In the midst of an increasingly discomfiting spring, it may be hard to imagine that summer will bring brighter days. So many questions, so few answers. But these books — including a biography by Gene Andrew Jarrett; novels by Akwaeke Emezi, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Morgan Talty; and a consideration of menswear edited by Vicki Karaminas, Adam Geczy, and Pamela Church Gibson — can guide us as we seek new ways to dress ourselves, to imagine a freer future, and to reimagine our walk to the food court. Find some shade and peruse these titles as you take your temperature down.
Emezi’s latest novel follows Feyi Adekola, a young woman whose lover died five years prior, as she struggles to date again. When she does find a new, passionate love, Feyi is both overjoyed and suspicious: Will a romance this fiery burn up her whole life? Fans of Emezi’s previous work will find comfort in the writer’s striking prose and well-layered characters but will also revel in the author’s bold first attempts at romance. At once a love story and a tale of deep grief, the novel beautifully displays the bravery of choosing love even in times of total despair. — Mary Retta
As climate change ravages humanity, the natural world, and our imaginations, David Yoon’s rather quiet postapocalyptic novel attends to how the grand, final destruction of human life might be felt on a more singular scale. City of Orange cryptically begins with a protagonist suffering from dissociative amnesia, inexplicably waking up under a bridge and wondering where everyone is. As he cautiously explores his surroundings, scavenges for food, finds shelter, and tries to remake sense of who he is and what has happened, his encounters with others — humans and animals alike — slowly reveal that perhaps all is not as it seems. Subtle and stark twists push an often unhurried narrative more sharply into focus so that, by its conclusion, readers realize that the end of life as we know it might just be the end of life as we thought we knew it. —Omari Weekes
As a journalist, Peter C. Baker has written about police violence in Chicago, pedestrian fatalities in America at large, and his own first novel’s manuscript, which was stolen by a scammer. His first published book of fiction, Planes, shows a similar curiosity about the systems that undergird our relationships to one another. The story centers on Amira, who is living on autopilot in Rome while her husband writes to her from a prison in Morocco, and Mel, whose marriage to a former activist like herself is threatened by an affair with a fellow school-board member. These seemingly disparate plots intersect on a level that is more political than psychological, which makes sense given Baker’s background; his curiosity seems to inflect his fiction, too. —Maddie Crum
As two women making it work in Los Angeles slowly fall in love, their pasts continue to streak into their presents. Sara Foster lands in L.A. as a teenage runaway who eventually establishes herself as a mixologist at the high-end restaurant Yerba Buena, where she’s known for using the eponymous herb as her cocktails’ signature element. While there, she meets Emile Dubois, a recently hired floral designer who has a similarly rocky background. Their courtship may never reach its fullest potential in noted YA author Nina LaCour’s first foray into adult literary fiction. But as the lives of these women chaotically come together and break apart, the sumptuousness of the prose and its reflections of Southern California — its food, its drink, its intimacies — will make you want to take a long, slow drive along an ocean vista. — O.W.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Black writers were attempting to solve a vexing conundrum: How should they tell Black stories while living through the immediate aftermath of slavery? Such a problem has myriad answers, but Paul Laurence Dunbar’s experiments with dialect in both verse and prose helped place him and his substantial body of work at the center of these conversations. In a meticulously crafted biography of the first modern professional Black writer, Gene Andrew Jarrett situates Dunbar’s corpus in its proper historical and cultural context as he narrates a life that bridges an important gap between slavery and freedom. Jarrett intentionally pushes past the calcified myths surrounding Dunbar’s celebrity and his relationship with his wife, the important activist and writer Alice Dunbar Nelson, to render a selective but thorough and eminently readable account of Black genius. —O.W.
In her short prose poem “Not Writing,” Anne Boyer details the plots of the books and poems and missives she might have written if she hadn’t been too busy working or otherwise occupied; she lists Facebook statuses and accounts of her dreams and several novel ideas. In aggregate, the list is a snapshot of distraction and exhaustion. Tyrant Books editor Jordan Castro’s first novel, The Novelist, has a similar spirit; its protagonist spends his morning trying to work on his novel but winds up, like Boyer, not getting many words on the page. A major cause of his distraction is Twitter, which becomes fodder for Bernhardian play; the novelist analyzes a new follower’s profile, a very funny close reading — “My new follower’s username and avatar entered my mind semi-consciously, as a collection of letters and numbers accompanied by a dark image,” he writes. “The username contained the number 37, with letters around it. There was something about my new follower that felt bad; I intuitively disliked them” — and slips into a deeper critique of his, and our, collectively frayed attention. —M.C.
For Allison Brody, who has moved to North Carolina to escape an abusive boyfriend in Los Angeles, life would be perfectly simple and simply perfect with a swimming pool and, perhaps, a pet. In quick succession, however, the quaint beach home she has purchased with all of her savings is destroyed in a hurricane, and a casual hookup ends with her taking a vase to the head. With bloodstained clothes and shards of glass still in her hair, Allison drives back to her childhood home in New Jersey and eventually undergoes emergency brain surgery on the operating table belonging to an old college fling, who is now a neurosurgeon with a swimming pool on the roof of his apartment building. Suddenly the future feels simultaneously hazy and full of possibility. With nimble prose, touches of dark humor, and flirtations with the surreal, Marcy Dermansky reaches deep into the wells of millennial discontent to reveal how confronting the past might provide an indecisive 30-something with her clearest path forward. —O.W.
“The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” the design critic Alexandra Lange writes in Meet Me by the Fountain, her history of that storied commercial institution. It begins with the postwar shopping centers that anchored America’s blooming suburbs and develops into a fantastic examination of what became the mall. Combining architecture’s past with her own, Lange reflects on the malls of her adolescence and in turn prompts you to think about the ones you grew up around. A lot of things come to mind: glossy tiled floors, the glow of a backlit store map, tinny-sounding Muzak on echoey overhead speakers, whiffs of cinnamon buns and orange chicken. Lange shows us how these things become collective memories in the U.S., then looks abroad to envision a more meaningful public afterlife for our fallen shopping centers. —Rina Nkulu
“Does this woman shit novels?” an incredulous friend asked upon the announcement of this, Moshfegh’s sixth book since 2014. Moshfegh, whose work is famously excrement-friendly, probably would revel in the question. But Lapvona appears to veer dramatically from Moshfegh’s previously loner-heavy oeuvre. This is a novel set in a “vanished medieval fiefdom,” with a blind wet nurse who mothers the town’s children and communes with nature, a villainous aristocratic magistrate, and a young shepherd boy drawn into some sort of battle between good and evil. Magic! Peasants! Forest spirits! Here’s hoping Moshfegh, already wonderfully weird, goes full fantasy on us without losing an ounce of her caustic, fuck-it-all shtick. — Hillary Kelly
Tommy Orange once compared Morgan Talty, whose first book is a collection of linked stories set in Maine on a Penobscot reservation, to Denis Johnson, author of the elliptical, spare collection Jesus’ Son. It’s high praise, and it makes sense: Talty pays attention as closely to the rhythms of speech and in doing so unearths grace amid strife. Night of the Living Rez follows David as he and his family struggle to slough off their pasts. There are curses and perceived ghosts and robberies; there are also critiques of the injustices suffered by the Penobscot Nation woven carefully in with the plots. Some of these stories are violent — they touch the experience of opioid addiction, for example — and Talty, with his ear for natural, almost musical dialogue, compels you to keep listening. —M.C.
This bildungsroman, about a young Black girl whose unruly appetites for food, affection, and freedom confound the small imaginations of those around her, pivots between protagonist Malaya Clondon’s African dance classes, her weekly Weight Watchers meetings at an A.M.E. church, and her majority-white private school. Malaya is constantly fielding outside commentary on her body and behavior, and this feeling of being watched teaches her what her body means to others long before she learns what it could mean to herself. Yet she remains an earnest recordkeeper of her unwieldy world, always noting the smells, sounds, shapes, and social dynamics that make up her slice of Upper Manhattan at the tail end of the 20th century. Bountiful and biting, Sullivan’s debut is a crucial meditation on indulgence, identity, and inheritance, a story for those whose desire for self-determination and bodily autonomy cannot be satiated by the rations of a rapacious world. — J.T.M.
Fashion studies have historically been on academia’s periphery, and, even then, critical studies of men’s relationship to the subject was once barely on the map. But considerable strides in this field, coupled with immense cultural change in the past ten years, have made it so that an essay collection such as Fashionable Masculinities can be … fashionable. Yes, this is an academic book, but contributors include some of the best minds in their field — Shaun Cole wrote one of the best explorations of how gay men used clothes to signal their sexual orientation, while Christopher Breward penned the definitive history of the suit — and the book’s 16 chapters are accessible to anyone interested in gender and clothing. Examined are Harry Styles’s “anti-gender” expression, the construction of Black masculinity through wardrobes, and how men use exercise, tattooing, waxing, and tanning to produce a new “spornosexual” physique popularized by sportsmen and reality stars. Fashionable Masculinities picks apart our understanding of manhood, showing how “masculinity has become a style that can be worn, assumed — or abjured.” —Derek Guy
Admittedly, I love the fuzzy feelings that reading accrues. The quiet contentment of domestic spaces in Marilynne Robinson’s novels, or the majestic awe of invented worlds in Susanna Clarke’s epics. We read to feel, and that’s okay! But Castillo has grander hopes for us all, and in this collection of linked essays she moves to wrest reading away from cotton candy aspirations of uniting people in empathetic harmony and reposition it as thornier, and ultimately more rewarding, work. This isn’t a new debate, but it’s one that’s been playing out in hyperdrive over the last decade as criticism, especially online, has crept towards recommendation lists like this one. How to Read Now promises to “interrogate and reflect on the stale questions and uncritical proclamations that so often sub in for vital discussion,” and maybe to start some very interesting (and necessary) disagreements. — H.K.
Emmanuel Carrère’s Yoga: A Novel, recently translated from French by John Lambert, follows a Carrère-like protagonist to a yoga retreat, at which he’s hoping to become a better meditator. This pursuit of mindfulness is interrupted when he learns of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in which a close friend is killed, leading him to leave the retreat early and spiral into a period of psychological turmoil; his marriage, an affair, and his work all unravel. Carrère — the author, not his fictionalized shadow — got into legal trouble with his ex-wife about the book; in a Show About the Show–like twist, allegedly inaccurate portrayals of the period of his life the book supposedly narrates, and of his ex-wife and their daughter, led to an agreement by Carrère to send the ex-wife mentions of her in his work prepublication and to make all requested changes. Come for another chapter in the ongoing debate over authorship and ownership; stay for the breathing techniques. —M.C.
Hamid’s last, brilliant novel, Exit West, transfigured migration from an arduous physical journey into a matter of stepping through a magical door from one country to another — a sci-fi twist that pushed his characters’ shifting, prismatic identity variations to the forefront. The first line of The Last White Man plucks a similar, Kafkaesque tune: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” It turns out he is not the only one. (Hamid says the novel’s central idea has been brewing since 9/11, when his own “partial membership” to whiteness was revoked.) And as this inexplicable darkening affects more and more people, fear and worry turn to hoarding and riots, while Anders navigates the newfound “hazards of being seen.” — H.K.
Over the past decade or so, Julian Barnes’ novels have changed in both size and texture, from formally playful shapeshifters to more emotionally charged chronicles of individual lives. The Sense of an Ending, The Noise of Time, and The Only Story were all poetic missals on love; Elizabeth Finch is about the unrequited variety, the story of the titular professor and a student, Neil, who is already enamored of Finch’s intellectual heft and indebted to her for his philosophical leanings when he is tasked with sorting through her notebooks after her death. But inside every Barnes novel there is a well-placed sprinkling of narrative bait-and-switch, so expect what sounds like a straightforward premise to cleverly veer off road. — H.K.
Here, Mariame Kaba and writer-organizer Andrea Ritchie make the case for getting rid of the police. A mix of history lessons and calls to action, the book explores the many ways that cops fail to keep people safe and implores us to find alternative means of establishing community safety. As both women have been involved in abolitionism for several decades (Kaba’s work focuses on prisons, and Ritchie’s has focused on police misconduct), the book gives readers a unique insight into the mindset of veteran organizers who have long remained diligent and optimistic in this work. Part handbook, part roadmap, No More Police urges readers to imagine not just a world where police are gone, but a world where police are not needed because we live in communities that are peaceful, well-resourced, and ultimately, safe. — M.R.
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