‘The Book of Lost Names’ by Kristin Harmel: Remembering as Resistance

by Jesse Bedayn

Kristin Harmel’s fifth novel, The Book of Lost Names (400 pages; Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), is a tour de force––a stirring testament to stoicism and courage in the face of “nightmares of monsters dressed as men.” Harmel’s story takes readers back to Nazi-occupied France, where the protagonist, a young, willful Jewish woman named Eva Traube, forges documents for the hundreds of Jewish children to be smuggled from France to Switzerland. If caught, she’ll hang. The heartrending story grapples with the contortion of morality, of faith and hope under duress, and the inimitable power of love. The book jumps between Eva’s years […]

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‘A Candle for San Simón’ by Kelly Daniels: Accidental Comedians, Road Warriors, & Rough Magic

by Paul Wilner

Inside (almost) every “serious’’ novel, there’s some pulp fiction struggling to get out. Kelly Daniels navigates the path between the two, mostly successfully, in A Candle for San Simón (Owl Canyon Press; 276 pages). Mirroring some of the themes of Daniels’ 2013 memoir, Cloudbreak, California, an account of shaking off the legacy of his drug-dealing, surfer-bum father, the new novel is a picaresque narrative of gun-running and gang violence in Guatemala written in a deadpan noir style that sometimes recalls Charles Willeford (and Malcolm Lowry). But the repressed always returns, and a father-son conflict is once again central to this […]

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‘Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19’: Searching for Connection Amidst the Pandemic

by Cade Johnson

Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 (288 pages; Central Avenue Publishing; edited by Jennifer Haupt) is a collection of essays, interviews, and poems meant to serve as a resource for connection, hope, and grief in our pandemic world. (All proceeds from the book will be donated to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes programs to strengthen the bookselling community, which has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn brought about by COVID-19.)  In the essay “Books on Pause,” Kevin Sampsell writes about his work at Powell’s Books, the world largest independent […]

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‘The City We Became’ by N.K. Jemisin: The Battle Against Confirmation Bias

by Jesse Bedayn

In the first pages of N.K. Jemisin’s  fantasy novel The City We Became, (437 pages; Orbit), the reader is thrown into the vertiginous action: New York City contorts as it literally comes alive, fighting off an interdimensional Enemy—at times a tentacled incarnation of Lovecraftian racism. Without a moment’s lull, Jemisen’s protagonists—cities and boroughs in the form of human avatars—grapple with an adversary wielding xenophobia and bent on destruction.  In this, the first book in Jemisen’s Great Cities trilogy, metropolises are born after developing enough cultural complexity and overlay to form their own three-dimensional personalities. But as they enter the world, “They […]

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‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar: At the Whim of the Powers That Be

by Cade Johnson

Megha Majumdar’s first novel, A Burning (304 pages; Knopf), is one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory. The Kolkata-born Majumdar weaves the story of three individuals living in contemporary India whose fates are at the whim of the powers that be. Jivan, a young, driven Muslim girl who grew up in the Kolabagan slum, aspires to join the middle class. After she witnesses a terrorist attack at a train station that kills more than a hundred people, she posts a Facebook comment critical of the local police response. “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and […]

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‘How to Pronounce Knife’ by Souvankham Thammavongsa: Life on the Margins

by Bella Davis

In her debut  story collection, How to Pronounce Knife (192 pages; Little Brown), Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on power and privilege, connection and isolation. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Lao parents and raised in Canada, Thammavongsa centers the day-to-day lives of immigrants in fourteen stories, written in a precise and emotionally devastating style.   In the titular story, a young girl brings a book home from school to practice reading and asks her father for help pronouncing a word she’s never encountered. The next day in class she’s tasked with reading aloud and is sent to the principal’s office […]

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‘Dailiness: Essays on Poetry’ by Mark Jarman: A Devotional Poetic Voice

by Meryl Natchez

Amidst the clamor of poetic voices, reading Mark Jarman’s Dailiness: Essays on Poetry (Paul Dry Press; 177 pages) has been a deep pleasure. These essays display a profound, thoughtful, rigorous attention to poetry, especially its roots and formal structure. Jarman is a formal poet, and his explication of Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins, as well as contemporary poets you might not expect (Michelle Boisseau, Rita Dove, Brenda Hillman, and Sophia Stid, for example) is insightful and rewarding to read. The premise of the book is that life and work consist of daily showing up. This theme pervades the essays—poetry as daily […]

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‘Death in Her Hands’ by Ottessa Moshfegh: A Dark Antidote

by Zack Ravas

Under normal circumstances, the literary world would likely be abuzz over Death in Her Hands (259 pages; Penguin Press), the latest novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, one of the few writers of her generation who could be said to have “made it”—if we want to define that as a certain level of name recognition, lengthy book tours with celebrity moderators, and, more importantly, a style that is decidedly her own. Pick up a book by Moshfegh and you might have some idea of what to expect: unreliable-verging-on-unlikable female narrators, a smattering of gross-out details regarding characters’ bodily functions, and a tone […]

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‘All Adults Here’ by Emma Straub: The Politics of Respectability

by Cade Johnson

Emma Straub’s delightful third novel, All Adults Here (368 pages; Riverhead Books), takes place in Clapham, a fictional Hudson Valley town. It’s a small, white, and affluent community that is both a getaway for New Yorkers and a reservoir for elite Brooklynite culture. A roundabout sits in the center of town (a commercial hotspot where an obtrusive, geometric, and vacant building houses a threat: the possibility of a chain store opening in Clapham). Residents circle through downtown like clockwork until one day a school bus kills longtime resident Barbara Baker right before matriarch Astrid Strick’s eyes, sending atriggering repressed memory […]

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‘August’ by Callan Wink: The Struggle of Youth

by Jesse Bedayn

August (304 pages; Random House), Callan Wink’s first novel and second book following his story collection, Dog Run Moon, opens on a collection of cat tails chopped from tabby corpses in a Michigan barn. The 12-year-old boy responsible for this violence, the titular August, is paid per tail, proof he’s killed a feral cat. And so Wink launches us into a turbulent coming-of-age story punctuated by donuts performed drunk outside a Hutterite colony and the pregnant pauses on the phone between the protagonist and his emotionally distant father. While August’s inner turmoil is often opaque, the novel offers an uncannily sympathetic […]

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‘And Their Children After Them’ by Nicolas Mathieu: A Disaffected Life

by CJ Green

Recounting four summers in the life of a teenager, Nicolas Mathieu’s new novel, And Their Children After Them (420 pages; Other Press; translated by William Rodarmor), is a testament to what words can do at their leanest. The opening reads as check list: “Anthony had just turned fourteen…His parents were jerks. When school started he would be in ninth grade.” When Anthony and his cousin (never named) are “bored out of their skulls,” they paddle over to a nude beach where they find not nudists, but peers, girls their own age—and yes, out of their league. The novel proceeds in […]

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‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett: A Lonely Gift

by Cade Johnson

Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half (352 pages; Riverhead Books), is an enthralling addition to the literature of passing: novels about taking on an alternative racial identity that often explore the concept of race as performance. The Vanishing Half is powered by its reflections on deception, motherhood, and love, and where they intersect. Whereas other novels about passing, such as James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, focus on the arbitrariness of racial constructs, Bennett’s novel studies the self-inflicted psychological and social repercussions of passing and the alienation of self. Beginning in the 1960s, the […]

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