A thought experiment: imagine that back during the peak prosperity years of the Obama Administration, with optimism at a high and unemployment dropping, that the good Dr. Oliver Sacks had unexpectedly published a despairing novel featuring a one-armed murdering pimp with white-supremacist leanings named Frank Beaverbrains.
This dull petty criminal wanders Manhattan—or some gentrifying urban center of high culture and national pride—selling tie stands and alt-right newsletters, roughing up prostitutes, shooting up bars, and volunteering for a number of disastrous heists before winding up a diminished nobody, an assistant porter at a small company with less than nothing left to him. The reading public, scandalized, intrigued, mystified, lines up at bookstores nationwide to make this strange novel a bestseller. Some years later, Trump rides a surge of white nationalism to the White House, earning the author a reputation as a kind of literary-political clairvoyant.
Within the first few pages of The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec we meet a theatrical tour guide in a haunted town, a man named Andrew who might turn into someone else at the end of the day, and a mother, covered in plaster, who walks into a field and never returns. Valerie Fox’s hybrid writing in The Real Sky is unexpected and surreal.
Andre Fenton’s heartful debut novel Worthy of Love follows Adrian as he struggles not only with his weight, but with his own sense of self-worth. Candid, earnest, and full of emotion, Fenton gives us a unique yet personal story about one journey toward self-love.
It is a pleasure when a poet weds mind and heart in equal measure. Poets who tend toward innovation are often peremptorily classified by critics and readers as cerebral, the commenter overemphasizing surface play and failing to perceive—much less value—the emotional qualities they bring to their work. Thus ersatz schools and confederacies looser than that of Jefferson Davis come into being.
J.G. McClure’s long-awaited first collection of poetry, The Fire Lit & Nearing meditates on the loss of romantic love and walks through darkness for an answer. McClure refuses, and simultaneously attempts, to mend himself on these pages.
We don’t often read literature from Azerbaijan, for many reasons. It’s a small post-Soviet country that is hard to find on the map, with a Turkic language that makes finding translators difficult, and a government that still censors its writers Soviet-style. We don’t generally stroll down the aisle at a bookstore and discover the “Azeri” section. The only thing harder to find might be Georgian, and I’ll only say “might.” Probably most of us have no idea what novelists in Azerbaijan write about, what kind of social justice concerns they have, or what kind of risks those writers take to address those concerns.
Written from the perspective of an unnamed Argentinian art critic, Optic Nerve flits from her present to her childhood memories, to her culture’s memories, in order to develop a lineage between self and cultural artifacts, become an optic nerve transmitting information from the external to the internal. The most representative instance of this transmission takes the form of a historical moment remembered by the narrator: while Señora Alvear, “once upon a time the famous soprano Regina Pacini,” sits at her dinner table beneath a painting by French animal painter Alfred de Dreux, “her eye travels back and forth constantly between the deer in the picture, still alive, and the other one, dead and served to them in lean cuts.” Optic Nerve spends much of its time traveling back and forth like this.
It’s hard to find communion with a living thing in winter. Anyone with a burrow crawls in, wraps their tail around their eyes. The other night, when snow had just started falling, I braved the interstate on my way to another city, to share a friend’s burrow. Some black ice spun me around, and I slid off the road, stopped in the median, my tread marks looping back through the new snow like a confused shadow. I’m fine, thanks. I didn’t turn around, kept driving, couldn’t bear missing a chance not to be alone. The car’s fine, too, just brown all over from the dirt I scooped up. I haven’t washed it yet. I like chauffeuring dirt around the city, an unanswered text message from the world of matter: I’m still here.
Originally released as an E-book by Instant Future in 2015, essayist Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is now reborn in corporeal chapbook form. At 50 pages, it can be read in one sitting, and I recommend this approach for best absorption of its nutrients. Nutrients, numbers, rules—Washuta is constantly searching for a calculus that will solve the problem of what goes into the body: “I would like to return to a time before it got so hard to eat,” she writes in the chapbook’s opening, “but eating has always been the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.”
What is a free life? This seemingly simple question is, of course, anything but simple. Theorizing a possibility of a free life with a recognition of the various structural oppressions in society is a challenge brought to vivid life in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman.
Joanna Ruth Meyer’s second YA novel, Echo North, opens with a classic fairytale premise: Echo, who was attacked as a small child by a wolf, is scorned by her village because of the brutal scars on her face. When her father remarries, the cruel new stepmother takes every opportunity to let Echo know just how ugly and worthless she is.
Every self-professed American optimist should read the oeuvre of Walter Kempowski—not that they ever will. The chronicler of brutality was never given a fair shake even by his fellow Germans, and despite strong book sales, by literary award committees. Kempowski had plenty of reasons to be angry—angry at his Nazi father whom he betrayed, at what the agonized Sebastian Haffner once called the “moral inadequacy of the German character,” at the literary world for snubbing him, and at every center of power involved in WWII: the Russians, British, Germans, Europe itself. The triumphant Soviets—without whom WWII could not have been won—were responsible for imprisoning Kempowski as well as his innocent and elderly mother.
Melissa Duclos’ debut novel Besotted is a lyrical, urgent love story about two young American women, Sasha and Liz, who run away to China to try to find themselves. Sasha has fled all the trappings of her privileged life, including her father who disapproves of her sexuality. Liz, the object of Sasha’s desire, has packed up and left her predictable existence and Amherst-educated boyfriend, having grown tired of being an afterthought of his otherwise-enchanted life.
Grief is a waiting room with broken blinds. Cracks in the slats reveal some light outside, but since the pulleys won’t move, it’s impossible to know when—or if—the sun will shine on us again. The first time you lose a parent, this room feels strange and its shadows thwart your compass. Like death itself, you’ve been told that grief brings anguish.
Adiós To My Parents is a universal family story. Although the setting (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala) is unfamiliar to me—I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs all of my fifty-one years and, regrettably, have taken only one Spanish class—the people in this book are so richly drawn that I know them instantly.
One imagines this first existing as a notebook, non-committal if tending toward provisional completion, then, as Stein might put it, becoming what it became. In his most explosive work, Trilce, César Vallejo’s more formally complex poems are not necessarily more ambitious than those done in prose, in which he tends to offer greater immediate clarity, yet equal force. In fact, some of these explorations are more heightened and exploratory than the often-sentimental and casually conventional Human Poems.
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 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.
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.
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.