vulture lists

The Best Books of the Year (So Far)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Publishers

As the air becomes warm enough for your skin to find it gentle instead of cruel, it’s time to return to your favorite little spots of outdoor reprieve — a field, a porch, a bench, a ferry, an especially kind window — or begin staking out new ones. In either case, take a book with you, specifically one of these books, which our crew of critics has found to offer everything from piercing emotional translation (Fiona and Jane) to seasonally appropriate renewal and self-rediscovery (Vladimir) to feet jokes (a new Oedipus translation). There’s no hierarchy here, just a bunch of books we think you’ll enjoy. Take a seat in the sun. Open a page. Enjoy.

All books are listed by U.S. release date.

January

Photo: Viking

In the short stories of Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane, the author tracks the titular characters’ childhood friendship into adulthood through everything from romantic betrayal to grief to dropping out of law school. The pair reinforce one another’s foibles — oversharing and navel-gazing — by feeding on one another’s psychic supply: An interchangeable sister-mother-friend-annelid dynamic ripe for transference is constructed in alternating perspective shifts that are like jump scares in their abrupt changeover. The result is a confidently nonlinear debut collection that sluices through the interiority of its protagonists without diminishing the passion and powerfully mysterious intimacy of female friendship. — Safy-Hallan Farah

February

Pure Colour, by Sheila Heti
$22
$22
Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sheila Heti’s last two novels, How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood, treated self-doubt as a formal project: What shape can a writer give her own indecisiveness? Then, just as some parents of newborns find purpose and clarity, she emerged with a book full of declarations. In Pure Colour, God is preparing to scrap the first draft of existence and replace it with something better — a state of being that’s more humane, more egalitarian, and perhaps less vain. In the meantime, Heti relates the life of Mira, an aesthete, a critic, and a seller of fine lamps, as she grieves her father, whose corpse she’s taken up residency with inside of a leaf. The directness of Heti’s writing renders even her most twee scenes into something affecting. Of Mira’s work in the lamp store, for example, she writes, “The red and green stones shed its light upon her dark face and the white walls. And she loved her meager little existence, which was entirely her own.” — Maddie Crum

Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas
$16
$16
Photo: Avid Reader Press

Julia May Jonas’s debut novel is an intimate portrait of a failing marriage, yes, but it’s also a look at the reconstruction of a life meticulously built whose foundation begins to crack, then crumble. A middle-aged lit professor has to decide whether to stick beside her husband, also a middle-aged professor at the same liberal arts college, who is being investigated by the school for sexual misconduct with former students. Enter the titular Vladimir, an accomplished younger writer who’s the newest tenured professor. Suddenly, she’s bursting with desire — the kind that inspires her to write a book, masturbate, and ignore her increasingly needy husband. It’s self-conscious in the best way, sharp and observant without being didactic, something I’ve found to be increasingly rare. — Tembe Denton-Hurst

The Employees, by Olga Ravn
$16
$16
Photo: New Directions

Aboard the Six-Thousand Ship, sometime in the 22nd century, employees are encouraged to be present-minded lest they lose themselves to memories of Earth and of their left-behind loved ones. Such nostalgia is not productive and is bound to interfere with their work performance. The Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, is made up of interviews with these workers, some of whom are human, others humanoid, although the distinction is at times made unclear. To stave off melancholy — another deterrent to work — they’re given child holograms and stimulating objects with which to interact. Unsurprisingly, labor peace eludes the ship, and a workplace novel devolves into a full-blown horror story, leaving behind few survivors. This is more than a clever reframing of sci-fi tropes, although it’s that, too; the employees’ voices themselves, some of them desperate, some of them meditative, form a touching, alienated chorus, narrating a tragedy that for many will ring eerily true. — M.C.

March

Photo: Riverhead

As in her first book, the exuberant and formally inventive Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett’s second novel is moving in its sentence-level, voice-driven rhythms that relate scenes from a British schoolgirl’s first and most formative encounters with books and with invention — silly, strange, and touching moments in their intimacy. The epigraph for one chapter is an excerpt from John Milton’s pamphlet Areopagitica on the vitality of books that are free to be expressive, confessional, heretical, even; they project “a potency of life” and “preserve as in a vial the efficacy … of that living intellect that bred them.” It’s a familiar premise, that reading and creativity are life-giving, but in her stylish künstlerroman, Bennett gives the premise new life. — M.C.

$22
Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Asian immigrant narratives in American fiction tend to follow a familiar script: Person arrives in the West wiped clean of caste tension, the relationships they had to money, class, and ambition in their home country subsumed by the fact of their recent arrival. In Pankaj Mishra’s second novel, Run and Hide, he reorients this narrative of escape to tell a stickier tale. His protagonist Arun is a poor young Indian man whose life becomes intertwined with two ladder-climbing university classmates and, eventually, a wealthy younger lover — the kind of expat for whom borders hold little transformative power. Mishra is a public intellectual and regular contributor to the London Review of Books as well as a rare and talented fiction writer: Here, he braids a headlong plot with commentary on what you lose while trying to make it big — and what you gain when you opt out. — Madeline Leung Coleman

Photo: W.W. Norton

Emily Wilson is one of my favorite working classicists; I’ve followed her since she wrote a deliciously biting review of a Hesiod translation for the New York Review of Books. The new Norton Library edition of her translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos (also known by its Roman title, Oedipus Rex, which Wilson describes as a spoiler) is full of the historiographical precision and literary clarity I associate with Wilson’s other works, including her 2018 translation of The Odyssey. Wilson’s translation notes alone are a delight — translating Sophocles, she aims for an idiom that is “fluent, humane, natural, and also markedly artful; sometimes conversational, but never slangy … sometimes odd, but never stiff or unintentionally obscure.” Wilson’s verse captures the rich density of ancient poetry, and her notes also offer surprisingly funny insights into the play’s original context: An abundance of foot puns would sound less ridiculous to Athenian ears, and a final line she describes as “hokey” is characteristic of the “simplistic moralizing” that is “fairly common at the end of Athenian tragedy.” — Erin Schwartz 

$14
Photo: MCD x FSG Originals

Missouri Williams’s debut novel begins after humanity has been destroyed by a natural catastrophe, the details of which we’re spared. Unlike in, say, Station Eleven, pre-apocalypse days aren’t the focus; instead, we spend our time with a struggling, sordid, incestuous family, possibly the last family left on earth. A woman — the Matriarch — and her brother take on the task of remaking humanity with a crew of their own children. Williams’s book bears resemblances to William Faulkner in its conceit, in its wending sentences, and in its images: Noses point “off to one side like a rudder.” At one point, the Matriarch disposes of a daughter’s body not in a casket but with a wheelbarrow. And what could be more Gothic, more suffocating and cloistered, than an apocalypse that left behind only you and your most overbearing family members? — M.C.

April

Photo: Pantheon

If every foray into writing about one’s life constitutes a tense negotiation between the past and the present, Margo Jefferson’s latest, Constructing a Nervous System, refuses those terms. A sequel of sorts to her award-winning 2015 memoir, Negroland, Jefferson takes the form and blows it up — in the smoldering debris, synapses of memory make new connections. Constructing blends autobiography and criticism to gift readers with reflections and ruminations on the place of music, aesthetics, and celebrity in one’s personal and shared racial history. The sweat of Ella Fitzgerald, the audacity of Ike Turner, the genius of Josephine Baker, the virtuosity of Bud Powell — interwoven here are the mystifying qualities and talents of those and many other artists, all of which come together to tell of a life that has been influenced by and in turn influenced so many others — Omari Weekes

The Best Books of the Year (So Far)