Notable new books

by Jessica Lobaccaro and Lillian Burnes Heath 

Martyrdom. Late capitalism. The meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma. They’re all the subjects of new books that stand out this season. Also out are the latest works by Hanif Abdurraqib, Tommy Orange, Brontez Purnell, and Marilynne Robinson—every one of them authors that delve into unconventional terrains with singular styles. You Dreamed of Empires, by Álvaro Enrigue; translated by Natasha Wimmer (Riverhead; $28). Enrigue, a Mexican author who lives in New York City, follows up his celebrated 2013 tennis novel Sudden Death with a historical recounting of Cortés and Moctezuma’s fated interaction. To some, “The Meeting” teleologically collapsed into religious conversion; Enrique spins some sin into this […]

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Locked down: ‘The Vulnerables,’ by Sigrid Nunez 

by Pia Bhatia 

Sketched from memory by a first-person narrator, The Vulnerables (Riverhead; 242 pages) appears at first to be a kind of memoir, the remains of an aging writer’s observations during her time in pandemic-stricken New York. Considering the volume of novels that have emerged from this period, it’s unsurprising that Sigrid Nunez’s most recent book portrays the city as though it were a still-life object, that the narrator ponders her relationships with the gifts of retrospect and distance. Of course the lockdown demanded self-reflection. Of course it resulted in unusual living arrangements with unlikely groups of people. Even the plot is […]

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Ginsberg in America: ‘Material Wealth,’ by Pat Thomas

by Paul Wilner

“Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’’ So prophesized Allen Ginsberg long ago, channeling Walt Whitman in the epigraph to “Howl,’’ a literary debut that with time seems ever more distant, yet still completely present. Over the course of his remarkable career, Ginsberg resurrected distinguished predecessors from Whitman to William Blake from the tyranny of schoolbooks. He famously served as guiding light, mentor, and press agent to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and too many others to mention, bringing the spoken word back into public discourse while remaining at the vital center […]

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What’s missing in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

by Greg Sarris

Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film, begins with Osage men somberly performing a traditional pipe ceremony. It cuts to a slow-motion scene of tribal members exuberantly dancing in a field, crude oil gushing around them. Get it? Indians are sacred, ancient in their care and devotion to the natural world. Suddenly, though, they will be challenged by settler wealth and greed. In little time, we are then introduced to Scorsese’s central characters: Mollie Kyle, played by American Indian actress Lily Gladstone; Ernest Hale (Robert De Niro); and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). Scorsese, with his co-writer Eric Roth, […]

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The Voices of the Whales

by Isabel Zapata

Translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers 1. I’m interested in the language of animals. 2. Whales, especially the humpback whale and the various subspecies of blue whale, are known to make repetitive sounds with different frequencies we consider to be songs. 3. When we look at animals, we hope to find virtues we lack. 4. Although sexual selection is thought to be their primary purpose, whale songs remain a mystery to scientists. 5. The human body is a symphony. (Charles Ives) 6. The universe is a symphony. (John Cage) 7. Nothing suggests that whales are trying to communicate with […]

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The dead: On writing a thriller set in the rock world

by Christine Sneed

I met Sarah Tomlinson last year in Los Angeles at a book event for a mutual friend. It was an unseasonably cool night, but spirits were high—our friend’s book was doing well, and it was almost summer. After the reading, Sarah and I had a long, discursive conversation about film, TV shows, and books. During our chat, I learned that after working as a music critic in Boston, Sarah had moved to Southern California in the mid-aughts and transitioned to ghostwriting. She has published more than twenty books as a ghostwriter, and has also written a memoir, Good Girl (2015), […]

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Into the Abyss: ‘Ripe,’ by Sarah Rose Etter

by Jessica Lobaccaro

In Sarah Rose Etter’s Ripe (Scribner; 276 pages), we follow Cassie, a 33-year-old San Franciscan working at a tech company. Her life is seemingly secure; she makes a comfortable six-figure salary and can afford her $3,000 monthly rent. However, we quickly find that Cassie is unstable and depressed—she regularly snorts cocaine (especially before work), she is dating a chef who has a girlfriend, and she finds herself in the midst of an unwanted pregnancy, all while suffering from a strained relationship with her mother. But most disturbing of all: ever since Cassie can remember, she has had a literal black […]

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Desert solitaire: ‘Death Valley,’ by Melissa Broder

by Lily Burnes Heath

Melissa Broder’s new novel, Death Valley (Scribner; 240 pages), begins with its unnamed protagonist peeing—and trying to meditate—in a Circle K bathroom during a getaway to Joshua Tree. This bodily moment will pair resoundingly well with another sort of release at the close of this short book of blood and guts. Broder’s protagonist, we learn, is a novelist working on a book about a young-to-middled-aged woman, a pseudo-hippie, struggling with her husband’s chronic, undiagnosable illness. The writer is sober after years of alcoholism, depression, and suffering from the long-term hospitalization of her dying father. She’s seeking spiritual solace on a […]

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by Uche Okonkwo

Nedu named the chicken Otuanya because it was missing an eye, a film of pink tissue sealing the space where the organ should have been. He summoned his father, older sister, and unsmiling mother to the backyard for a naming ceremony, where he served peanuts and Fanta and solemnly announced the chicken’s name to polite applause from his father and an eye roll from his sister. After his family dispersed, Nedu lingered in the backyard. He fed Otuanya leftover grains of rice and tickled the fleshy red wattles that dangled under the chicken’s beak. The chicken had come into their […]

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Herbert Gold, a San Francisco bohemian to the end

by Oscar Villalon

The author Herbert Gold died on November 19, at the age of 99, and it’s still hard to believe that somebody so kinetic, so sonorous, could be gone from San Francisco, his longtime home. It wasn’t unusual to drive up Van Ness Avenue or navigate traffic somewhere in the Mission and see Herb, already in his late 70s, ambling along the sidewalk, dressed in a light jacket and comfortable shoes. He loved to walk, for the exercise, I suppose, but also because he always considered our city an urban village. And how does one appreciate living in such a village […]

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‘Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine’

by Paul Wilner

“It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.’’ — Bob Dylan, to music journalist Paul Zollo Indeed. But as the late great Professor Irwin Corey (who once famously doubled as a stand-in for Thomas Pynchon at the National Book Awards) might say, “However.’’ Despite his relenteless, if unconvincing, attempts to dodge the limelight—including dodging the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 2016—the Minnesota bard’s career has invited explication from obsessed fans, academics, and fellow musicians, all asking different versions of the same question: “How does it feel, to be on your […]

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Phone call

by Cynthia Zarin

Caroline is standing by the north ball fields in Central Park in the snow. It is February. There is some kind of construction going on—or it was going on—the big yellow trucks have stalled, but still, she has had to circumvent them. She is walking southeast, toward Seventy-Ninth Street, through the park. It is freezing.

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