was first uttered by somebody else – the key is entirely in the rearrangement. Sublime to remember that every possible poem, every potential play, ever single novel that could ever be written is hidden within the Oxford English Dictionary. The answer to every single question too, for that matter. The French philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot enthuse in their 1660 Port-Royal Grammar that language is a “marvelous invention of composing out of 25 or 30 sounds that infinite variety of expressions which, whilst having in themselves no likeness to what is in our mind, allow us to… [make known] all the various stirrings of our soul.” Dictionaries are oracles. It’s simply an issue of putting those words in the correct order. Language is often spoken of in terms of inheritance, where regardless of our own origins speakers of English are the descendants of Walt Whitman’s languid ecstasies, Emily Dickinson’s psalmic utterances, the stately plain style of the King James bible, the witty innovations of William Shakespeare, and the earthy vulgarities of Geoffrey Chaucer; not to forget the creative infusions of foreign tongues, from Norman French and Latin, to Ibo, Algonquin, Yiddish, Spanish, and Punjabi, among others. Linguist John McWhorter puts it succinctly in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, writing that “We speak a miscegenated grammar.”

There is a glory to this, our words indicating people and places different from ourselves, our diction an echo of a potter in a Bronze Age East Anglian village, a canting rogue in London during the golden era of Jacobean Theater, or a Five Points Bowery Boy in antebellum New York. Nicholas Oster, with an eye towards its diversity of influence, its spread, and its seeming omnipresence, writes in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World that “English deserves a special position among world languages” as it is a “language with a remarkably varied history.” Such history perhaps gives the tongue a universal quality, making it a common inheritance of humanity. True with any language, but when you speak it would be a fallacy to assume that your phrases, your idioms, your sentences, especially your words are your own. They’ve passed down to you. Metaphors of inheritance can either be financial or genetic; the former has it that our lexicon is some treasure collectively willed to us, the later posits that in the DNA of language, our nouns are adenine, verbs are as if cytosine, adjectives like guanine, and adverbs are thymine. Either sense of inheritance has its uses as a metaphor, and yet they’re both lacking to me in some fundamental way – too crassly materialist, too eugenic. The proper metaphor isn’t inheritance, but consciousness. I hold that a language is as if a living thing, or to be more specific, as if a thinking thing. Maybe this isn’t a metaphor at all, perhapswe’re simply conduits for the thoughts of something bigger than ourselves, the contemplations of the language which we speak.

Philosopher George Steiner, forever underrated, writes in his immaculate After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation that “Language is the highest and everywhere the foremost of those assents which we human beings can never articulate solely out of our own means.” We’re neurons in the mind of language, and our communications are individual synapses in that massive brain that’s spread across the Earth’s eight billion inhabitants, and back generations innumerable. When that mind becomes self-aware of itself, when language knows that it’s language, we call those particular thoughts poetry. Argentinean critic (and confidant of Jorge Luis Borges) Alberto Manguel writes in A Reader on Reading that poetry is “proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay;” it is that which demonstrates the eerie significance of language itself. Poetry is when language consciously thinks.

More than rhyme and meter, or any other formal aspect, what defines poetry is its self-awareness. Poetry is the language which knows that it’s language, and that there is something strange about being such. Certainly, part of the purpose of all the rhetorical accoutrement which we associate with verse, from rhythm to rhyme scheme, exists to make the artifice of language explicit. Guy Deutscher writes in The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention that the “wheels of language run so smoothly” that we rarely bother to “stop and think about all the resourcefulness that must have gone into making it tick.” Language is pragmatic, most communication doesn’t need to self-reflect on, well, how weird the very idea of language is. How strange it is that we can construct entire realities from variations in the breath that comes out of our mouths, or the manipulation of ink stains on dead trees (or of liquid crystals on a screen). “Language conceals its art,” Deutscher writes, and he’s correct. When language decides to stop concealing, that’s when we call it poetry.

Verse accomplishes that unveiling in several different ways, chief among them the use of the rhetorical and prosodic tricks, from alliteration to Terza rima, which we associate with poetry. One of the most elemental and beautiful aspects of language which poetry draws attention towards are the axioms implied earlier in this essay – that the phrases and words we speak are never our own – and that truth is found not in the invention, but in the rearrangement. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that we receive “the word from another’s voice and filled with that other voice.” Our language is not our own, nor is our literature. We communicate in a tongue not of our own creation; we don’t have conversations, we are the conversation. Bakhtin reasons that our “own thought finds the world already inhabited.” Just as the organization of words into enjambed lines and those lines into stanzas demonstrates the beautiful unnaturalness of language, so to do allusion, bricolage, and what theorists call intertextuality make clear to us that we’re not individual speakers of words, but that words are speakers of us. Steiner writes in Grammars of Creation that “the poet says: ‘I never invent.’” This is true, the poet never invents, none of us do. We only rearrange – and that is beautiful.

True of all language, but few poetic forms are as honest about this as a forgotten Latin genre from late antiquity known as the cento. Rather than inheritance and consciousness, the originators of the cento preferred the metaphor of textiles. For them, all of poetry is like a massive patchwork garment, squares of fabric borrowed from disparate places and sewn together to create a new whole. Such a metaphor is an apt explanation of what exactly a cento is – a novel poem that is assembled entirely from rearranged lines written by other poets. Centos were written perhaps as early as the first-century, but the fourth-century Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius was the first to theorize about their significance and to give rules for their composition. In the prologue to Cento Nuptialias, where he composed a poem about marital consummation from fragments of Virgil derived from The Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, Ausonius explained that he has “but out of a variety of passages and different meanings,” created something new which is “like a puzzle.”

The editors of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory explain that while forgotten today, the cento was “common in later antiquity.” Anthologizer and poet David Lehman writes in The American Scholar that “Historically, the intent was often homage, but it could and can be lampoon,” with critic Edward Hirsch writing in A Poet’s Glossary that they “may have begun as school exercises.” Though it’s true that they were written for educational reasons, to honor or mock other poets, or as showy performance of lyrical erudition (the author exhibiting their intimacy with Homer and Virgil), none of these explanations does service to the cento’s significance. To return to my admittedly inchoate axioms of earlier, one function of poetry is to plunge “us into a network of textual relations,” as the theorist Graham Allen writes in Intertextuality. Language is not the provenance of any of us, but rather a common treasury; with its other purpose being what Steiner describes as the “rec-compositions of reality, of articulate dreams, which are known to us as myths, as poetry, as metaphysical conjecture.” That’s to say that the cento remixes poetry, it recombines reality, so as to illuminate some fundamental truth hitherto hidden. Steiner claims that a “language contains within itself the boundless potential of discovery,” and the cento is a reminder that fertile are the recombination’s of poetry that have existed before, that literature is a rich, many-varied compost from which beautiful new specimens can grow towards the sun.

Among authors of centos, this is particularly true of the fourth-century Roman poet Faltonia Betitia Proba. Hirsch explains that one of the purposes of the cento, beyond the pedagogical or the parodic, was to “create Christian narratives out of pagan text,” as was the case with Proba’s Cento virgilianus, the first major Christian epic by a woman poet. Allen explains that “Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature;” what Proba’s cento did was a more literal expression of that fundamental fact. The classical past posed a difficulty for proud Roman Christians, for how were the faithful to grapple with the paganism of Plato, the Sibyls, and Virgil? One solution was typological, that is the assumption that if Christianity was true, and yet pagan poets like Virgil still spoke the truth, that such must be encoded within his verse itself, part of the process of Interpretatio Christiana whereby pagan culture was reinterpreted along Christian lines.

Daughter of Rome that she was, Proba would not abandon Virgil, but Christian convert that she also was, it became her task to internalize that which she loved about her forerunner and to repurpose him, to place old wine into new skins. Steiner writes that an aspect of authorship is that the “poet’s consciousness strives to achieve perfect union with that of the predecessor,” and though those lyrics are “historically autonomous,” as reimagined by the younger poet they are “reborn from within.” This is perhaps true of how all influence works, but the cento literalizes that process in the clearest manner. And so Proba’s solution was to rearrange, remix, and recombine the poetry of Virgil so that the Christianity could emerge, like a sculptor chipping away all of the excess marble in a slab to reveal the statue hidden within.

Inverting the traditional pagan invocation of the muse, Proba begins her epic (the proem being the only original portion) with both conversion narrative and poetic exhortation, writing that she is “baptized, like the blest, in the Castalian font – / I, who in my thirst have drunk libations of the Light – / now being my song: be at my side, Lord, set my thoughts/straight, as I tell how Virgil sang the offices of Christ.” Thus, she imagines the prophetic Augustan poet of Roman Republicanism who died two decades before the Nazarene was born. Drawing from a tradition which claimed Virgil’s Eclogue predicted Christ’s birth, Proba rearranged 694 lines of the poet to retell stories from Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, the lack of Hebrew names in the Roman original forcing her to use general terms which appear in Virgil, like “son” and “mother,” when writing of Jesus and Mary. Proba’s paradoxically unoriginal originality (or is its original unoriginality?) made her popular in the fourth and fifth-centuries, the Cento virgilianus taught to catechists alongside Augustin, and often surpassing Confessions and City of God in popularity. Yet criticism of Proba’s aesthetic quality from figures like Jerome and Pope Gelasius I ensured a millennium-long eclipse of her poem, forgotten until its rediscovery with the Renaissance.

Rearranging the pastoral Eclogues, Proba envisions Genesis in another poet’s Latin words, writing that there is a “tree in full view with fruitful branches;/divine law forbids you to level with fire or iron,/by holy religious scruple it is never allowed to be disturbed./And whoever steals the holy fruit from this tree,/will pay the penalty of death deservedly;/no argument has changed my mind.” Something uncanny about the way that such a familiar myth is reimagined in the arrangement of a different myth; the way in which Proba is a redactor of Virgil’s words, shaping them (or pulling out from) this other, different, unintended narrative. Scholars have derided her poem as juvenilia since Jerome (jealously) castigated her talent by calling her “old chatterbox,” but to be able to organize, shift, and shape another poet’s corpus into orthodox scripture is an unassailable accomplishment. Writers of the Renaissance certainly thought so, for a millennium after Proba’s disparagement, a new generation of humanists resuscitated her.

Cento virgilianus was possibly the first work by a woman to be printed, in 1474; a century before that, and the father of Renaissance poetry Petrarch extolled her virtues in a letter to the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, and she was one of the subjects of Giovani Boccaccio’s 1374 On Famous Women, his 106 entry consideration of female genius from Eve to Joanna, the crusader Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily. Boccaccio explains that Proba collected lines of Virgil with such “great skill, aptly placing the entire lines, joining the fragments, observing the metrical rules, and preserving the dignity of the verses, that no one except an expert could detect the connections.” As a result of her genius, a reader might think that “Virgil had been a prophet as well as an apostle,” the cento suturing together the classic and the Hebraic, Athens and Jerusalem.

Ever the product of his time, Boccaccio could still only appreciate Proba’s accomplishment through the lens of his own misogyny, writing that the “distaff, the needle, and weaving would have been sufficient for her had she wanted to lead a sluggish life like the majority of women.” Boccaccio’s myopia prevented him from seeing that that was the precise nature of Proba’s genius – she was a weaver. The miniatures which illustrate a fifteenth-century edition of Boccaccio give truth to this, for despite the chauvinism of the text, Proba is depicted in gold-threaded red with white habit upon her head, a wand holding aloft a beautiful, blue expanding sphere studded with stars, a strangely scientifically accurate account of the universe as the poet sings song of Genesis in the tongue of Virgil. Whatever anonymous artist saw fit to depict Proba as a mage understood her well; for that matter they understood creation well, for perhaps God can generate ex nihilo, but artists must always gather their material from fragments shored against their ruin.

In our own era of allusion, reference, quotation, pastiche, parody, and sampling, you’d think that the cento would have new practitioners and new readers. Something of the disk jockeys Danger Mouse, Fatboy Slim, and Girl Talk in the idea of remixing a tremendous amount of independent lines into some synthesized newness; something oddly of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in the very form of the thing. But centos proper are actually fairly rare in contemporary verse, despite T.S. Eliot’s admission that “mature poets steal.” Perhaps with more charity, Allen argues that reading is a “process of moving between texts. Meaning because something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates.” But while theorists have an awareness of the ways in which allusion dominates the modernist and post-modernist sensibility – what theorists who use the word “text” too often call “intertextuality” – the cento remains as obscure as other abandoned poetic forms from the Anacreontic to the Zajal (look them up). Lehman argues that modern instances of the form are “based on the idea that in some sense all poems are collages made up of other people’s words; that the collage is a valid method of composition, and an eloquent one.”

Contemporary poets who’ve tried their hand include John Ashbery, who weaved together Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Byron, and Elliot; as well as Peter Gizzi who in “Ode: Salute to the New York School” made a cento from poets like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Ashbery. Lehman has tried his own hand at the form, to great success. In commemoration of his Oxford Book of American Poetry, he wrote a cento for The New York Times that’s a fabulous chimera whose anatomy is drawn from a diversity that is indicative of the sweep and complexity of four-centuries of verse, including among others Robert Frost, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Taylor, Jean Toomer, Anne Bradstreet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Robert Pinsky, Marianne Moore, and this being a stolidly American poem, our grandparents Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Lehman contributed an ingenious cento sonnet in The New Yorker assembled from various Romantic and modernist poets, his final stanza reading “And whom I love, I love indeed,/And all I loved, I loved alone,/Ignorant and wanton as the dawn,” the lines so beautifully and seamlessly flowing into one another that you’d never notice that they’re respectively from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Butler Yeats. Equally moving was a cento written by editors at the Academy of American Poets, which in its entirety reads:

In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man is King
Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree
Day after day, I become of less use to myself,
The hours after you are gone are so leaden.
Take this rather remarkable little poem on its own accord. Its ambiguity is remarkable, and the lyric is all the more powerful for it. To whom is the narrator speaking, who has been trusted and apparently violated that loyalty? Note how the implied narrative of the poem breaks after the dash that end-stops the third line. In the first part of the poem, we have declarations of betrayal, somebody is impugned as “Brute. Spy.” But from that betrayal, that “great pain,” there is some sort of transformation of feeling; neither acceptance nor forgiveness, but almost a tacit defeat, the “vulturous boredom.” The narrator psychologically, possibly physically, withers. They become less present to themselves, “of less use to myself.” And yet there is something to be said for the complexity of emotions we often have towards people, for though it seems that this poem expresses the heartbreak of betrayal, the absence of its subject is still that which affects the narrators so that the “hours… are so leaden.” Does the meaning of the poem change when I tell you that it was stitched together by those editors, drawn from a diversity of different poets in different countries living at different times? That the “true” authors are Charles Wright, Marie Ponsot, Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett?

Steiner claims that “There is, stricto sensu, no finished poem. The poem made available to us contains preliminary versions of itself. Drafts [and] cancelled versions.” I’d go further than Steiner even, and state that there is no individual poet. Just as all drafts are ultimately abandoned rather than completed, so is the task of completion ever deferred to subsequent generations. All poems, all writing, and all language for that matter, are related to something else written or said by someone else at some point in time, a great chain of being going back to the beginnings immemorial. We are, in the most profound sense, always finishing each other’s’ sentences. Far from something to despair at, this truth is something that binds us together in an untearable patchwork garment, where our lines and words have been loaned from somewhere else, given with the solemn promise that we must pay it forward. We’re all just lines in a conversation that began long ago, and thankfully shall never end. If you listen carefully, even if it requires a bit of decipherment or decoding, you’ll discover the answer to any query you may have. Since all literature is a conversation, all poems are centos. And all poems are prophecies whose meanings have yet to be interpreted.

Image credit: Unsplash/Alexandra.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Whitehead, Marais, Szalay, Klosterman, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Colson Whitehead, Bianca Marais, David Szalay, Chuck Klosterman 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 sign up to be a member today. And, get the best of The Millions delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up for our free newsletter.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Nickel Boys: “‘As it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it,’ Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) writes in the present-day prologue to this story, in which construction workers have dug up what appears to be a secret graveyard on the grounds of the juvenile reform school the Nickel Academy in Jackson County, Fla. Five decades prior, Elwood Curtis, a deeply principled, straight-A high school student from Tallahassee, Fla., who partakes in civil rights demonstrations against Jim Crow laws and was about to start taking classes at the local black college before being erroneously detained by police, has just arrived at Nickel. Elwood finds that, at odds with Nickel’s upstanding reputation in the community, the staff is callous and corrupt, and the boys—especially the black boys—suffer from near-constant physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Elwood befriends the cynical Turner, whose adolescent experiences of violence have made him deeply skeptical of the objectivity of justice. Elwood and Turner’s struggles to survive and maintain their personhood are interspersed with chapters from Elwood’s adult life, showing how the physical and emotional toll of his time at Nickel still affects him. Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.”

If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about If You Want to Make God Laugh: “Marais’s lovely sophomore novel (after Hum If You Don’t Know the Words) follows three women who connect in surprising ways in a newly postapartheid South Africa. Seventeen-year-old Zodwa, once a promising high school student, returns home pregnant and in disgrace to a squatter town outside Magaliesburg. After nearly 40 years of estrangement, sisters Ruth and Delilah reluctantly return to their family farm near Magaliesburg, each looking to find closure from past mistakes. Each woman has her personal struggles: Zodwa hides the details surrounding her pregnancy and cares for her tuberculosis-stricken mother; former stripper Ruth drinks herself through her third divorce; and Delilah refuses to disclose the mysterious circumstances surrounding her sudden return from a humanitarian mission in central Africa. All their lives become intertwined when Ruth and Delilah find an abandoned newborn on their doorstep. Set against the backdrop of the Mandela presidency, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, and the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, the story offers a look into the staggering emotional cost of secrecy, broken family bonds, racism, and sexual violence. Marais once again showcases her talent for pulling beauty from the pain of South African history with a strong story and wonderfully imperfect characters.”

Family of Origin by CJ Hauser

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Family of Origin: “Hauser (The From-Aways) impresses with her wistful contemporary tale of family bonds and misplaced pessimism. Estranged half-siblings 35-year-old Elsa—a discouraged second-grade teacher in Minnesota—and 29-year-old Nolan—a social media manager for the San Francisco Giants—travel to Leap’s Island, a private island off the Gulf Coast, to investigate the drowning death of their father, Ian Grey. Ian, once a respected biologist, had come to Leap’s Island to join the Reversalists, a small group of researchers who believe evolution is regressing to make each generation worse. The eccentric inhabitants jealously guard their research on the island’s unique duck species, hoping to be the first to prove the theory. Elsa is convinced Ian committed suicide, but Nolan hopes conversations with the researchers will prove her wrong. The pair fall into old patterns of sibling rivalry, and Elsa wrestles with her drastic reaction to learning what caused the family’s rupture 15 years before. Hauser intercuts the siblings’ investigation with flashbacks to their fractured earlier family life and the melancholic backstories explaining each of the Reversalists’ reason for coming to the island. This shimmering take on grief and family will enthrall fans of character-driven stories with its bevy of dashed dreams and cluttered emotions.”

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On the Clock: “In this spiritual sequel to Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2011 Nickel and Dimed, journalist Guendelsberger takes jobs at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse, an AT&T call center, and a McDonald’s franchise to investigate the sheer implausibility of living on minimum wage and the Kafkaesque features of service industry work. These include the Tylenol- and Advil-dispensing vending machines at the Amazon warehouse, a symbol of the excruciating pain that is an expected part of the job; bosses changing time sheets to deduct minutes employees spent in the bathroom; and screaming customers flinging condiment packets. Guendelsberger’s coworkers are charismatic and charming, and completely unaware that they deserve a lot better from their employers: one of her fellow employees suffers a panic attack that requires emergency services and another attempts dental surgery on herself. Interspersed throughout are references to early 20th-century moguls like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford (who pioneered the use of assembly lines to control workers’ pace, a predecessor to Amazon’s pace-tracking practices), giving historical background on how the plight of today’s overburdened working class came to be. Guendelsberger’s narration is vivid, humorous, and honest; she admits to the feelings of despair, panic, and shame that these jobs frequently inspire, allowing for a more complex and complete picture of the experience. This is a riveting window into minimum-wage work and the subsistence living it engenders.”

Turbulence by David Szalay 

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Turbulence: “In Szalay’s latest, after the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted All That Man Is, two air travelers’ lives briefly intersect in the opening chapter on a flight from London to Madrid. A diabetic English woman returning to her home in Madrid from London, where she was visiting her son, who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, faints in her seat during a bout of turbulence, and the Ghanaian businessman next to her finds help. This encounter stays with Cheikh, the businessman, as he arrives home in Dakar to news of a tragic car accident in his family. The book continues with a collection of 12 such fleeting encounters, each, relay-like, linked to the previous by a tangential point of intersection, and each driven and inspired by the liminality of air travel. A witness to the accident in Dakar lands in São Paulo, where he sleeps with a journalist who must catch a flight to Toronto the next morning to interview a writer. The writer flies to Seattle for her grandchild’s birth, where by chance she meets a woman from Hong Kong who is caught at a marital crossroads. Szalay is a pithy writer, capable of startling insights into the nature of loneliness and the human desire for companionship, though there is something thin and underdeveloped to the conceit of this novel. This is a somewhat disappointing effort from a talented writer.”

Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Raised in Captivity: “Klosterman (Chuck Klosterman X), in this irreverent collection of what he calls ‘fictional non-fiction’ stories, creates a multitude of clever scenarios, blasting off with the title story about a wild animal found in the bathroom of the first-class section of an airplane, and careering to the final tale about a hapless man spurred on by a nosy neighbor to continue working on a mysterious contraption in his backyard shed. In these 34 stories, most featuring a hilarious denouement, the author takes on racism, diets, cults, white privilege, and life with Trump as president. Standouts include ‘Execute Again,’ which features a philosophical football coach who teaches his team one play—characterized by the narrator as ‘learning how to foxtrot and moonwalk at the same time,’ the results of which are eye-opening; ‘Of Course It Is,’ which explores the banality of the afterlife; and ‘Pain is a Concept by Which We Measure Our God,’ in which husbands can have a procedure to take on the pain of their wives’ giving birth. No matter the topic, Klosterman’s gimlet eye and trenchant prose bedazzle.”

The Expectations by Alexander Tilney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Expectations: “Tilney’s rewarding debut concerns a freshman at a New Hampshire boarding school in the ’90s who finds that high school isn’t turning out the way he imagined it would. Fourteen-year-old Ben Weeks arrives at St. James thinking that everything will finally start to go right for him. The school has always been part of his family’s life: Ben’s father, Harry, helped renovate the squash courts, and Ben’s uncle Russell is on the board. Ben’s the best boys’ squash player in the country, but he quickly becomes disillusioned with it. His dreams of having a best-friend roommate are dashed when he’s paired with the sweet and awkward Ahmed Al-Khaled, a target of bullies. Ben also discovers that—due to a series of bad investments—Harry can’t afford to pay his tuition. Since pride and competition with Russell prevent Harry from agreeing to financial aid, Ben agrees to let Ahmed’s rich father pick up the tab. Ahmed starts hanging with a stoner crowd that accepts him, though Ben fears that Ahmed will be caught and kicked out. The author effectively touches on matters of class, societal pressures, and what it really means to be cool. Tilney’s memorable boarding school novel hits the mark.”

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview

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We seem to say this every six months or so, but what a year for books. The second half of 2019 brings new novels from Colson Whitehead, Ben Lerner, Jacqueline Woodson, and Margaret Atwood. It brings hotly anticipated first novels by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wayne Koestenbaum. It brings Zadie Smith’s very first short story collection. Riveting memoirs. Coming-of-age stories. With more than 100 titles, you’re going to have your hands full this fall. As always, please let us know what we missed in the comments, and look for additional titles in our monthly previews.

Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today. And, get the best of The Millions delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up for our free newsletter.
JULY
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Fresh off a Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to the subject of America’s racist history with this tale of a college-bound black man who runs afoul of the law in Jim Crow Florida and ends up in the hellish Nickel Academy, where boys are beaten and sexually abused by the staff. In an early review, Publishers Weekly calls The Nickel Boys “a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” (Michael)

The Need by Helen Phillips: This book had me “existential thriller about motherhood” but when I found out that the mother in the book is also a paleobotanist, I pre-ordered, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History staring at plant fossils. In case you need more convincing, it has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is on multiple summer reading lists, and is from the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Some Possible Solutions. Also, the cover is gorgeous. (Hannah)

A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar: In this modern-day Western, Tomar tells the story of a young woman’s search for her missing friend in the harsh desert landscape along the California-Nevada border. A gritty portrait of small-town life and the violence that plagues it, the novel formally experiments with time and narration. Publishers Weekly praises Tomar for “employing authorial sleight-of-hand…intentionally scrambl[ing] the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives.” (Matt)

Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon: Buckhanon’s latest novel, her fourth, takes the reader on a quest to find out why a woman in Harlem disappeared after walking to the roof of her brownstone one day. The missing woman’s sister, Autumn, sets out to solve the case, after learning the police aren’t likely to provide her with answers. Autumn’s life unravels as her grief becomes overwhelming, and she grows steadily more fixated on the plight of missing women. (Thom)

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks: In what Kirkus describes as “finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration,”  Horrocks tells the story of Erik Satie and his siblings, Conrad and Louise. Set in La Belle Époque Paris, The Vexations is a finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art. (Adam P.)

The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter: Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, is a “natural extension” of her wild and raucous collection of stories, Tongue Party, which Deb Olin Unferth selected as winner of (the now defunct) Caketrain’s chapbook competition. Told in fragments, The Book of X alternates between the story of the alienated and disfigured Cassie, born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, and her fantasies of an alternate life for herself. Scott McClanahan calls The Book of X “our new Revelation,” while Blake Butler compares Etter’s voice to Angela Carter’s, declaring, “there’s a new boss in the Meat Quarry.” (Anne)

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky: Emma Straub says Dermanky’s fourth novel is, “her best yet.” If you’ve read Bad Marie and The Red Car, you know the bar is high and that no writer balances on the sharp edge between comedy and tragedy quite like Dermansky. Very Nice weaves several stories together, a wealthy divorcée in Connecticut, her college-age daughter, a famous American novelist, and a poodle, to ask a timely question—how much bad behavior from a bad man can we take? Maria Semple says it best, “so sexy and reads so smooth.” (Claire)

Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by Wayne Koestenbaum
Poet, literary critic, and all-around cultural polymath Koestenbaum returns with this post-modern, Nabokovian take on creativity, sexuality, classical music, and the circus in his first novel. Drawing on his interests in camp, Queer theory, and the symphony hall, which he’s explored in critical works like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum gives us the evocatively named Theo Mangrove, a polyamorous pianist who fantasizes that the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei will accompany him on his comeback concert in a medieval, walled French city. Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like “After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;” an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (Ed)

They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez: Fulbright scholar Jimenez returns to her native New York in her first novel They Could Have Called Her Anything. A subway ride from Queens to the Upper East Side will see you take the F train while switching to the 6 or the Q, for an investment of about 45 minutes, but the actual distance between Maria Anis Rosario and her privileged friend Rocky’s life couldn’t be further apart. Jimenez’ debut explores the unexpected friendship between these girls at the elite private school both attend, a world where even though “certain girls at Bell Seminary were intimidated” by Maria, a connection would be made between her and Rocky across the chasms of race and class which define the city. (Ed)

Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch: The first novel from ffitch, the author of the 2014 short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and a longtime environmental activist living in Appalachia, Stay and Fight is both a social protest novel and the moving story of an unusual family. When Lily and Karen’s son is born, they know they’ll have to leave the women-only land trust where they’ve been living. Helen, who homesteads on 20 acres nearby, invites them to join her, and they settle into a new kind of domestic routine. But over the years the outside world edges nearer, threatening both the family and the Appalachian land that supports them. (Kaulie)

Costalegre by Courtney Maum: Maum’s third novel, her follow-up to I Am Having So Much Here Without You and Touch, is a pivot to historical fiction. Set in 1937, Costalegre is about heiress and art collector Leonora Calaway (modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), who bankrolls a group of Surrealist artists to flee Europe for Mexico. The book, narrated by Leonara’s 15-year-old daughter, has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; the latter of which called it “a fascinating, lively, and exquisitely crafted novel.” Samantha Hunt says that Maum’s latest is “as heady, delirious and heartbreaking as a young girl just beginning to fall in love with our world.” (Edan)

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: Most people probably know Lippman as a bestselling crime novelist, but I was recently introduced to her through Longreads, in her delightfully frank essay “Game of Crones” about being an old mother and staying true to her ambition to write a novel every year. Her latest novel is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows a housewife, Maddy Schwartz, who reinvents herself as a reporter after helping to solve a murder. Maddy becomes involved in another murder case when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of city park lake. (Hannah)

Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández: This debut memoir of a young girl’s journey from Guatemala to L.A. weaves together personal essay and bilingual poetry. Described by publisher Feminist Press as “harrowing, candid, complex,” and by Bridgett M. Davis as bringing us “the immigrant experience in a refreshingly new light,” this one promises to be both timely and aesthetically exciting in its hybridity. (Sonya)

Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon): With a cast of characters large enough to populate a mid-size village, Ulitksaya delivers an epic, Tolstoyan Russian novel that may just win her some Anglophone fans but surely will impress no one in the Kremlin. For those ready to invest the time (560 pages), her look at the clash of free will and determinism provides a solid enough critique of the tragic, untidy histories of Russia and Ukraine over the last half of the 20th century in a lithe translation by Polly Gannon. (Il’ja)

Turbulence by David Szalay: In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s latest book, 12 people take 12 flights around the world, touching each other’s lives in profound and unpredictable ways. Labeled as a novel but structured as a series of linked stories, Turbulence explores the interconnected nature of human relationships today. In Alex Preston’s review for The Guardian, he describes Szalay as an author “whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless.” (Jacqueline)

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele: A worthy addition to the realm of speculative fiction, this debut novel “imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.” More than just standard techno-challenged-humanity-rendered-atavistic fare, this is a love story. More accurately, the quest for love and its potential in a world demanding to be rebuilt. (Il’ja)

Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage: Set in 1978 war-torn Beirut, this tragicomic novel follows Pavlov, the son of a recently deceased local undertaker, as he joins the Hellfire Society – a secret group his late father was a member of. Throughout the novel, Hage, the second Canadian to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, asks what it means to live through war, and what can be preserved in the face of imminent death. In Canada, Beirut Hellfire Society was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. (Jacqueline)

Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Ella, an artistic grad school dropout turned caretaker, is hired to care for Jill, a woman who’s been left a shell of her old self after a traumatic brain injury leaves her largely nonverbal. But as she watches the dynamic between Jill and her loving husband, Bryn, Ella starts to question her own relationships—and get drawn further into the couple’s. Savage’s debut novel, informed by her own time working as a caretaker, gently digs at the roots of what keeps people together in the face of suffering and loss. (Kaulie)

Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: This anthology of essays by Native writers takes the formal art of basket weaving as an organizing theme, so that the authors, who include Deborah A. Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Kim TallBear, come together to produce something akin to a well-woven basket. Malea Powell writes that the book “offers us nonfiction that reflects, interrogates, critiques, imagines, prays, screams, and complicates simplistic notions about Native peoples and Native lives.” (Jacqueline)

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: This highly anticipated debut is not about sex but rather about “the heat and sting of female want,” according to author Lisa Taddeo, who spent years criss-crossing the country and conducting thousands of hours of interviews with women about the sources and consequences of their desires. The result is a triptych: a North Dakota woman who is labeled “a freaky slut” for reporting an affair with her high school English teacher; an unfulfilled Indiana wife and mother who reconnects with a high school crush and winds up “a tangle of need and anxiety”; and a Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband picks her partners, then watches them have sex. The book has already been dubbed “an instant feminist classic.” (Bill)

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger: Ambition, competition, and the fear of behind left out threaten to rip apart the bond between four families who are offered an unexpected chance at getting their kids into an elite school. The Paris Review notes that this satirical takedown of the concept of meritocracy in contemporary America serves as a timely expose of “the hypocrisy of white liberalism” that drives the pursuit of prestige. Caution: sense of humor required. (Il’ja)

The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: In just two years, Jasmine Guillory has become a New York Times bestselling author and major force (the author of the first romance novel selected for Reese Witherspoon’s coveted book club, for one). Following The Wedding Date and The Proposal, The Wedding Party is one of two novels Guillory has coming out this year—look for Royal Holiday in the fall. (Lydia)

Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno: Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is just as ineluctable as the series of short, silent, black-and-white film portraits by Andy Warhol that they’re named after. This too gives a good sense of the book’s structure: a series of short glimpses that look deeply, and often contain autobiographical components or disquisitions. The effect, says Kirkus, is to “spin around like floating objects on an Alexander Calder mobile precariously tied together with ideas and images. Or rather, take Amber Sparks’ assessment: “If Thomas Bernhard’s and Fleur Jaeggy’s work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby—with Diane Arbus as a nanny— it would be Screen Tests.” (Anne)

A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell: Pursell is the founder of the national reading series Why There are Words, as well as the WTAW press, which puts out excellent books each year. Now she publishes a collection of eerie, short (sometimes very short) stories, many of them focusing on themes of mothers and daughters, with themes from folklore and fairytale. Publishers Weekly called the collection “haunting,” “potent,” and “sharp but disturbing.” (Lydia)

What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll: This is a work of memoir by a woman who was raped by Donald Trump, who is the current President of the United States. A haunting excerpt from the book, with an account of the rape, was published here in The Cut. (Lydia)
AUGUST
Coventry by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s Outline trilogy—or as I think of it, The Cuskiad—is a masterpiece of modern literature, a formally adventurous exercise in narrative erasure that explores marriage, divorce, family, art, and representation. In her forthcoming essay collection Coventry, Cusk groups these thematic concerns into three sections, broadly: memoir, art, and criticism—although as Publishers Weekly says, the enterprise is bound by “the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives… something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.” (Adam P.)

The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott: If Scott’s talent didn’t catch your attention with Insurrections, his award-winning debut, he’ll draw even more readers with this second book. Cross River, Maryland, the fictional town of his first book, returns in this new story collection. Scott can shift between irreverent and complex in a single story—a single sentence—as in “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”: “David didn’t believe what his older brother preached and wondered if Delante, who now called himself Jesus Jesuson (everyone, though, referred to him as Jeez), really believed, but he didn’t ask.” Also: all praise to story collections like this one that end with an anchoring novella! (Nick R.)

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino’s essay collection is rangy and deft—nothing is treated superficially here. “I wrote this book because I am always confused,” she says in the introduction, but what follows are ardent and skilled attempts to make sense of the world. She tackles our digital lives (“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”), athleisure and women’s bodies (“These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image”), her evangelical childhood and departure from belief (“Christianity formed my deepest instincts: it gave me a leftist worldview, an obsession with everyday morality, an understanding of having been born in a compromised situation, and a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”). Also: contemporary scams, her stint on reality TV, and the panoply of nuptials she attends: “My boyfriend maintains a running Google spreadsheet to keep track of the weddings we’ve been invited to together.” (Nick R.)

The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price: The second novel by Adam O’Fallon Price, a staff writer at The Millions, is the rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale of the Sikorsky family, who transform an abandoned mansion into the titular jewel of the Borscht Belt. Inspired by Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel, Price uses a revolving cast of narrators to tell a story that is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dark secret lurking at its core. The novel asks a chilling question about the children who disappear from the towns and woods around the Hotel Neversink: Are they victims of coincidence, or part of a calculated plot to destroy the Sikorskys? (Bill)

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: A collection of eight vigorous, compelling stories provides a storyteller’s insight to how migration to and from the Caribbean affected people’s lives, personalities, and relationships. Lovers, deeply wounded by the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, strive to reunite; an undocumented construction worker pictures his lover and adopted son in the last minute of his life; the christening of a baby reveals the chasm between the three generation of a family. “No one is immune from pain,” as Kirkus Review puts it, “but Danticat asks her readers to witness the integrity of her subjects as they excavate beauty and hope from uncertainty and loss.” (Jianan Qian)

Doxology by Nell Zink: New York City in the ’90s was not quite the hyper-sanitized playground for the super-rich which parts of it feel like today, with Nell Zink giving us a gritty account of the “worst punk band on the Lower East Side” right at the turn of the millennium. As the halcyon days of the 20th-century’s last decade end, grunge seemingly eclipsed with the falling of the twin towers, Doxology uses the personal and musical travails of bandmates Pam, Daniel, and Joe to investigate our current political and environmental moment. True to the Latin meaning of her title, Zink’s Doxology provides a means of praising God in a world where we’re so often faced with the finality of silence. Doxology, rather, provides the cacophony of punk. (Ed)

Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones): The 2018 International Man Booker prize has done it again, this time with a noir murder mystery that is less whodunnit than it is existential inquiry, namely: what are we here for? The protagonist—Janina Duszejko—is a brilliantly rendered Polish Miss Marple, (sort of) who Tokarczuk has asking the hard questions with art that is subtle and penetrating. And, as it turns out, getting her into a lot of trouble at home, with a hard-right leaning Polish press labeling the book “anti-Christian” and the work of “a traitor.” The film adaptation (Spoor) a couple of years back just about shut the country down. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation from Polish sparkles. (Il’ja)

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: In 2015, Broom published an essay in The New Yorker about her family’s house in New Orleans that has sat with me since I read it. The piece starts with questions: “In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all. Why is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house? We call it Grandmother’s even though she died ten years ago. Her house, the only one remaining in our family, is a squat three-bedroom in a subdivision just off the River Road, which snakes seventy miles along the Mississippi, where plantation houses sit alongside grain mills and petrochemical refineries.” The next year, she was a Whiting Fellow, and this year, readers can get their hands on the book, a gorgeous work of memoir and reporting about place and family that feels like the apotheosis of a form. (Lydia)

The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Apollo wanders through a museum, trying to make sense of war and his own history. A chess-playing automaton falls in love. Dead girls tell the story of a catastrophe and its aftermath. Bucak’s debut story collection is a surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn. The result: “narratively precise” stories that “are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms,” writes The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Kaulie)

Inland by Téa Obreht: In 2011, at age 26, Obreht burst onto the literary scene with her first novel The Tiger’s Wife, an inventive, fable-like retelling of the wars that ravaged her native Serbia in the 1990s. Eight years later, Obreht returns with – wait for it – a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1893. No, we didn’t see that coming, either. Early reviews are rapturous, including one from Booklist that called it “a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.” Yes, tornadic. (Michael)

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder): Critically acclaimed Japanese writer Ogawa’s new novel takes place in a society where objects disappear and where the terrifying Memory Police pursue citizens who recall the disappeared objects. The protagonist is a young novelist who discovers her editor is in danger and decides to hide him beneath her floorboards. The Memory Police explores trauma, loss, memory, and surveillance, and will astound readers. Chicago Tribune calls it “a masterful work of speculative fiction” and Esquire writes, “Ogawa’s taut novel of surveillance makes for timely, provocative reading.” (Zoë)

The Overthrow by Caleb Crain: A new novel from the author of Necessary Errors, The Overthrow is a romance and a story of relationships set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, exploring, power, idealism, technology, and the way we forge connections in the dystopian world we’ve created. Keith Gessen calls it “a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book…part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities.” Sign me up. (Lydia)

The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda: As we read daily of the horrors of detainment camps at the border, poet Brandon Shimoda directs our attention back to a not dissimilar blight in Grave on the Wall. It’s an elegy for Shimoda’s dead grandfather, Midori, who after Pearl Harbor was incarcerated in internment camps despite having lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Don Mee Choi calls Grave on the Wall “a remarkable exploration of how citizenship is forged by the brutal US imperial forces—through slave labor, forced detention, indiscriminate bombing, historical amnesia and wall.” Shimoda’s remembrance is also for the living, says Karen Tei Yamashita: “we who survive on the margins of graveyards and rituals of our own making.” (Anne)

When I was White by Sarah Valentine: A memoir from the author, translator, and scholar about being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a white person, only to learn at age 27 that her father was a black man. The memoir explores the painful process of uncovering the past, interrogating the decisions her family made, and reconceiving her own identity. Publishers Weekly calls it “a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.” (Lydia)

First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers: Powers’s debut novel is the story of the big lie behind the Soviet space program: They can send manned flights up, they just can’t seem to get them back down. And so they are using twins – one who will touch the face of God and the other who will stay behind on terra firm to make sure there’s an acceptable, Kremlin-approved PR tour afterward if things go badly up in space. Which they inevitably do. Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies. (Il’ja)

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination by Jess Row: “White flight” typically refers to the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, but in this work of criticism, Row extends the term to literature. Combining memoir as well as literary, filmic, and musical analysis, Row argues for an understanding of writing as reparative, and fiction as a space in which writers might “approach each other again.” Kirkus calls it “wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned.” (Jacqueline)

The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown: The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement. Brown, a disability rights advocate and creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign, explores aspects of pop culture, music, family, self acceptance, and love in her essays, all the while challenging society’s assumptions of what it means to be black and disabled. (Kate Gavino)

I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton: Few critics quit understand the implications of our cultural divisions in the warm autumn of the Anthropocene more than University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton. Exploring themes that he’s written about in collections ranging from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Scranton’s second novel returns us to a badly fractured America. A writer named Suzie travels a broken, pre-apocalyptic America that looks very much like our own nation, a place so “highly refined and audacious and dense that nobody care whether it’s bullshit or not.”

When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang: The second in Nganang’s trilogy on Cameroon before and during WWII, When the Plums Are Ripe tells the story of the country’s growing involvement in the conflict as the colonized fight to free their colonizer from Axis control. But the book is as much poetry as history, with a structure calling on oral traditions and a poet-narrator who mourns the wounds of war. Publishers Weekly writes that “with lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang… challeng[es] the Euro-written history of colonialism and replac[es] it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.” (Kaulie)

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons: A story collection rooted in the vastness and contradictions of Texas and composed by an author who refuses to shy away from the strange, ugly, and interesting, Black Light has been described as “Friday Night Lights meets Ottessa Moshfegh.” What more could a reader want, really? (Kaulie)

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: With racial invective spewed from the Twitterer-in-Chief on down, many white Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their prejudices. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi returns to a subject which he illuminated so well in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,, asking how we avoid both fatalism and despair in imagining what a future, antiracist version of the United States might look like. Kendi’s answers are neither to embrace the myopic obstinacy of “color blindness,” nor the feel-good platitudes of “wokeness,” but rather to acknowledge that the individual responsibility of being antiracist is “an everyday process.” (Ed)

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz: Lenz—a journalist whose profiles and personal essays are absolute must reads—brings a book that combines memoir and journalism. After the 2016 election, Lenz leaves her Trump-supporting husband and her church—and begins to travel to churches across the Midwest to understand the incomprehensible: faith in today’s America. Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book a “slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America.” (Carolyn)

A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin: This debut novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola’s Nigerian family as they struggle to assimilate in the impossibly foreign world of Utah. As Tunde’s father chases his version of the American Dream and his mother sinks into schizophrenia, Tunde will be forced to spend his childhood and young adulthood seeking elusive connections—through his stepmother and stepbrothers, through evangelical religion, through the black students at his middle school and the fraternity brothers at his historically black college. This is a novel that will force readers to rethink notions of family, belonging, memory, and the act of storytelling. (Bill)

Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen): Set in the near future, this novel, which Kirkus describes as a “thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor,” tells the story of Britta and Babak, who run an agency that provides suicide bombing candidates to activists/terrorists. In this post-Angela Merkel Germany, their agency provides a needed antidote to both the conservative government takeover and liberals’ passive acceptance of the new order. When two unknown suicide bombers show up in an airport, things get complicated. (Jacqueline)

Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt: NEA Fellow Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel is as bold and unflinching as its title suggests. The book follows suburban Maryland-born and raised Denny as she literally runs away from her grief and inability to confront mortality, that has come in the form of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. As she flings herself into the wilderness, Denny is wildly unprepared and accompanied only by her imagination (& her imaginary friend, Gene) in what appears like a slow form of suicide. Goldblatt nails suburban MD ennui, outdoor unpreparedness, gritty sex scenes, and a refutation of sentimentality in what R.O. Kwon calls a “blazing feat of a book.” (Anne)


SEPTEMBER
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)

Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: At 56, Jacqueline Woodson is moving and shaking in both YA and adult literature realms. Her new adult novel brings together a clash of social classes via an unexpected pregnancy. Another slim, compressed volume à la Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone moves “forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length.” Two words: can’t wait. (Sonya)

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)

Akin by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue is one of our most versatile writers. She does many things well, including historical fiction, middle grade series, and scripts for screen and stage. Akin, like her international bestseller Room, is positioned as contemporary fiction. It’s about a retired professor who plans to travel to Nice, France to discover more about his mother’s wartime past. Two days before the trip, circumstances mean he must take charge of his potty-mouthed pre-teen nephew. As the pair travel together, they uncover secrets about their family and discover a bond and, as the publisher’s blurb says, “they are more akin than they knew.” (Claire)

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke: The universe will soon award us with a new Attica Locke novel! Heaven, My Home is the follow-up to Locke’s Edgar Award-winning thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, and it once again centers on black Texas Ranger Daren Matthews. This time, he’s pulled into the case of a missing nine-year-old boy—and the boy’s white supremacist family. The jacket copy declares: “Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.” Attica Locke is one of the best writers working today, and I cannot wait to read this. (Edan)

Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)

How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois: A terrible snowstorm can derail a well-planned life, and two feet of snow in one day was “the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe.” Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is “flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.” Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read. (Nick R)

The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye: Goncourt and Femina Prix-winning, French-born and Berlin-based Ndiaye brings us another woman-centered novel, this time about a GFC— Great Female Chef. The story is told from the perspective of a male sous-chef (and unrequited lover), from a perspective years onward. Ndiaye’s work is often described as “hypnotic,” so perhaps add this one to your summer-escape TBR list. (Sonya)

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker: Award-winning poet Morgan Parker offers a new coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist that just can’t seem to figure it out. From spending her summer crying in bed to being teased about not being “really black” by her mostly white classmates, 17-year-old Morgan can see clearly why she’s in therapy. Parker’s account of teenage anxiety and depression will speak to readers of all ages, and the prose’s mix of heartbreak and hilarity makes it a prime candidate for film adaptation. Are you paying attention, Netflix? (Kate Gavino)

The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball: In what Publishers Weekly called an “atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing tale of haves and have-nots,” Ball (Census) returns with a novel about a society that has rejected equality and embraced brutality. Through vignettes, the novel reveals how the world descended into madness. A dystopian tale imbued with empathy, philosophical musings, and questions about compassion, generational trauma, and humanity. (Carolyn)

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Patti Smith started writing this book on the Lunar New Year’s Day in 2016; she carried the project “in cafes, trains and strange motels by the sea, with no particular design, until page by page it became a book,” as she announced in her Instagram. This memoir evolves around the transformations both in her life and the American political landscape. Intriguing, disturbing yet humorous, with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction blurred, Smith’s work is unlikely to disappoint. (Jianan Qian)

Fly Already by Etgar Keret: Keret’s new short story collection offers all the virtues readers have come to expect from the oft-New Yorker-published Keret: intelligence, compassion, frustration with the limits of human communication, and a playfulness that stays on the right side of whimsy. Whether it’s a father’s helpless desire to protect his son, a boy failing to obtain weed to impress a girl, or two people sharing a smoke on the beach, Keret’s deep interest in human connection feels important in our fractured times. As George Saunders says, “I am very happy that Etgar and his work are in the world, making things better.” (Adam P.)

Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah: A novel of the group of people who carried David Livingstone’s body (along with his papers and effects) 1500 miles so that he could returned to England, narrated by Halima, the expedition’s cook, and a formerly enslaved man named Jacob. Jesmyn Ward writes, “A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” (Lydia)

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside): No contemporary French writer has interceded into the current Anglophone imagination quite as completely as Michel Houellebecq. From novels like The Elementary Particles to Submission, the cynical Houellebecq has explored everything from existentialism to sex tourism, through a voice that is simultaneously traditionalist and nihilistic, and critics and readers have argued how seriously we’re to take the reprehensible—racist, mysoginist, Islamophobic, colonialist—positions of the writer or his characters. Serotonin follows Florent-Claude Labrouste, a depressed libertine and former agricultural engineer who eventually rejects psychotropic medication in favor of a sojourn to the cheese-country of Normandy racked by globalization, where he becomes involved in an insurrection which looks very much like the gilets jaunes movement. Even while Houellebecq’s politics can be reprehensible, ranging from embrace of Brexit to denunciations of #MeToo, Serotonin’s observation of a contemporary capitalism where “people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed” is instrumental in understanding not just France or Europe, but the world. (Ed)

Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin: In her debut memoir, Austin, a single black woman, writes about her journey to adopt a black boy out of foster care. In a recent interview, Austin said, “Ultimately, I wrote Motherhood So White out of necessity. I wanted black mothers who come after me to have multiple perspectives on motherhood, not just the mainstream definition of who gets to be a mom in America. I want white mothers to see black mothers on the page and know that we are all allies in the quest for raising compassionate children.” (Edan)

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkseworth): World Literature Today calls this set of linked stories a “haunting requiem for the soul’s death in the wake of postmodernity.” Translation: Drndic’s trademark absurdist humor and image rich style assure that this slim collection will get the synapses firing. (Il’ja)

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: In 2016, Amitav Ghosh published The Great Derangement, which argues that contemporary literary fiction, among other art forms, seems unable to directly confront the scale and impact of climate change. In an article for The Guardian, Ghosh writes, of the extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” Now, the author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy has written a novel that seeks to make a change in that tradition. Gun Island tells the story of rare books-dealer Deen Datta as he travels from India to Los Angeles to Venice, encountering people who will upend his understanding of himself, the world, and the Bengali legends of his childhood. (Jacqueline)

Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)

The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong: Three women from disparate backgrounds—Ireland, Cincinnati, and Japan—tell the story of one man: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek author known for his books about Japanese legends and cultures. In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like her first novel, The Book of Salt, The Sweetest Fruits leads readers on a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling. (Kate Gavino)

Chimerica by Anita Felicelli: A fantastic, fantastical book built around the country of “Chimerica,” wherein a Tamil American trial lawyer is hard at work on a case…which happens to be a defense of a talking lemur come to life. Set in locations ranging from Oakland to Madagascar, Jonathan Lethem calls Chimerica “remarkable…a coolly surrealist legal thriller—in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive—that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own.” (Read Felicelli’s conversation with Huda al-Marashi at The Millions here.) (Lydia)

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: The protagonist of Levy’s newest would do well to avoid Abbey Road, where he is hit by a car twice, once in 1998, right before a trip to East Germany to bury his father’s ashes, and once again in 2016. From these two brushes with death, Levy spins one of her typically entrancing narratives, one that, like Hot Milk, explores cross-cultural encounters and the strange, intense, and occasionally monstrous nature of familial ties. (Matt)

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: The fourth book from Australia’s Tumarkin, whose previous works have been shortlisted for several major literary prizes Down Under, Axiomaticsharply examines how we think about the force of the past on the present in a blend of storytelling, criticism, and meditation. The book spirals out from five axioms—think “Time Heals All Wounds,” “History Repeats Itself,” and “You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice”—to consider stories of struggle, trauma, and the strength of human relationships, creating a new and powerful nonfiction form along the way. (Kaulie)

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)

The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer: I hadn’t thought it possible to write beautifully about chemotherapeutic drugs until I read the excerpt from poet Anne Boyer’s The Undying that was published in The New Yorker. Witness: “Adriamycin, is named for the Adriatic Sea, near where it was discovered. I like to think of this poison as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would like to go, but it is also called ‘the red devil,’ and sometimes it is called “‘the red death.’” Boyer’s memoir covers developing breast cancer at 41, her treatment, and her double mastectomy, as well as scrutiny of a capitalist driven medical industry. Boyer’s memoir is a “haunting testimony about death that is filled with life,” according to Kirkus. (Anne)

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: Fans of the great Irish writer Kevin Barry have reason to rejoice. The prize-winning author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island and Beatlebone is out with a scalding little hotwire of a novel called Night Boat to Tangier. The setup would’ve delighted Beckett. On October 23, 2018, two aged-out Irish drug-runners, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmon, are sitting in the waiting room of the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. What are they waiting for? Maurice’s estranged daughter. As they wait, the men spin a reverie of past betrayals, violence and romance, with asides on drink, masturbation and the imminence of death. As always with Barry, the writing is slippery, slangy and sinewy, and a pure delight. (Bill)

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware: How long does it take to investigate, narrate, and illustrate an entire consciousness during one half of a typical day? In Chris Ware’s case, almost two decades. Across 350+ pages, Ware’s graphic novel unfolds like a Joycean spin on Grouse County, Iowa, depicting the melancholic, yearning thoughts of Midwestern characters moving through realities shared and cloistered. Doing that at all—let alone in 18 years—is superhuman. (Nick M.)
OCTOBER
Find Me by André Aciman: In a most-anticipated list, Aciman’s Find Me may be the most anticipated of all. Set decades after Oliver and Elio first meet in Call Me by Your Name, this novel follows Elio’s father Samuel, who while traveling to Rome to visit his son meets a young woman who changes his life; Elio, a classical pianist who moves to Paris; and Oliver, a New England college professor and family man who yearns to return to Italy. I’m aching to read this and I know I’ll be aching while reading it too. (Carolyn)

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as “a powerful allegory of our troubled present.” Set in late 1990s Kansas, it centers on a lefty family in a red state. The mother is a famous feminist author; the father, a psychiatrist who specializes in “lost boys.” Their son, Adam Gordon, is a debate champion who unwittingly brings one of his father’s troubled patients into his friend group, to disastrous effect. (Hannah)

Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Grand Union is the first short story collection of Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, among others. Ten unpublished new stories will be put alongside with ten of her much-applauded pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Everything, however familiar or small it may seem in daily life, glows in Smith’s brilliant observation. Grand Union is a wonderful meditation on time and place, past and future, identity and the possibility of rebirth. (Jianan Qian)

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones: A 2014 NBCC finalist for his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, How We Fight for Our Lives tells Jones’ coming-of-age as a black gay boy and man in the South via prose-poetry vignettes. From the publisher: “Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze.” (Sonya)

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay is a propulsive and well-plotted novel set in Los Angeles where crime and tension are at an all-time high. In Cha’s narrative that explores race, class, and community in Los Angeles, her characters must confront their histories and truth. Catherine Chung describes Your House Will Pay as “a devastating exploration of grief, shame, and deeply buried truths.” (Zoë)

Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz: In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome. (Nick M.)

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Hiroshima-based fiction writer Hiroko Oyamada has been called one of the most “powerfully strange” new voices to emerge from Japan of late. No surprise then that she cites Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as influences. This fall New Directions is publishing The Factory, Oyamada’s first novel to be translated into English, and that was inspired by her experience working as a temp for an auto worker’s subsidiary. The Factory follows three seemingly unrelated characters intently focused on their jobs—studying moss, shredding paper, proofreading documents—though trajectories come together as their margins of reality, and the boundaries between life within and beyond the factory dissolve. (Anne)

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, but concealed in those conservative, anonymized figures is the mind-bending enormity of 33,000,000 individual women and their stories. In her latest memoir, Jeannie Vanasco shares hers. Remarkably, Vanasco interviews the former friend who raped her 15 years ago, interweaving their discussions with conversations involving her close friends and peers to produce an investigation of trauma, its effects, and the ways they affect us all. “Courageous” is an inadequate word to describe this project, let alone Vanasco herself. (Nick M.)

Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré: le Carré is set to offer his 25th novel since debuting with Call for the Dead back in 1961. And though the territory is familiar—London, a played out spy, a web of political intrigue—there is nothing tired in the author’s indictment of modern life: we are fickle, selfish, dogmatic, narrow minded and too often cruel bastards. The whole lot of us. My advice: if you have been stuck on thought that Le Carré is writing “spy novels” and you don’t like “spy novels”, you need to rethink. There is perhaps no more thrilling chronicler of the human condition working today. His stories are about people with secrets. You know, us. (Il’ja)

False Bingo by Jac Jemc: The unsettling horror that made Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It such an unnerving read has mutated into an uneasiness that infiltrates the everyday lives depicted in False Bingo, Jemc’s second book of short stories. Jemc’s characters are misfits and dislocated, and their encounters often cross the line where fear becomes reality. There’s a father with dementia who develops an online shopping addiction and an outcast mulling over regret as he taxidermies animals. In essence False Bingo is a “collection of realist fables exploring how conflicting moralities can coexist: the good, the bad, the indecipherable.” (Anne)

Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber: Haber, who has been called “one of the most influential yet low-key of tastemakers in the book world,” is about to raise it to up level with the debut of his novel, Reinhardt’s Garden. This absurdist satire follows Jacov Reinhardt and scribe as they travel across continents in search of a legendary philosopher who has “retired” to the jungles of South America. It’s “an enterprise that makes Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo … come off as a levelheaded pragmatist,” says Hernán Díaz. While Rodrigo Fresán calls it “one of those perfect books” on the level of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. (Anne)

Older Brother by Mahir Guven (translated by Tina Kover): Awarded the Prix Goncourt for debut novel in 2017, Older Brother takes on the Uberization of labor alongside a look at immigration, civil war, and terrorism through the story of two brothers from a French-Syrian family, and their father, a taxi driver whose way of life is utterly at odds with those of his sons. (Lydia)

Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok: In Last of Her Name, the new collection from Chinese author Mimi Lok, the stories’ settings cover a little bit of everything—British suburbia, war-time Hong Kong, modern California—and the diasporic women at the heart of each piece are just as eclectic. The effect is a kaleidoscope of female desire, family, and resilience. “I can’t think of a collection that better speaks to this moment of global movement and collective rupture from homes and history, and the struggle to find meaning despite it all,” writes Dave Eggers. (Kaulie)

The Girl At the Door by Veronica Raimo: Let’s say you fall in love while on vacation. The guy, a professor, seems great. You leave your country and move in with him. You get pregnant. You’re happy. Then: A girl shows up at the door. She’s your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a former student, with details about a violent, drawn-out affair. What now? That’s the premise of this novel, one that dissects sexual harassment and assault from the point of view of both the professor and his girlfriend. Raimo has published two novels in Italy; this is her English-language debut. (Hannah)

Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: This debut novel set in the mountains and hollows of Eastern Tennessee will charm you with its warmth and love for its characters, a cast that includes a dog named Crystal Gale. (Which has to be one of the best pet names in fiction.) The novel centers on Lucy Kilgore, a young woman who was planning to leave small town Tennessee but instead ends up getting shotgun-married to Jeptha Taylor, a bluegrass musician with a drinking problem. With too little money and too much alcohol in their lives, their little family is doomed from the start, but Lucy can’t help trying to hold everyone together. (Hannah)

A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso: A collection of stories about told from the perspective of a Mexican-American man born to poor parents and making his way through the elite institutions of America. Luis Alberto Urrea calls the book “a world-class collection.” (Lydia)
NOVEMBER
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm-owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly-deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Would you be the nanny to your ex-best-friend’s stepchildren? Yes, really? Okay. What if they were twins? Still with me? What if they exhibited strange behaviors? Still on board? What if they spontaneously caught fire when agitated? Yes? Then you must be the kind of character that only Kevin Wilson can pull off, in this, his third novel that marries the fantastic with the domestic. (Hannah)

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin American writers and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)

The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)

They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears by Johannes Anyuru (translated by Saskia Vogel): Anyuru, a Swedish-Ugandan author, took home the Swedish-language August Prize for Fiction for this tale of authoritarianism and hate in modern Europe. After terrorists bomb a bookstore for hosting a provocative cartoonist, one of the terrorists has a vision of the future she may have brought about. Years later, a psychiatrist goes to visit her in the clinic where she’s been institutionalized, and she informs him she’s a traveler from an awful, dystopian future. As she describes a world in which “anti-Swedish” citizens are forced into a ghetto called The Rabbit’s Yard, the psychiatrist grows convinced that her sci-fi predictions are the truth.

What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books – novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels – and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)

The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)

Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)
DECEMBER
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)

Edwidge Danticat Depicts a New Haiti

“Sometimes people know our most vulnerable places,” Edwidge Danticat says. “Because of that, we do things we know we shouldn’t do—things that have tragic outcomes. This is the kind of conflict that I’m drawn to: people asking very hard questions.”
In Danticat’s new collection, Everything Inside, these questions may explore romantic infidelity, broken pacts, or the identity of a long-lost parent; sometimes, they involve the labyrinthine question of whether to return to Haiti—the country—from Little Haiti in Miami, where many of the stories take place. Danticat says that above all, she wished to “show all the layers” of the women in her new stories when they make their decisions—good, bad, and everything in between. And it is this core idea—women faced with choices at once mundane and magnitudinous—that perhaps best characterizes Everything Inside.

Danticat’s earliest fiction was dense with blood and violence, steeped in Haiti’s past: the history of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier’s tyrannical regimes and the horrific presence of the Tonton Macoutes, the Duvaliers’ legendarily brutal, murderous paramilitary force. In “Children of the Sea,” one of the stories from Krik? Krak!, the Macoutes’ excesses are described in excruciating detail: They make family members rape each other in front them, then murder them, acting with the impunity of their belief that vodou protects them. These earlier works subtly nod to Haiti’s other historic moments of violence, from the brutalities of the French during the slave trade to the bloodshed during the former slaves’ epochal takeover of Haiti in 1791, which made it, in 1804, the first free black republic in the Americas.
But Haiti’s history is also one of astonishing rebellion and of ordinary people just trying to get by—facts often ignored by American media, which insists on painting Haiti as an epicenter of suffering. This is what Danticat’s fiction has sought to capture, too, through the tenderness and resilience of its characters. Rather than focusing solely on the ravages, she also shows Haiti’s beauty, geographically and culturally. Her work has always been quietly revolutionary in both its explicit depiction of tragedy and its examination of deep interpersonal relationships.
Danticat’s newest collection takes this idea further, presenting Haitians, Americans, and Haitian-Americans who have varying degrees of distance from the Caribbean nation. Some of the characters have never experienced the horrors that Danticat’s earlier characters fled; many live in America. In these stories, Haiti’s enduring presence feels more ethereal—urgent in a different way for this new generation.

Everything Inside, Danticat says, is “a personal milestone”—the result of trying something new. She wanted to create a story collection that was, inarguably, a collection of stories, rather than, as with The Dew Breaker or Claire of the Sea Light, a text that can be interpreted as a novel in fragments. The narratives in Everything Inside contain “echoes” of each other, she notes, and she points out that the tales, though nonlinear, span a year. Danticat says that she composed Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory in her twenties; this latest book comes as she turns 50, and so, she adds, it signals a turning point for her.
Danticat says that these new characters may be thought of as the grandchildren of the characters in Krik? Krak!, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and The Dew Breaker. In those works, she notes, the protagonists were “brand-new, face-to-face with exile”: they cohabited with horror, unable to escape, for long, the terrors of Haiti’s dictatorial regimes. In Everything Inside, however, the characters include people born in America—they’re from a generation that knows of Haiti’s blood-drenched past but does not feel its weight to such an oceanic degree as the protagonists in her earliest books. These new characters “have a different relationship to Haiti,” she argues. “Most of the characters have been in America for a while. They’re sort of safer than their parents and grandparents were.”


Rather than facing Haiti’s gunmen and ghosts, this post–Krik? Krak! generation is navigating more quotidian concerns such as romantic breakups and sending kids to college. Danticat says that at the same time, they are “dealing with interpersonal exile”—separated from each other by heartbreak and painful secrets. These lacunae permeate Everything Inside.
Exile, to be sure, has always defined Danticat’s work, in all of its protean, poignant forms—be it political, geographic, cultural, or existential. And though Everything Inside focuses perhaps most on interpersonal distances, Danticat’s American characters are still connected to Haiti, and so, she observes, they must face “the flip side of exile: whether or not to return.” When these characters do travel to Haiti, she notes, they don’t wish solely to see monuments to loss; they want to see “the pretty places,” too—“the multiplicity of Haiti and of their ancestry.”
Of course, political exile still appears; in one story, a xenophobic Caribbean minister expresses Trump-like anti-immigrant rhetoric. But generally, these are tales of a different exile, tales of emotional severance and reconnection. Some of Danticat’s protagonists are women who have been wronged, deceived, or dismissed, often by men—though sometimes, it is other women who wrong them. (The latter cases, she says, were “important” to show; her women are not blameless but are morally complex.)
In one narrative, a woman encounters a married man whom she fell in love with before the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when he lost his family and disappeared from her life; their feelings are complicated, as she realizes that he both is and isn’t the man she once pined for. In another, a girl who doesn’t know her father learns that he is dying and must decide whether to ignore him or go see him. With powerful grace, Danticat captures the moment when the woman sees her father’s dead body; they are worlds apart yet linked by a quiet intimacy. And this remarkable, moving tenderness is perhaps the collection’s most persistent theme. Women find moments of special nearness to other women and to men.
In one scene, a woman touches her tattoo to that of her roommate, both tattoos signifying their emotional growth. In an extraordinary moment from another story, a woman, her friend, and her husband lie together in bed in the shadows, holding each other, touching, kissing, losing, at some sense, the knowledge of whose body is whose—a moment of unabashed love, irrespective of gender or body, all the more salient because the protagonist’s husband leaves her afterward for the friend. These stories contain layers of betrayal and secrecy, but their characters find ways to commiserate, forgive, or at least attempt to understand the ones who have hurt them.
It’s important, Danticat says, that Everything Inside not be read purely as a text of a particular cultural moment—partly because she considers books to be “always behind the cultural moment”—but rather as something as much of the present as the past and future. She decries what she identifies as the day-to-day grotesquerie of the American political present. Obliquely, her book, with its focus on transnational figures who have family in Haiti and America, critiques both the closed-border sentiments of the Trump administration and governmental corruption in Haiti. Her characters “are in the middle” of all this, she says, just “trying to keep it together” in a volatile world.
But in the end, Danticat says, this is a collection about people and the complex interactions and decisions they share. Its tenderness feels striking in a hectic 2019. In the end, we are left with these characters’ brutal, banal, and beautiful moments, like a wide night luminous, every so often, with firefly stars.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

I Am Loudermilk: The Millions Interviews Lucy Ives

In Lucy Ives’s gorgeous and funny second novel Loudermilk—after 2017’s Impossible Views of the World—we follow the adventures of aspiring writer Troy Augustus Loudermilk and his best friend, Harry Rego, as they attempt an audacious con at the country’s most prestigious creative writing program. Loudermilk has been accepted to the MFA program for his poetry, but it’s Harry who has been doing the writing. As the book progresses, we’re introduced to other intriguing characters: Clare, the first-year fiction student with writer’s block; Lizzie, the professor’s daughter who wants to sleep with Loudermilk; and Anton Beans, who wants to think his way through the process of writing a poem. 
As a recent MFA graduate, I wish I’d picked this book up sooner. The questions raised by Ives—Who is a writer? Who is the creative asset? Are we all creatives? Who is to say what can be done at a creative writing program?— are poignant and timely and relevant.
Ives—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and I recently discussed MFA programs, her writing process, and what it means to write about our obsessions.. 
The Millions: I just graduated from my MFA program in fiction and as I finished Loudermilk, I couldn’t help but laugh at how spot on it was about the entire system. You say in your afterword, “He does what he does because of the existence of institutional structures that produce the illusion of self-expression.” It was ironic, being confined to certain academic rules as we were prodded to be creative. What do you think would happen to the MFA structure if your book became required reading at the college level?
Lucy Ives: Would the novel be required reading as a part of the college curriculum? Or, do you mean that it would be informally required among students? I ask because I’m not sure that faculty would be eager to adopt the novel in this way—although, of course, anything is possible. Leaving aside these logistical questions, let’s go along with your thought experiment and say that lots of undergrads, or even a small handful of undergrads, or okay: One undergrad reads this novel before entering an MFA program. What happens to that one undergrad? 
I imagine that this one undergrad, privy to the secret knowledge in Loudermilk, realizes that they can be or pretend to be who or whatever they want, when they write, and they subsequently hand in many interesting creations for their workshop assignments. This person might choose to write in the style of a bestselling American author of the late 1970s; they might write in the style of an obscure Surrealist poet. They might experiment with the effects different styles and genres have on their captive audience. They might have fun. Perhaps they wouldn’t worry too much about whether their writing is “good.” I guess this might be what I would hope for.
As for the structure of the MFA itself, I do think that if there were a greater emphasis on actually learning how to write—which isn’t just a matter of story arc and pacing, prosody and description, but also concerns things like, what or who is a reader, where are we now in history, how is it to be part of an institution—this would be helpful. My sense is that in being afraid to be awake to the exigencies of institutions, as teachers, we can also fail to be awake to the present and subsequently struggle to convey liveliness. But I don’t know if my novel can really help with these problems. They might sort of be endemic to teaching. This, at least, is my experience.
TM: How did you go about structuring the novel from the perspective of a poet? You say you wrote using a trope from the libertine canon, how did you reach that point? Your sentences are lengthy and include quirky word choices not seen in most novels. I loved how you played with words and sentence form. Do you think all poets should write novels?
LI: I do want to be clear that I do not think that poets are required to write novels. I think it’s fine and even very good to just write poetry. I don’t choose to express myself in novels as a reaction against poetry. I’ve always wanted to write novels as well as poetry, and I don’t do this because I think that poetry is too hard, or obscure, or otherwise inadequate. Maybe you aren’t even asking about this, but I mention it because poetry has a sort of troubled reputation and I worry.
If the novel is structured “from the perspective of a poet,” as you put it, this might be because one of its main goals is to attempt to narrate the writing process. This was not an easy thing to do, and I often despaired about getting it right and not having it turn into a big pile of mush that nobody would be interested in. It’s a smart observation on your part that the use of the Cyrano trope really helped me out in this undertaking. Thinking about proxies allowed me to make the act of writing into a sort of drama; it allowed me to introduce the idea that characters ran the risk of being revealed, whether they knew, strictly speaking, that they were disguising themselves or not.
Thanks, too, for the compliment about my language. I don’t know if this makes me seem extremely pretentious or just bizarre, but the way I put things together in novels as far as sentences are concerned is a slightly heightened version of the way I think. Of course, I don’t really think in sentences, so that might be part of the effect you are noticing.


TM: The character Marta Hillary has a long dialogue with Loudermilk about what writing is, which of course he does not follow at all, and she says, “We’re here to confront something about humanity, to confront the fact that, as humans, we are fated to make things, and we are, meanwhile, the subjects of history.” What did you confront with your own humanity as you wrote this book? What did you discover about yourself, even as you wrote a satire?
LI: When I write fiction I often discover that I know a great deal more about the fictional world (and the fictional people in it) than I know about the real world, so called. My omniscience, as far as imaginary things go, surprises and alarms me a little. Writing this book exhausted me. It took 10 years and there are probably about 80,000 words on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. The funny parts of it started to seem so miniscule in comparison to other requirements: to come up with descriptions of what happens when someone is writing or thinking about wanting to make a work of art; to describe a creepy man without so belittling him that his creepiness starts to seem unimportant; to show how the history of a given institution affects its present; and so on. I started to know more and more about these artificial people and places—and the strangest thing of all is that I probably know more about them than I know about living people I’ve met and cared for, places I’ve lived, and so on. I’ve come to feel that the creation of fictional entities is tied to life, but it’s as if it’s happening somewhere else, in a familiar but nonetheless alternate dimension. Sometimes fiction circles back and reanimates someone you’ve lost or revisits a room you used to spend time in, but more often than not it just does its own thing. I might have had an inkling about this before, but the writing of this book convinced me.
TM: The relationship between Harry and Clare remains elusive. With writer’s block and suffering from the idea of time, Clare is looking for someone to cling to and Harry, as her opposite, is a shy person who “has the appearance somehow in outline and from the rear, of being a creature able to approach others only in their dreams.” Why do their characters never meet? Clare does not speak to anyone throughout the entire novel, she is a free-floating being who does not interact with the plot. Why did you leave her hanging at the edges as a form of expression for the existential writer? If she and Harry had met, what do you think would have happened?
LI: I decided early on that Harry and Clare should not meet, that it might be more interesting to think about a world in which two soul mates (for this is what they are) are in such proximity, sometimes in the very same building or room, but do not fully encounter each other. Who knows, by the way, what happens to them after the novel is over. However, for the duration of the book, they exist primarily in relationship to artistic tasks rather than in relationship to other people. I think this has something to do with the fact that both of them make art by pretending to be someone else: they each imagine that they are writing for, or as, another. 
You mentioned Clare’s isolation, and I do want to point out that both she and Harry are quite isolated. Without their writing they seem really not to exist. I think that if they met and recognized each other during the time of the novel there would be a problem, since each of them is counting on the idea that they need art—and only art—in order to exist. It might even be catastrophic for them to encounter someone else who has this belief; far more catastrophic if they were to fall in love. Believe me, I know.
TM: The idea of what an artist is or who they could be is an important theme of the novel. As Harry secretly writes the poems, what kind of artist is Loudermilk who is the face of the duo? I recently read an article about a con artist who tricks his way into Princeton, posing as a 19-year-old track star, when in reality he is 31. Art is ambiguous, and would you say Loudermilk is an artist in his own right?
LI: Yes, Loudermilk is definitely an artist. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that there is something called an “artist of life.” I don’t remember Rilke explaining what an artist of life is or does, specifically, but I do recall that he is very clear on one thing: So-called artists of life are quite dangerous. If you meet one, run in the other direction.

TM: You said in an interview with Granta, “Everything I write wants to be with something else.” I think this is a great way to analyze your own creation process. Can you discuss your writing process? As you formed the novel, what happened first? Where did you go after it was finished?
LI: I’m glad that you liked that formulation. It’s often hard for me to articulate what I am doing, so it’s very exciting when I manage to say something that seems intelligible to someone else. As far as process goes, I have a tendency to become obsessed with an aspect of a story, a character, or situation. The good thing is that I don’t have a lot of these obsessions. The more challenging thing is that when one of these obsessions begins, it takes me years, possibly as much as a decade, from what I’ve lived so far, to be done with the obsession. I write in order to give that obsession an independent life, to free myself to think about other things. 
In the Granta interview you mention, I talk a little bit about a framing narrative about another fictional writer that was the genesis of Loudermilk. I think in the past I was less comfortable with these obsessions when they began, and so I would try to bury them in other stories. I’m cautiously hopeful that I do that a bit less now; this might be the place where Loudermilk has landed me.
TM: Did you ever get tired as you wrote the absurd dialogue of Troy Loudermilk? He is every guy I’ve ever met growing up in the Southbay of Los Angeles and captures a certain surfer bro aesthetic while also being smart. Every sentence made me laugh and also cringe in horror. It seems as if he is an absurd version of the bro character, did you research dialogue or listen in on any conversations to capture the authenticity of his voice?
LI: I could pretend that I have an amazing ear or was just magically inspired to write Loudermilk’s voice, but I’m not going to do that. The truth is that I spent a long time reading publications like Maxim and Playboy and watching endless period television shows and movies. Loudermilk’s voice is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of these anthropological activities. He’s a carefully researched amalgam. I have notebooks, binders full of Loudermilkian words, phrases, and sentences. And, although I’m not going to write them, I certainly have enough material for several sequels. But even given this excess, I’m not sure I ever got tired of Loudermilk’s way of speaking. It was weird because when I began thinking and writing about him I was pretty sure he was my polar opposite, the person in the world to whom I was the most opposed, but the more I worked on this book, the more I began to see the similarities between myself and this character. He was my proxy, after all. To paraphrase the poet John Berryman in his 242nd Dream Song, “I am him.”

Thirteen Songs That Prove Lou Reed Was a Literary Master

Intriguing both bibliophiles and music geeks in one gesture, the New York Public Library recently established a Lou Reed archive that makes accessible hundreds of hours of the man’s labyrinthine audio and video recordings, many photographs taken of and by Reed himself, press clippings from his notorious concerts, artwork, and selections from his personal papers. For those (like me) who insist on giving the best of rock lyrics the same respect as literature, seeing Reed’s personal archive get the same rollout that acclaimed writers such as John Updike or Toni Morrison might receive is pretty exciting. And there’s no better place than the NYPL to give a proud New Yorker like Reed—who made a long career out of writing about the city’s strange, eccentric, and marginalized—this kind of attention. The bleary, blurry image emblazoned on the limited-edition library cards are taken from Mick Rock’s iconic cover shot for Transformer, arguably Reed’s most popular solo record. It’s a creative way of bridging the gap between the bookshelves and the streets, which is a natural space for Reed’s work to live.

What made Reed’s songs special went beyond his notorious obsession with decadence, his caustic dry wit, and his sneaky romantic vulnerability. He was also one of the most literate of musicians and wasn’t shy about making his literary influences known. As a college kid, he was mentored by the brilliantly mad poet and critic Delmore Schwartz and took inspiration from the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, Shakespeare, and Poe. Lulu, his odd later-period collaboration with Metallica, is perhaps best passed over—but basing a metal record on a 19th-century Austrian play is something very few writers would have even imagined, let alone attempted. Reed brought an informed, sophisticated writer’s eye to the kinds of underworlds he inhabited and observed, and his sense of language was as keen as a journalist’s. Reed made sure all the who, where, what, how, why bases got covered, using his own laconic, inimitable language.

Below is a mixtape-style selection of a few of his most literate and literarily engaging songs. As the man himself put it, between thought and expression lies a lifetime. Here’s a sample of what went into that lifetime.

1. “I’m Waiting for the Man
Never has an anecdote about heading uptown to cop some dope been this Hemingway-esque. It’s all in the extremely sparse but very detailed language, incorporating the random snippets of street talk (“hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?”) and the time-honored truisms of the drug game (“he’s never early, he’s always late/first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait”). The way the half-spoke, half-sung lyrics change the article in the title—“waiting for MY man” rather than just “THE” man—adds a bit of a homoerotic overtone, which make the song even more narratively complex for the mid ‘60s.

2. “Heroin
Probably The Velvet Underground’s single greatest song, and one that Reed would revisit at various points in his career. Everything that made the band revolutionary comes together, lyrically and musically. From the forlorn thesis statement in the opening—“I don’t know just where I’m going/ But I’m/ Gonna try for the kingdom if I can”—about escaping the ugly realities of urban life “where a man cannot be free/ of all of the evils of his town/ and of himself and those around” to the dreamlike fantasies that intoxication brings: “I wish that/ I’d sailed the darkened seas/on a great big clipper ship.” The song’s hypnotic melody and propulsive rhythm immerse the listener in an experience that has rarely been produced in pop music, then or now.

3. “The Gift
What other band would set an entire short story to music? This darkly funny little anecdote of long-distance romance gone awry is one of the hidden gems of White Light/White Heat, the band’s pitch-black second record. It’s a short story Reed wrote as a creative writing student in college. Lovelorn Waldo Jeffers longs for Marsha, his sort-of girlfriend during a break from school. Tortured by his visions of her falling for someone else, Waldo takes unexpectedly drastic measures to surprise her. John Cale reads the story in his lovely Welsh voice in one stereo channel while the band grooves away in the other. And lucky for us: we now have clearer recordings to help make this mash-up work.

4. “Candy Says
One of Reed’s unique skills as a songwriter was being able to create a fully-fleshed character within mere minutes. This opening track to the band’s third record is one of his most poignant. Inspired by one of Warhol’s superstars—also referenced by name in “Walk On the Wild Side” as the one who hails from “the islands” and doesn’t lose her head even when…you know the rest—it’s a song about the emotional quandary Candy finds herself in as a trans person in a world that won’t see or hear her on her own terms: as she explains by way of introduction: “I’ve come to hate my body/ And all that it requires from this world.” Velvet Underground member Doug Yule sings it with a touching innocence. Reed once generously described Candy’s state of mind in terms of the universal experience of not liking what one sees in the mirror: “I don’t know a person alive who doesn’t feel that way.” Here, he takes that emotion and applies it to someone whose whole life hangs in the balance.

5. “Pale Blue Eyes
This is what I was talking about when I mentioned romantic vulnerability before. Reed always had attitude to burn, and he was infamous for being as surly and unforthcoming as possible in interviews. It’s fair to say that Reed kept his guard up as often as possible in public, though in his music it was sometimes a very different story. In terms of putting your still-beating heart out on a slab for all to see, this song is about as naked and vulnerable as it gets: “It was good what we did yesterday/ And I’d do it once again/ The fact that you are married/ Only proves you’re my best friend/ But it’s truly, truly a sin/ Linger on/ Your pale blue eyes.”

6. “Perfect Day
Of course, pretty much everyone already knows this one. But instead of that being a reason for exclusion, I think it shows how universally relatable Reed’s writing could be. It was sung by a series of prominent musicians after Reed died and remains one of his most emotionally affecting songs. The beauty is in the simplicity: a walk in the park, a trip to the zoo, taking in a flick, and then heading home. Nothing terribly dramatic about any of it on the surface but “it’s such fun.” It’s a lovely reminder of the luminous beauty of everyday experiences, with a little extra touch of Biblical wisdom (“You’re going to reap just what you sow”) added for good measure.

7. “Berlin
When making a list like this, you just can’t not add something from Berlin. This is the romantic prologue to one of Reed’s bleakest records, which, given his discography, is saying something. While he hadn’t actually been to Berlin before writing and recording the record, Reed was compelled by the idea of a divided, war-torn city and he used it as an ambient backdrop for some of his most gut-wrenching material. A drug dealer and a woman in distress emotionally slug it out over a series of songs—while the premise is anything but romantic, there’s something poetic amid all the darkness. The title track is all hushed but evocative minimalism, delivered in a breathless whisper as if a harsh word would shatter the illusion of peace: “In Berlin/ By the wall/ You were five feet ten inches tall/ We were in/ A small café/ You could hear the guitars play/ It was very nice/ Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice/ It was very nice/ Oh honey it was paradise.”

8. “Street Hassle
One of the overlooked masterpieces of Reed’s solo career, this song is maybe better understood as a trilogy of three different songs in one. It begins with a random hookup—“Ooh baby, you know that I’m on fire and you know that I admire your body, why don’t we slip away?”—that turns into something else entirely: “he made love to her gently/ It was like she’d never, ever come.” The surging cello lines underline the poignance of this tough-minded narrative as fleeting bliss turns morbid. The story unfolds via overheard dialogue: another person’s sketchy response to the woman’s fate throwing some gritty shade on the surprise romance. And none other than Bruce Springsteen appears in the midst of the story as a kind of Greek chorus, reciting some lines that play off of the title of one of his best-known songs. Reed once said that his ambition for this song was “to write a song that had a great monologue set to rock. Something that could have been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler.” By the end of the song, you might think that he just might have pulled it off.

9. “Busload of Faith
Anything from 1989’s New York could make this list—there’s a reason why it’s considered one of Reed’s greatest solo efforts. As a concept album, it was intended to be listened to in one sitting, the way a novella or a movie might be consumed—all the better to give Reed’s jaundiced tales of Gotham’s high and low life their due. This song offers an almost journalistic immersion into life on the mean streets, which at the time were still ravaged with urban decay: “You can depend on the worst always happening/ You need a busload of faith to get by.”

10. “The Trouble with Classicists
Not many singer/songwriters could boast of having been close with one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Andy Warhol was a patron for the Velvets and encouraged the young Reed to “leave all the dirty words in.” Years after their acrimonious split, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs for Drella their tribute to the pioneer of pop art. Drella was their nickname for Warhol, combining Cinderella and Dracula. Snippets from Warhol’s notebooks and journals inspired the lyrics, including an excerpt from Warhol’s papers, which is recited by Cale and becomes something like a posthumous monologue. This song offers a look into Warhol’s—and by extension, Reed’s and Cale’s—contentious relationship to the mainstream: “The trouble with a classicist he looks at a tree/ That’s all he sees, he paints a tree…I like the druggy downtown kids who spray paint walls and trains/ I like their lack of training, their primitive technique/ I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school.”

11. “Magic and Loss
After two of Reed’s close friends—the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus (who gave Reed his start as a songwriter-for-hire) and a not-so-legendary person known as “Rita,” who was most likely Rotten Rita, a former member of the Warhol crowd—suddenly died, Reed responded with this album-length song cycle. How perfectly Reed-like to be equally wounded by the loss of an American musical legend and a marginal figure in the New York art underworld. The songs consist of mournful and hauntingly simple explorations of death and the survivor’s emotional aftermath. The whole record is a moving and somber meditation on life’s transience, finished with some hard-won wisdom that comes out of the other side of heartbreak. The concluding track from Reed’s arguably most vulnerable period sums it all up as well as any song can: “There’s a little magic in everything/ And some loss to even things out.”

12. “Set the Twilight Reeling
In the mid ’90s, Reed was something of an elder statesman of rock. He’d been in the game for decades, inspired countless important bands, gotten extremely high in the ’70s and yet by this point had managed to maintain a lengthy sobriety. He was newly in love with Laurie Anderson, who was to be his companion up until the very end of his life. The title track from this mature record talks frankly about how age hasn’t softened or flummoxed him and instead how he has grown to “accept the new man/ and set the twilight reeling.” The live clip here is especially life-affirming in its intensity.

13. “The Raven
It takes some serious guts to rethink the works of Edgar Allan Poe, especially his most famous poem of all. And it’s kind of awesome that a remake of the poem should include a phrase like “arrogant dickless liar.” As Reed explained in an interview with Greil Marcus, the goal wasn’t necessarily to rewrite Poe but to be inspired by his writing and see what kind of songs could be written and performed using his morbid obsessions as a starting point. The record is often overlooked in Reed’s discography, contains some airballs, and takes a little getting used to but contains some powerful moments. Famous friends like David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, and Willem Dafoe also add their distinct voices into the mix of Poe’s obsessive topics: guilt, paranoia, and the voluptuousness of doom.

Image credit: Unsplash/Andrey Konstantinov.

‘Let’s Hope for the Best’: Featured Fiction from Carolina Setterwall

In today’s featured fiction, we present our readers with an excerpt from Carolina Setterwall’s debut novel, Let’s Hope for the Best, out today from Little, Brown.

Publishers Weekly called the book—in which Setterwall recounts the intensity of falling in love with her partner and the shock of finding him dead one morning—”austere, quietly disturbing…a starkly unsentimental depiction of the difficulties of life after the death of a partner,” while Kirkus hailed it as “A moving and tender work of autofiction that depicts the obsessive interiority of grief.”
PROLOGUE 
May 2014

I’m nursing on the sofa when your email arrives. Nowadays this is all I do. I nurse, then sit as still as I possibly can while holding a sleeping baby, terrified to wake him, terrified he might start screaming again. Then I nurse again, sit very still again, attempt to put the now sleeping baby down so I can take a shower or eat, I fail, I go back to the sofa, I nurse. Day in, day out. Ivan is three months old on the day your email arrives. You’re back at work. I have no idea which freelance job you’re at since you rarely tell me about them. An advertising production company or some freelance commercial director has probably hired you for your technical skills. You say your job is so boring that I wouldn’t even want to hear how you spend your days. I used to insist you tell me anyway, but not anymore. I let you decide if you want to tell me about your job, or not.

As for me, I breastfeed. On your way home every day, you text me and ask what you should pick up for dinner. You take care of most things around the house now. You work, buy groceries, cook, clean, and play with our cat, who’s been neglected since Ivan arrived. You’ve stopped exercising for the time being. I nurse and nurse. And then, on a Thursday in early May, just after one o’clock in the afternoon, I receive an email from you.

From: Aksel
To: Carolina
May 8, 2014, 13:05
Subject: If I die

Good to know if I croak.

My computer password is: ivan2014
There’s a detailed list in Documents/If I die.rtf

Let’s hope for the best!

/Aksel

I read the email three times in a row. At first I can’t make sense of it, then I read it again and start to feel worried. After the third reading, my worry morphs into annoyance. This is so like you. No one is as blunt, as unsentimental, as compulsively realistic as you are. You, with your bone-dry emails and text messages. You, with your never-ending backups of your computer and phone. You, with your constantly changing passwords, combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. You, who don’t want to be buried when you die, just scattered to the wind somewhere no one would feel obliged to visit with flowers and candles. No one but you would send an email like this, in the middle of the day, from work, to his girlfriend at home nursing on the sofa. But you did.

I don’t respond. Instead, I ask you about it that evening at the dinner table. “What’s the deal with this?” I say, and you tell me, just as I knew you would, “It was a whim, and besides, a person can never be too careful.” It’s stuff I should know just in case something happens. We leave it at that. We never mention the email again.


2009-2014

October 2014

It’s a Sunday in October. We’re both tired and not particularly kind to each other. I’ve hardly slept; Ivan was at my breast for the whole of yet another night. I still haven’t mastered the trick of falling asleep between feedings, and now that Ivan is eight months old the future doesn’t look particularly bright on that front. So I’m always tired. Today I’m also annoyed and feeling sorry for myself. You’re stressed out and trying to finish some project. You still haven’t told your clients that next week you’re going on parental leave half-time. We argue about that a lot. I want you to lighten your workload so you’ll have the time—and energy—for our life, our child, our world. You don’t want to. Or you say that you want to but you can’t. Freelancing doesn’t work like that, you tell me. You’ve worked hard to build your clientele, and if you disappear for six months, they’ll find someone new. Replace you. You’re tired too. When you relax, your face looks sad. You don’t have the energy to even think about your imminent paternity leave, mornings with Ivan followed by a full day of work. I’m stressed too. Grumpy. Anxious. This isn’t what I imagined family life would be like. You tell me I knew what I was getting into when I chose to have a child with you. I tell you I was hoping things would be different. We don’t want to make each other sad, but lately that seems almost impossible. Still, we keep trying.

Three weeks ago we moved, a move we had no time for, but which we pushed through anyway. We packed at night during the brief periods when Ivan was sleeping by himself. We packed in silence, avoiding any conversations that might cause pain or end in an argument. We moved the same way. We’ve almost unpacked everything now. Today we have to take a break because our car has started acting up. We’re going to drive out to your parents’ house and have your dad take a look at it. We load Ivan into the car seat in the back, you climb in next to him, and I drive. I can’t help pointing out for the hundredth time in a cheery tone of voice that’s fooling nobody how handy it would be if you had a driver’s license too. You clench your jaw and tell me you’ll get to it soon. I don’t ask when because I don’t have the energy to argue today. I already feel guilty just mentioning it. We both fall silent. Ivan is in a good mood, and you keep him that way by distracting him with funny sounds and toys. I find it hard to drive when Ivan cries, and no one makes him laugh like you do. Listening to the two of you playing in the back as we get closer and closer to your parents’ house, I think: I love my little family. Things are just a bit tough for us right now.

At your parents’ place, you work on the car with your dad while I drink tea with your mom. She interrogates me, discreetly and respectfully, about how things are going for us. I answer, less discreetly but still respectfully, that life’s a lot to handle right now. We don’t get much sleep, and you’re stressed out. The move was rough, and Ivan’s having nightmares. He wants to breastfeed all night. “We don’t even have time to think about how we feel right now,” I say, which is a lie.

Your older brother pulls into the driveway. His visit is unexpected, and through the kitchen window I see how surprised you both are to see each other. You laugh as you hug each other. He thumps you on your back. You are engulfed by his arms. He’s always been much bigger than you. Shorter, but wider and stronger. You light up, laughing at something he says, as the two of you head into the house. Your step is quick on the stairs. You’re in a hurry to get to the kitchen and show off Ivan. Your big brother has met Ivan only once before. Not for lack of interest, but everyone’s just been so busy lately. Your brother coos over Ivan, says he’s gotten so big, that he looks just like you. He calls you “little bro.” He slurps down his coffee in large gulps. You drink a glass of Coke. Then you both go back out to the car, and I follow with Ivan strapped to my waist in his carrier. I take out my phone and snap a picture of all three of you standing by the car, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the wipers, not yet able to fix them. In the picture, your backs are toward the camera; one of you is scratching his head. You are two brothers and a father who will never again meet in this life, but nobody knows that yet.

Excerpted from Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall. Copyright © 2019. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

If You Haven’t Seen ‘Billions’ Yet, You Should

1.
The Showtime series Billions finished its fourth season last month. I’ve been watching since the 2016 premiere, but I’ve been a staff writer for The Millions since 2009, so…there was no way that, in my household, we wouldn’t be referring to the show as THE Billions. The Millions founder C. Max Magee said in an interview a few years ago, “I thought the site should be about all the millions of uncountable interesting things out there.” In good keeping, and despite recent news that could easily turn you off a show about the wheelings and dealings of the one percent (i.e. the indictment of billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffery Epstein on charges of sex trafficking of minors), I’m here to count Billions among such interesting things, and to encourage you to do so as well.

In broad strokes, the show is about two warring groups: absurdly rich venture capitalists and the public officials hell-bent on taking them down. Chief among these tribes are rags-to-riches venture capitalist ace Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis; and U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a Yalie, son of a Yalie, and a Brooklyn Heights townhouse-dweller, played by Paul Giamatti. Tempering the testosterone are some tough ladies: Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who somewhat absurdly also works for Axe as consiglieri (i.e. a high-paid, high-heeled performance coach/guru); and Lara (Malin Akerman), Bobby’s fair-haired high school sweetheart from their blue-collar ’hood whose kill-or-be-killed instincts are as merciless as her husband’s. The symmetry is complete with lieutenants and foot soldiers. On the Axe Capital side, there’s Mike “Wags” Wagner (the brilliant David Constabile, previously of The Wire and Breaking Bad) as Bobby’s right hand and court jester, along with a couple of fixer/heavy types, and a gaggle of front-line traders. And on the bureaucratic-politico side are Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), an ambitious boy scout; and Assistant District Attorney Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad).

During season one, I found myself defending the series to my bookish friends: why would I—novelist, Asian American female, middle class and cash poor—care about any of these one-percenters, or find their relentless pissing contests entertaining or compelling? How did co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien manage to hook me? I wasn’t sure, but I worried the reasons might be less than honorable. When season two came around, I tuned in faithfully, but kept my growing fandom to myself.

2.
By the end of season two, Chuck and Axe have called on every resource and strategy to destroy each other. It’s a fierce game of chess, each player anticipating the other’s moves, besting the other’s intricate calculations. No one is off limits—friends, family, bystanders—when it comes to conscripting pawns and patsies. “It’s no different than emergency triage after a mass casualty event,” says one unsuspecting victim, a doctor who aids Axe in executing nefarious deeds and then lands in prison after missing one of Chuck’s Machiavellian moves. “You save who you can and force the fate of the rest out of your mind.”

Both Chuck and Axe rack up high-stakes wins and losses, the most important of which, we come to understand, are not financial. These men want to conquer; each covets the crown of potency, the scepter of cunning. Ascension—up and up, more and more—drives them at times into the heat of recklessness; yet each claims the cost-benefit “worth it.” In the meantime, Wendy—the de facto highest of high stakes for both men—somehow maintains both her autonomy and her neutrality, even while struggling to serve two masters (or, as the Governor character says, “having the two actually serve you”). Lara, on the other hand, loses her taste for the game (and for Bobby) and quits while she’s ahead, taking the children with her.

The wards of each team valiantly, a little buffoonishly, go to battle on behalf of their leaders, eager for the victory they will share if they demonstrate radical loyalty. The formula, despite the rarefied scenario, thus materializes as familiar. Think Jimmy McNulty and Avon Barksdale; the DEA and Walter White; the FBI and Tony Soprano. The formula works: we care equally about the good guys as we do the bad guys, as it becomes harder and harder to tell them apart and as each character shape-shifts according to the moral conflict/survival imperative du jour.

3.
But there’s more to Billions than the least common denominators of the prestige drama: Over time, Billions has demonstrated a robust adaptability—the creative energy of a live organism evolving with our times. It could be argued that the series found its footing and got better. Or maybe I’m giving the writers too much credit? TV-land professionals in the know might say the focus groups spoke, the advertisers named their target audiences, and—in an interestingly meta sort of way—these interests were heeded.

In any case, in season three, the simplicity of dueling primal energies—the head-to-head white-maleness of the show’s power struggle—deconstructs and complicates. We saw shades of it in season two with the arrival at Axe Capital of Taylor Mason (played by the mesmerizing Asia Kate Dillon), a petite, doe-eyed mathematics prodigy, who also happens to be gender non-binary. Taylor’s increasing role in the company—their rise in the hierarchy based on virtuosic merit—coupled with the surprisingly elegant reconciliation of the Chuck-Wendy-Axe triangle in the season finale, effectively gives depth to characterizations that had been on the cusp of cartoonish. In other words, Taylor brings a non-binary presence explicitly into the scenario, demanding that both the characters and the viewer shift from easy contrasts and dualities to more nuanced personalities and conflicts. But Taylor doesn’t function simply as a token character with a ghettoized storyline. Rather, the entire world of the series makes this shift as well.

For example, the central triangle strained credulity in season one: how the hell does Wendy go to work every day to Axe, who butters her bread extravagantly and trusts her more than anyone, only to come home at night to Chuck, who has spent every minute of his day trying to destroy Axe? By the end of season two, though, we begin to recognize these multiple vectors of intimacy and loyalty as a grown-up treatment of partnerships of various kinds. Each character lives and loves and works simultaneously in more than one register, driven by and toward a complex set of desires, instincts, and values. In the midst of power wars, Wendy and Chuck each do what they have to do, aware of the impact on the other while also adhering to their own imperatives and ambitions. Every episode, for me, thus became a kind of fascinating profile of a modern, complicated monogamy between ambitious people. In the final scene of the season two finale, after Chuck has succeeded in toppling Axe, Wendy and Chuck meet on the steps of their house at the end of the day and look each other in the eye: Wendy’s look says, Well played, while Chuck’s says, I’m sorry, and thank you, and boy I’m tired. They walk together into the house.

In season three, the major frame-shift that happens is in some ways classic, but also of a piece with the series playing faster and looser with facile dualities: Axe and Chuck, having found in each other a worthy nemesis, now find they have common interests. Out of necessity, and braced by sufficient respect, they join forces—to both save Wendy from multiple catastrophes and to undermine mutual foes. This solid if reluctant alliance continues into season four, as the battle map is again redrawn, troops realign across the board, and Axe and Taylor—now the rebellious, prodigal protégé—draw and aim their weapons at each other.

4.
So with season four now concluded, I will once again speak forth my praise. Billions has come into its own as a progressive contemporary drama set in an utterly unprogressive world. As Daniel K. Isaac, who plays one of Axe’s loyal soldiers said in an interview with Nancy, “it’s—you know—it’s middle-aged white guys and, like, suits [who are] like, “Yo, Billions! Love that show, man.” (Isaac is Korean American and gay.) This, in my opinion, is among the most interesting things out there in TV. We see more people of color, women, and queer people in positions of hard and soft power than in most actual financial institutions and corporations—let alone mainstream movies and TV. More importantly, we see them develop and act as whole human beings: While Isaac is a secondary player, for example, be sure to see him in season three’s episode 10, “Redemption”—a breakout moment if ever there was one.

Taylor and Wendy in particular steal the show in the fourth season, as each maneuvers through intense moral decisions that call into question competing desires and core values. For Taylor, the conflicts are rooted in their identities as an idealistic millennial and organizational leader more than (or at least as much as) a gender non-conforming person. Wendy’s central moral dilemma centers around her ethics as a medical professional and loyalties as a spousal partner more than as a woman per se. In other words, the characters are neither essentialized nor tokenized, and we viewers can immerse in an evolved, integrated world where it isn’t “a thing” for a woman or a gender non-binary person to both wield power in a man’s world and manifest intersectional human complexity. Both characters are flawed—Taylor’s somewhat ironic attachment to precision and measurement feels precariously rigid, and Wendy’s penchant for saving and being saved by powerful men is at times unsettling. Thus, even as these two find themselves facing off, on some level they recognize each other’s vulnerabilities and root for each other to find footing in their power roles.

Overall the series has evolved to concern itself seriously with the relationships between power and moral codes, self-preservation of the individual and the good of the whole. The gray areas feel genuinely gray, the writing at once nuanced and sharply entertaining, and the stakes meaningful: loyalty, friendship, vocation, integrity, self-knowledge. Many of the characters are self-made, and so we can recognize—if not excuse—the primal survival-of-the-fittest drive that undergirds much of the “bro” energy among the Axe pack. At the same time, a millennial character like Taylor brings to the fore a compelling alternative philosophy to the rags-to-riches figure: “A new kind of organization,” they say, when wooing a coworker to jump Axe’s ship and come with them to their startup. “Top down but not imperious or impetuous. Integrated.”

All along, Taylor’s moral center has been piquing our interest and admiration, poking holes in the 35- to 50-something white-male zeitgeist:
I think you’re trying to bully me, and a bully is devastated when you try to stand up to him. —Season three, Taylor calling a bluff at a blackjack table

The individual sacrificing their self for the whole can be the most beautiful thing there is. But not if it’s done under duress or for the wrong reasons. —Season three, Taylor to a colleague who is being asked by Axe to lie under oath

There are things they were comfortable with at Axe Cap that we will never do here [at Mason Cap]…they turned us all into Starship Troopers, sent us to Klendathu and some of us got our brains eaten. And it wasn’t until the end of our time in that we realized we were the bad guys all along. It’s not like that here. —Season four, Taylor to their new team, largely poached from Axe
Taylor is thoroughly, methodically moral: The reasons always matter, the means as much as the ends. They believe deeply that one can be both successful and good. Contrast this with their mentor, Bobby, who says things like, “I felt guilty once…When you do something that puts yourself back in charge, remind yourself that you are not less but more powerful for what you’ve come through, that’s when you’ll feel better,” and his mother who says to him, “Maybe I shoulda told you not to talk like that when you were a kid…you woulda had a little voice inside your head that told you not to. Do you have that voice…at all?” Bobby isn’t a villain, or if he is, it’s in the Don Draper mold—despicable and admirable in equal measure. But he is a white male, rags-to-riches or not—someone to whom the Russian oligarch Grigor Andalov (played fabulously and insanely by the inimitable John Malkovich) can say about Taylor, “But she is your property, not mine.” It is the only moment a character intentionally uses the “she” pronoun in reference to Taylor, and the effect is brilliantly chilling.

Many of you may already be die-hard Billions fans. If not—if it seems too one-percenty, or too bro-ey, or too ridiculous (all of which it is, to some degree, don’t get me wrong)—I still say give it a try: As Taylor would say, the reasons matter, so don’t miss out for the wrong ones.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ulitskaya, Phillips, Zentner, Savage, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ludmila Ulitskaya, Helen Phillips, Alexi Zentner, Lila Savage, 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 sign up to be a member today.

Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Jacob’s Ladder: “Ulitskaya (The Big Green Tent) travels through a century of tangled Russian family history in this lucid saga. Nora Ossietzky, upon the death of her grandmother, discovers a trunk filled with letters and diaries from the 1900s and 1940s that belonged to her grandfather Jacob. As Nora sifts through these writings, readers travel through some of the most turbulent times in Russian and Ukrainian history: the Jewish pogroms, WWI, prerevolutionary times, the horrific Stalin era, and Jacob’s arrests and time in the gulags. Nora unravels these strands of family history while moving through the threads of her own life: her childhood with a remote father, her failed and unconventional marriage, the birth of her son, his later drug addiction, her career and fame in the theatrical world of Moscow, and the birth of her grandchild, Jacob, named after his great-great-grandfather. In the tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Ulitskaya’s complicated work covers a century of Russian history, politics, economics, culture, and music, which can be overwhelming. But there is something mesmerizing about the narrative’s scale, and patterns emerge: the little control humans have over their lives; the impact of political forces on individuals; the certainty of death, somehow softened by the promise of new birth. This is a challenging yet rewarding epic.”

The Need by Helen Phillips

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Need: “Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) delivers an unforgettable tour de force that melds nonstop suspense, intriguing speculation, and perfectly crafted prose. While excavating a fossil quarry, paleobotanist Molly Nye and her colleagues find plant fossils unconnected to all previously identified species and random objects—a Bible describing God as ‘she,’ a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail, a Coke bottle with a backwards-tilting logo—with odd, seemingly pointless differences from their everyday counterparts. She feels uneasy when news of the Bible draws gawkers to the site, but anxiety is no stranger to Molly; balancing work with her nursing baby and feisty four-year-old, she struggles with ‘apocalyptic exhaustion’ and a constant fear that disaster is about to strike her kids. While her musician husband, David, is performing abroad, real danger arrives in the form of a black-clad intruder, who wears the gold deer mask David gave Molly for her birthday and knows intimate details of Molly’s life. As the stranger’s mask comes literally and figuratively off en route to a startling conclusion to their confrontation, Molly veers between panic, appeasement, and empathy for an ‘other’ whose story is uncannily like her own except in its tragedies. Structured in brief, sharply focused segments that shift back and forth in time, the novel interrogates the nature of the self, the powers and terrors of parenting, and the illusions of chronology. Yet it’s also chock-full of small moments—some scary, some tender, some darkly witty—that ground its cerebral themes in a sharply observed evocation of motherhood. With its crossover appeal to lovers of thriller, science fiction, and literary fiction, this story showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best.”

Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Stay and Fight: “Ffitch’s remarkable and gripping debut novel (after story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn) traces the journeys of a makeshift family in contemporary Appalachian Ohio. After Helen leaves Seattle with her boyfriend to live off the land and acquires 20 acres and a camper to sleep in, she is soon left by herself when he finds the life he imagined for them too daunting. She quickly adapts to fend for herself, learning how to forage and cook roadkill and working to help cut trees with Rudy, a lifelong local who spouts antigovernment paranoia and practical advice in equal measure. Soon, Karen and Lily, a neighboring couple, give birth to a son, Perley, and are no longer welcome at the radical Women’s Land Trust, so Helen offers them a new home with her, hoping they’ll all manage the land together. It becomes apparent, however, that it’s hard to mesh their personalities. As the years go by and Perley decides he wants to go to school and be a part of the world the others so despise, the life this family has built threatens to fully unravel. The story is told in the alternating voices of Helen, Karen, Lily, and Perley, and Ffitch navigates their personalities beautifully, creating complex, brilliantly realized characters. As the stakes rise, for both the family and the preservation of the region, the novel skewers stereotypes and offers only a messy, real depiction of people who fully embody the imperative of the novel’s title. This is a stellar novel.”

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Supper Club: “Williams’s first novel (after the collection A Selfie As Big As the Ritz) is the engrossing, rollicking tale of Roberta, an overweight British woman in her late 20s with low self-esteem and a penchant for cooking. Roberta’s reticence among her peers makes her university time lonely and depressing. She later finds a mundane job at a fashion website where she meets Stevie, a young artist. The women become inseparable and dream up the idea of an underground supper club in which women indulge in appetites they had previously repressed or extinguished. Each dinner has a different theme (literary heroines, princesses) and different food that Roberta prepares; there are also drugs and the night usually ends with the women eating and drinking so much they throw up. The club becomes increasingly rebellious and locates new spaces for the meals, breaking into a department store and Roberta’s alma mater. As Roberta bonds with her clubmembers, she becomes involved with a former school acquaintance and her commitment to the club changes. Williams’s humorous and candid exploration of a woman on the verge of finding herself makes for an enthralling novel.”

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Copperhead: “Zentner (Touch) wades into thorny racial and class thickets in this steely and often gripping novel. The action unfolds over several days in the rural university town of Cortaca, N.Y., a thinly veiled Ithaca. Jessup is a high school senior who ‘will always have been born into the wrong family,’ blue-collar congregants of the Blessed Church of White America. He stopped attending the white nationalist church after his half-brother and stepfather were convicted in the beating death of two black college students four years earlier. Jessup excels at athletics and academics, and is dating the daughter of his black football coach, when his stepfather’s release stirs up old memories in Cortaca, where ‘history is everything.’ A racially-tinged accident involving a boy from a neighboring town forces Jessup, aware of how bad it will look given his family history, to return to the Church, and its 20-year-old media-savvy spokesman, for help. The short chapters, most no longer than three pages, lend the narrative a propulsive, if occasionally choppy, feel. There’s a tendency to hammer home themes such as the indelible markings of family and class, and in the book’s last third, the taut drama morphs briefly into a conspiratorial thriller that strains credulity. Nonetheless, Zentner’s portrait of a young man’s conflicting desires for disavowal and belonging is rich and nuanced.”

A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Prayer for Travelers: “The missing-person mystery at the heart of this riveting coming-of-age novel, Tomar’s debut, gives it a suspenseful edginess. When the reader is first introduced to 19-year-old diner waitress Cale Lambert, she’s nursing a newly acquired shiner and searching for her friend Penny, who uncharacteristically didn’t show up for work that day. That’s in chapter 31—the first chapter in the book. Employing authorial sleight-of-hand, Tomar intentionally scrambles the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives. Gradually, the thread of Cale’s hardscrabble life teases out: her motherless childhood growing up in her grandfather’s house; her hiring at the diner where Penny works; her efforts to stay outside of Penny’s occasional drug deals with the local ‘tweakers, potheads, and pipe-fiends’; and, finally, the incident that precipitated Penny’s disappearance and Cale’s entanglement with the sheriff who is searching for her. As excellently drawn by Tomar, Cale and Penny are fierce survivors whose determination to escape their dead-end town and its stultifying way of life pulls the reader relentlessly along. Their story makes for a dramatic and vivid tale about people chafing against the desperation of their circumstances.”

Famous People by Justin Kuritzkes

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Famous People: “Kuritzkes’s clever debut is a hilarious probing social commentary written as an unnamed 20-something pop star’s memoir. The protagonist had a regular childhood in Minnesota, where he sang “traditional black music” in church although he’s white. A video of his take on the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ garners millions of views, and he becomes a chart-topping sensation at 12. After becoming famous, his family moves to L.A. where he meets Mandy, another teen pop sensation. The duo are cast as a couple because they have similar small-town backgrounds, and everyone wants to see them together. His manager-father tries to dictate his son’s sound and goes on a show called Content Bucket to talk about him, but after their first album together, the singer changes his sound, which pushes his father away. Aside from Mandy and other musicians, the narrator befriends Bob Winstock, a writer with controversial stances on minorities and gay rights who later marries his mother. Mandy is the centering person in the narrator’s life as they hook up and drift apart multiple times. In an attempt at introspection, the narrator works on a video game of his life, a secret project that seems destined for failure but that the narrator thinks will make players get to know his life and understand him. Kuritzkes flawlessly strikes the right balance between searing and comedic as his narrator searches for the true meaning of being a normal person while being famous. This is an incisive and fresh debut.”

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Saturday Night Ghost Club: “Davidson’s well-crafted, whimsical coming-of-age tale (after Cataract City) follows a fateful summer in the ’80s. Twelve-year-old Jake Baker navigates between being bullied and exploring mysticism in his Niagara Falls hometown. The sleepy town is stagnant aside from tourists, and impressionable Jake doesn’t have many prospects for the summer aside from visiting the occult shop owned by his Uncle Calvin, who believes in the spirit world. Calvin encourages friendship between his nephew and new residents Billy Yellowbird and his sister, Dove, and invites them to a ghost hunting club. Jake is smitten by Dove, who, at 14, flits in and out of the club, while Jake and Billy raptly follow Calvin and his friend, Lexington, a devotee to Betamax, on weekend exploits. The meetings kick off with Calvin telling the tragic story behind each of the ghostly places they visit before they investigate the areas. Their group visits ‘The Screaming Tunnel,’ a car accident site, the charred remains of a house, and a graveyard. Over the course of the summer, the hidden connection behind the locations reveals itself to Jake. Davidson creates a quirky landscape and colorful characters, resulting in a novel that will entertain readers while providing a nice dose of nostalgia.”

Say Say Say by Lila Savage

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Say Say Say: “Savage’s startling, tender debut follows Ella, a young caregiver hired to help a woman of rapidly diminishing mental capability, and the relationship Ella develops with her and her husband. At the novel’s start, Ella is on the cusp of 30 and living in Minneapolis with her girlfriend, Alix, whom she loves deeply and uncomplicatedly. After dropping out of graduate school, Ella makes a modest living as a caregiver, though she harbors vague artistic inclinations. Her newest client is Jill, who, at 60, is younger than her usual clientele; her mental state has deteriorated ever since she was in a car accident over a decade ago. Unable to hold coherent conversations or wash herself, Jill has been taken care of by her husband, Bryn, a retired carpenter. Initially hired to provide Bryn with a reprieve, Ella finds herself gradually immersed in Bryn and Jill’s lives, and soon her role as Jill’s companion evolves into something more intimate and complex. Over the next year, Jill’s condition worsens and Bryn becomes more visibly strained even as the force of his love for Jill stays steady, and what Ella witnesses between the two of them challenges her ideas of love, spirituality, and empathy. Quietly forceful, Savage’s luminous debut is beautifully written, and will stay with readers long after the final page.”

Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bethlehem: “This propulsive novel from Kelly (Prospice) pulls the reader in with a gripping multigenerational tale of two families led by strong women. In 1962, Joanna Collier and her family move to Bethlehem, Pa., to stay with her mother-in-law, Susannah, as Joanna’s husband takes his place at the helm of the Collier family’s steel business. On her first day in town, Joanna meets Doe Janssen, caretaker for the local graveyard, who warns her about the spirits and secrets living around them, and specifically the mystery surrounding a grave marked “Baby Hayes.” In the small, gossip-filled town, Joanna soon learns there is more to the Collier family and her mother-in-law than she ever realized, including a past no one speaks about, which she discovers after finding the grave of Susannah’s infant sister who died 40 years before. In sections set in 1918, Kelly explores the adolescent relationship between Susannah Parrish and Wyatt Collier, whose father began working for Susannah’s father’s steel mill. As Joanna investigates the history of the Collier family, she begins to connect the mystery of Baby Hayes to long-buried family secrets. Prying into the power and family dynamics of the dynastic American industrialist family, Kelly’s evocative, startling story will appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas.”

I Have Never Felt That I Have Roots: The Millions Interviews Isabel Allende

Largo pétalo de mar (A Long Petal of the Sea), the latest book by bestselling author Isabel Allende, is a historical novel that could very well be set in present time. The central theme is immigration—from those who fled Spain during Franco’s dictatorship and arrived in Chile, only to have to later flee Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship that began in 1973. It is about what people lose when we are forced to leave our homeland in order to survive, and how history repeats itself. It is a story of millions of people throughout history that is more relevant today than ever before.
Largo pétalo de mar, the metaphor that Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda once used to describe his country, begins in the late 1930s, when Spain was gripped by a civil war and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Víctor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two marry and together are sponsored by Neruda to embark on the SS Winnipeg, along with 2,200 other refugees, in search of a new life in Chile as the rest of Europe erupts in war.
The novel explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and fate, and presents strong independent protagonists navigating two wars and a military coup. Throughout the novel, the power of love is, again, Allende’s main subject. Roser and Víctor have to stick together as husband and wife to support each other and her baby, though they are not in love. But the adversities they overcome demonstrate to them that real love grows from loyalty, companionship, and the hardships they face together.
Largo pétalo de mar, released in the U.S. in the Spanish-language edition last month by Vintage Español and due out from Ballantine in English in January, is the 17th novel by Allende in a career that has seen worldwide bestseller and critical success; she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters by the National Book Award Foundation in 2018. But writing isn’t the only thing keeping Allende busy these days, as several of her novels are being made into movies, TV series, theater productions, and operas. And she will start writing a new book January 8, the same date she started writing all of her previous books.
The Winnipeg arrived at the shores of Chile with the dreams and hopes of many. In Largo pétalo de mar, Allende delivers to the U.S. shores a novel that exposes the fears and heartbreak that come from leaving one’s homeland to immigrate to a new land. Although the novel is not set in the U.S., it is very much an American story.
The Millions spoke with Allende from her home in California. She sounds happier than in previous interviews. We soon find out the reason for her jovial tone: later in July, at the age of 74, she will get married for the third time. She has pointed out in several recent interviews that one is never too old to fall in love.
The Millions: With this novel, you take readers through a journey in which history, and immigration in particular, repeats itself. Is this your way of exploring the topic of immigration, which seems to be consuming many parts of the world?
Isabel Allende: I think the theme of refugees that are displaced has been in the air so much with what has been happening in Europe, where millions of refugees are reaching its borders. Then there is the hatred being built by Trump here in the U.S. My last three novels have dealt with refugees and immigrants, but in this one, it is the central theme. I didn’t plan to write about refugees, but the conversations are all around us, and it just seeps into my books.
TM: You yourself have emigrated a couple of times. Does this impact your identity? And do you feel, like many immigrants, that you no longer belong to one place or another?
IA: I have never felt that I have roots. I lived in Chile for seven years, then moved back when I was 16, and then left when the military coup took place in 1973. We arrived in Venezuela as political refugees, forced to leave Chile. But coming to the U.S. was a very different experience. When I moved to California, I came to be with a man I loved, William Gordon. It is quite different to be forced to run away from something than it is to run toward something.


TM: Where is home for you: Chile or the U.S.?
IA: Up until recently, I felt very Chilean, but a big part of that was because my mother and stepfather were both in Chile. They were my link to my roots, but they recently passed, within three months of each other, so I suspect the ties won’t be as strong going forward, as I don’t have any immediate family left in Chile. My son, grandchildren, and now Roger are all in California. Everything for me is in California; I will probably die here.
TM: In this book, like several of your prior books, love is one of the main characters of the novel. In this book you explore a platonic love that becomes romantic with the passing of time. What type of love have you not explored in any of your books that you would like to explore in one of your novels?
IA: That’s an interesting question—never thought of it, ever. In some of my books I touch upon love between homosexuals, but I would like to explore it more, go deeper into it. It is still love between two people, but with layers of social prejudice and negative stigma. Those things seep through a relationship and make it more complicated. There are several types of love that carry social stigma, for example, couples that live together but never get married or someone that leaves their spouse for their lover—society places a judgment that is always part of their relationship.
TM: Your novels are often an homage and a celebration of women, and yet, in this book, you pay tribute to Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda—a man who didn’t always treat women with respect. Do you consider that to be a dichotomy?
IA: Neruda was a flawed man, but you can’t take away his literary merits and his work as a diplomat. He was sent to Paris as special consul to assist with the Spanish migration to Chile during the Spanish Civil War. Neruda was amazing. He chartered the Winnipeg and was able to get over 2,000 Spaniards on the ship and take them to Chile as refugees. If Neruda is to be judged on his treatment of women, you would have to judge him in the time it happened, not by today’s standards. Those were very different times, and if you censor him, you would have to censor everyone. The discussion around Neruda and his treatment of women has come up lately in Chile because they wanted to name the airport in Santiago after him. The idea of naming the airport after Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American and Chilean author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, who was also a diplomat, was dismissed because she was a lesbian. She deserves to have the airport named after her.
TM: In one of your interviews, you mentioned that when you were a journalist, you went to interview Neruda, and he told you to be a novelist and not a journalist. If Neruda were alive today, what would he say about you as a novelist?

IA: He invited me to his house for what I thought was my opportunity to interview him, but instead he said that he would never be interviewed by me, that I was the worst journalist in the country, that I lie all the time, and that if I don’t have a story, I make it up. He recommended I switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues. He had invited me because he liked the humor and irony in my articles. Neruda had cut out many of my articles because they made him laugh. It was many years later that I wrote my first novel, The House of the Spirits, which Hulu is now making into a TV series.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.