Since 2016, many journalists—as well as academic, political, and literary writers—have been sounding the alarm about the future of American democracy. The writers trying to shake Americans out of their manifest-destiny stupor are a diverse cast, ranging from activists who wouldn’t hesitate to label themselves members of “the resistance,” like New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow, to people like David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who is still reviled by many on the left for his role promoting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A few days after I finished Catherine Pikula’s chapbook I’m Fine. How are You? I read the following sentence: “I would like to make a book out of crumpled-up pieces of paper: you start a sentence, it doesn’t work and you throw the page away. I’m collecting a few … maybe this is, in fact, the only literature possible today.” The sentence came in the last hundred pages of The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. And while the “today” referenced above was Italy in the 1960s, the description was oddly reminiscent of the small, thread-bound chapbook published in 2018 that I’d recently put down, I’m Fine. How Are You?
“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.”
The Barefoot Woman opens with the author’s mother, Stefania, imparting knowledge to her daughters. “Often in the middle of one of those never-ending chores that fill a woman’s day,” Mukasonga writes, “(sweeping the yard, shelling and sorting beans, weeding the sorghum patch, tilling the soil, digging sweet potatoes, peeling and cooking bananas…), my mother would pause and call out to us.” Much of the book proceeds from this image: we learn the details of her mother’s life and rituals through her endless work and we learn the kinds of things passed down from a Tutsi mother to her daughter—one of only two of eight children to survive the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
A Danger to Herself and Others is a wonderful, suspenseful read that does more than just tell a riveting story. The book opens the door to a larger narrative and seeks to cultivate compassion and understanding toward other, real-life stories just like Hannah’s.
Andrea Blancas Beltran, associate editor of MIEL, experimental poet, and proud fronteriza, made her chapbook debut in July 2018 with the poetry collection Re-. In it, Beltran stitches together a brimming handful of nostalgic recollections, inviting the reader to ponder the role of memory, the eerie beauty of forgotten things, and depth of emotion that can be found in everyday life.
Panic Years, Daniel Difranco’s debut novel, is a hyper realistic account of a band on tour. Told from the perspective of laconic Paul, Panic Years follows indie bandmates Paul, Laney, Gooch, Jeff and later Drix across the country’s dive bars and clubs. “I’d joined Qualia because they were a good band with a shit-ton of underground buzz,” Paul muses on page five, setting the band’s intention for the rest of the tour: build Qualia’s indie fame to a record deal, or some serious label recognition.
Narrator is brief and quirky, rich and absurd, metatextual and extremely simple. It’s a walking narrative (in reality, a stalking narrative), which means it depends upon the motion of the narrator in order to go anywhere in particular. However, this book’s range is only within the mind; Aron’s and G.’s movements throughout Reykjavik are completely uninteresting, encompassing mostly pubs and shops of little consequence. But G.’s thoughts circle neurotically around his family, his failures, and Aron’s ex-girlfriend, Sara, for whom G. pined. In this way, and others, the vertical dimensions of the book are much more compelling than its movements through horizontal space.
“College people like getting greens with soil still on the stems. It makes them feel real in a world made mostly of plastic and propane.” This is what the first narrator, a 13-year-old Alabaman girl with a rotten tooth, tells the reader in Genevieve Hudson’s debut collection of short stories, Pretend We Live Here. This type of humor and keen observation peppers the entire collection of fifteen stories.
The Females was my first encounter with the late writer Wolfgang Hilbig, who grew up in East Germany and was allowed to move to the West in the mid-80s. He died in 2007 and was buried in Berlin. Isabel Fargo Cole has been translating his work for twenty years now. She started working to gain Hilbig an English-speaking audience before his death, and The Females, from Two Lines Press, is her sixth Hilbig work.
Part of the pleasure in following an author, as I have followed Claire Fuller from her first novel to her latest, Bitter Orange, is coming to recognize her voice, even without a title page. Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons introduced me to Fuller’s eerie, ironically rendered English countryside of dark forests and haunted seaside villages, and to her characters held captive by lies. From novel to novel I’ve admired how she uses intelligent but naïve narrators to withhold information from the reader, sustaining unnerving suspense while signaling dissonance beneath the well-mannered surface. At this point, I’ll eagerly read anything she writes. And Bitter Orange is her best book yet.
Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book comes at a time in which most of us regularly feel beside ourselves in what she describes as an “everyday madness.” She devotes herself to describing this mundane madness, something which could be called trauma but is experienced by almost everyone, in three manifestations.
Thank goodness Magela Baudoin’s first book to be translated in English, Sleeping Dragons, is so short. The fifteen stories in this collection (adding up to only 140 pages) are so precise, bursting with such potency, that to increase the collection to 200 or 250 pages would just about kill the average reader. Nearly all the stories are perfectly formed, energetic little spheres—like new tennis balls, popping with their own elasticity the moment they drop out of the canister—and only so many of these spheres can hit a reader between the eyes before she must stop, dazed. The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.
Excellent writing is often lauded for its ability to transport and disembody the reader, to enrapture so completely that its audience floats along the sentence and forgets their place in the room. Meghan McClure’s Portrait of a Body in Wreckages does not do this, instead, much of its excellence is found in its proficiency to embody the reader, to address them in their own physicality, and move along the level of the cell as well as the sentence.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is part of a unique legacy of writer-physicians—Nawal El Saadawi, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, to name a few—and the unexpected harmony of these pursuits is showcased throughout her collection White Dancing Elephants, winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.
At the beginning of Guadalupe Nettel’s newly translated novel After the Winter, twenty-five-year-old Cecilia moves from her native Oaxaca to Paris. She arrives there without the usual image of Paris as a “city where dozens of couples of all ages kissed each other in parks and on the platforms of the métro, but of a rainy place where people read Cioran and La Rochefoucauld while, their lips pursed and preoccupied, they sipped coffee with no milk and no sugar.”
The paradox in writing a postmodern memoir is that the author must somehow convince readers she’s telling the truth—typically by admitting to subjectivity and fallible memory, and by interrogating her version of events. But that’s not the strategy Vanya Erickson employs in her post-WWII coming-of-age story, Boot Language. With vivid detail and some implausibly long passages of remembered dialogue, she presents herself as the sole reliable narrator of her life in California, where she was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who failed to protect her (but did “soften Dad’s blows” with inherited money).
The motor of Strange Weather is the slow love that builds between Tsukiko and Sensei. At a neighborhood bar, they run into each other after decades of absence. Maybe at another time they would have exchanged pleasantries and moved along. But they are both living in the same kind of underwater blue. They chat and find that their language is the same. They start to build an intimacy without schedule, running into each other at the bar, sharing meals and drinks, telling simple stories, laughing at their inconsistencies.
The translation initiative Read Russia characterizes Leonid Yuzefovich as a writer whose books “gray the lines between faction and fiction,” using historical figures and settings in his work. “Faction” is for artful historians (or for historian artists, perhaps), writers who know how to be suspicious of fictionalizing, but also know that history is never just facts. This description of Yuzefovich makes sense, since he is a historian by training and taught history for many years, but has emerged as an influential contemporary fiction writer in Russia.
The Cartoon Dialectics series collects work that Tom Kaczynski has published in anthologies since 2005. Kaczynski is perhaps best known for being the publisher of comics imprint Uncivilized Books, an independent press that has published works by Gabrielle Bell, David B., and Noah Van Sciver. As the title Cartoon Dialectics suggests, Kaczynski’s own work straddles the line between comics and philosophy; he weaves together reflections on culture and critical theory with memoir and memory.
Anna Moschovakis’ debut novel Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love is a searching and poignant work that deftly positions itself between the unspeakable specificity of personal experience and the disturbing surplus of fungible narratives in our online world. The writing feels brave in both its formal approach and its openness to the potentially divergent conclusions it may suggest.
Lola Montez, the protagonist of Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig, is a woman gripped by an obsessive, consuming passion for her married lover, Coenraad. To hear Lola tell it, this mysterious man, who works for an unspecified outfit referred to only as “The Agency,” directs her to their assignations by means of a secret code he embeds into the text of National Geographic magazine articles.
The title of Nova Ren Suma’s gripping new book, A Room Away from the Wolves, refers to its central location, but also to an unobtainable promise: a place where a girl can go to be truly safe. This novel resists easy categorizations. Not just a ghost story, not just a coming-of-age story, A Room Away from the Wolves will leave readers questioning the notion of safety in a world where the most dangerous enemy is one’s own past—and double-checking dark corners of the bedroom before going to sleep.
If Disney’s Pinocchio is an affable, pliable ingénue who was reconfigured, according to the lore, to look more like a boy than a puppet, Collodi’s is an anti-hero—a wooden thing with barely any ears who mostly can’t see beyond his own nose, no matter its current proportion. He is persistent, insistent, impossible, exasperating, willfully obtuse, a regular screw-up. You don’t have to stretch to note the parallels that dominate our news cycle. Donald J. Trump was prefigured more than 130 years ago. He was augured by a satirist who was most supremely skilled in imagining poor, and poorly curbed, behavior.
Katie Rogin’s debut novel, Life During Wartime, presents the struggle that soldiers, and their families, face adjusting back to civilian life. The story begins when 21-year-old Nina Wicklow, home from duty in Iraq, goes missing in a small town outside of Los Angeles.
A new novel, Mina, written by Kim Sagwa and translated from Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, attempts to chronical adolescences, a transformative time of life, but in the context of a world that does not condone individuality, experimentation, or choice. Through unconventional characters, a high-pressure setting, and an unapologetic directness that is both off-putting and enthralling, Kim creates an entirely different kind of teenage drama. By placing three emotional, confused young people in a world of restraint and hidden suffering, she ignites an explosion of a story that is entirely new. It does not have the charming humor of John Green or the contrariety of J.D. Salinger. Instead, it is an immensely serious and angry portrayal of a teenage breakdown.
There is a plant “whose sap produces […] microscopic animal larvae” that can consume rats “from the inside out.” It can only be found on “Thompson Island, a small landmass in Tierra Del Fuego,” within Argentinian screenwriter Roque Larraquy’s debut novel Comemadre—the name of this plant of spontaneous generation. Translated in the novel as “motherseeker or mothersicken,” this fictitious plant and its larvae symbolize the dual powers of violence to create and destroy. First as crime, then as art.
Amy Saul-Zerby’s new collection, Deep Camouflage is the manifestation of heartbreak. It is the fables that spawn from moments of empathy and melancholy. It is the conversation that a poet has with their reader. More than most poetry collections, Saul-Zerby’s is a sequence that asks to be read all at once.
Maya Aziz sees her world through a camera lens. “One thing I’ve learned,” she says, “People love a camera, and when I’m filming, they see it, not me, so whenever I need to, I can disappear behind my trusty shield.” She is often the observer, experiencing her life on the outside looking in. As the novel opens, Maya is at a crossroads: she has been accepted to NYU’s prestigious filmmaking program, but her traditional Indian Muslim parents want her to go to school in Chicago, within reach of their influence and protection.
Four children play together in a quiet neighborhood. The children are Henriette Held, the young daughter of a Jewish dentist; the Elekes sisters, Irén and Blanka; and Bálint Temes, the handsome son of the Major. Their game is Cherry Tree, in which they all sing and spin in circles, and one of the children “chooses” another, the one they love. In this innocent game, the girls invariably choose Bálint, and each girl develops her own particular feelings for the boy; when it is his turn to choose, though, Bálint always prefers Irén, the oldest and most serious of the three. This is one of the earliest memories shared by the Elekes, Temes, and Held families, who form a lifelong, tragic bond in Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street.
Whereas his previous book references artists, movements, historical figures, and myths, Jampole has made the bold choice here to work from two overarching cultural touchstones. Rather than searching for the vocabulary it shares with the reader, Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month undertakes the creation of a new such vocabulary altogether. The result is two series of poems that sit on the edge between the particular and the universal, the everyday and the extraordinary, the true and the beautiful.
The poems in Sarah Marcus’ book, They Were Bears follow a young woman, the speaker of most of the poems, who pursues discovery and sensation in the remote corners of the American wilderness. The narrative shapes this wilderness into a wide-open expanse characterized by uncertainty, wonder, and menace. The backdrop also shifts from unpeopled natural settings to the speaker’s agricultural childhood home and to the industrial sprawl of Cleveland. The book’s three untitled segments each alternate between lyric poems and prose poems, and all use bears and other animals as central to their imagery and symbolism. Poems in the book discuss a variety of themes, including family, sexuality, and womanhood. The primary foci of the work as a whole, however, seem to be overcoming trauma and embracing nature. Together, the poems tell the story of a woman defined by her passion and resilience in the face of a harrowing past.
With a title and subtitle like Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, the reader will be forgiven for thinking Joachim Kalka’s book is a collection of visual art. It is not. Though it does contain a handful of visual descriptions, it bears not one illustration, woodcut, or photograph. No lantern slides, and no visual depictions of gaslight. What it has instead are words, many of them, artfully arranged. Kalka’s words, assembled into eleven essays and a preface, are densely packed and remarkably pointed. Although his purpose is to glance back at the nineteenth century, not to historicize it, or even to theorize about it with a particular agenda, Kalka is a highly organized thinker. His insights prove scintillating, if specialized.
Karen Donovan’s Aardvark to Axolotl and John Shea’s Tales from Webster engage with this paradox via the dictionary, that great alphabetizer of language. The dictionary is the reference-book-of-all-reference-books. It is writing broken down to its most basic components, as a color wheel separates out the most basic tools of the painter. It also makes for dry reading. As far as plots go, it’s lackluster.
Acclaimed writer David Plante’s book, published originally in 1983, is an account of his friendships with three women central to the artistic and intellectual world of the 1970s. It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters. In nonfiction writing classes, this point of view would be discouraged.
Ivory Pearl is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s final and unfinished novel, now available in an English translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Manchette was known during his lifetime for his 1970s crime novels, noir that gained popular movie adaptations and made him a standard among French crime writers. This translation features endnotes on how Manchette envisioned the novel ending, and an introduction written by Manchette’s son, Doug Headline, which is as affectionate as it is informative.
Divided into four sections, Deborah Burnham’s poetry collection Tart Honey seems cut into citrus slices— edible, organic, and aware of some lost and bodily whole it re-composes in the formation of its parts. The poems feature modern relationships with too much absence, a dissolving picture of Apollo 13 soon taken over by a persona attempting to collect her body into experiencing her partner, and paintings with colors that spill into cells, among other simultaneously harmonizing and divisive images.
The Juniper Tree is a mid-twentieth-century retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name, though Barbara Comyns has made the story all her own. Originally published in 1985, The Juniper Tree tells the story of Bella Winter, the unwed mother of a biracial daughter, through her quest to live life on her own terms in a world where she is patently disapproved of for being who she is.
In his introductory comments for The Kremlin Ball, Curzio Malaparte claims that his novel is “a faithful portrait of the USSR’s Marxist nobility.” Such a thing should be anachronistic: a Marxist nobility? A communist high society?
But that is exactly what Malaparte, as the novel’s narrator, is describing.
Headlands Quadrats and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad speak to anyone who appreciates poetry, and lovingly handcrafted poetry chapbooks. Both works strike a delicate balance between lyric and narrative modes—the former leaning further into lyric and the latter into prose narrative. Headlands Quadrats will be especially notable to those with an abiding interest in ecopoetics, and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad to those drawn to feminist poetics, Marxism, and humor.
The work of literary translators can be viewed as vital, especially given the forces of nationalism today, so it is no small matter that someone of Lahiri’s caliber has joined the ranks. For Starnone and his readers, it means his novel Trick arrives in English in mesmerizing form.
Playing Catch with Strangers consists of a long series of short essays. Most were written for print or online publications and not originally intended as book chapters. They are clean, straightforward, and easy to read. They are also salutary—in the sense of promoting better mental health and positive emotions. Brody reminds us of the many gifts that life offers to those who pay it close attention.
The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls is an anthology of feminist fiction, celebrating what editor Jessica Spotswood calls in her introduction the “quiet badassery” of young heroines taking charge of their own identities. This collection is a follow-up to A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and other Badass Girls, also edited by Jessica Spotswood. Similar to the first volume, the pieces in The Radical Element span a wide range of historical time periods and geographic locations, from 1838 Georgia to 20th century Boston. A brief author’s note follows each story, with additional information on the historical context or the inspiration behind the work.
The title character of Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua is a Somali woman caught in history’s crosshairs. Born to an ambitious, mercurial man, a translator who sold his skills to the Italians during Mussolini’s pre-WWII push to expand his African empire, Adua’s life is shaped by choices she didn’t make and subject to forces she can’t control.
The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, Texas and the time is when the tail end of the 1970s met the Reagan 1980s.
For a novel about witches, magic, and family curses, Leslye Walton’s The Price Guide to the Occult has a lot to say about humanity. More than a century ago, a witch named Rona Blackburn landed on Anathema Island, where she was met with fear and vexation from the island’s founding families. Determined to rid their island of her “as the tide erases footprints in the sand,” they burned her home down. So she, naturally, cursed their entire bloodlines
Who we are is a complicated thing. Interactions influence perceptions, and perceptions influence memories. Having lost her father in a tragic accident when she was only seven, author Sharon Harrigan attempts to unravel the mystery of the man her father was in the powerful new memoir Playing with Dynamite. “I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”
What an odd book Tomb Song is. It contains prose both beautiful and profane, extensive self-awareness and a troubling level of self-ignorance. Its author and its narrator blur together into an entity that is never quite one or the other, and it doesn’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction with especial meticulousness. That is, the narrator and the author have the same name, the same wife and child, the same job, and the same literary accomplishments. It remains undefined whether, in what passages, and to what extent Herbert has fictionalized his life to write this book, which a reviewer in a Chilean newspaper called “an elegy to his mother.”
Dominique, or Dom, seems to have nothing. She lives in Trenton, New Jersey with her single mother and helps run their Laundromat. When Dom and her best friend Cass embark on a field trip to New York City to see the students of the Brighton Conservatory perform at Carnegie Hall, Dom sees Ben for the first time.