When Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was published in the New Yorker, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. It's unheard of for a short story to go viral, but "Cat Person"—through a combination of impossibly sharp writing and impossibly good timing—had done it. A year later, Roupenian's debut collection proves that success wasn’t a fluke.
The 12 visceral stories here range from uncomfortable to truly horrifying and are often—though not always—focused on the vicious contradictions of being female. Roupenian’s women are as terrified as they are terrifying; sometimes the violence comes to fruition and sometimes it doesn’t, but the possibility is always there, bubbling under the surface. In “Bad Boy,” which opens the book, a woman and her boyfriend take in a stray friend after a breakup and begin incorporating him into their sex life in increasingly sadistic ways. In “Sardines,” an 11-year-old girl—who, unlike most fictional 11-year-old girls, is depicted entirely without sentiment, big-nosed and meaty-breathed—makes a wish "for something mean" on a defective birthday candle and creates a monster. “Cat Person” and then “The Good Guy,” which follows it, both its companion and its opposite, are the heart of the collection—both chronologically and in spirit—as complementary investigations of gender and power. (Roupenian’s depictions of the dynamics between men and women are infinitely nuanced, but the very short version is: It’s real messed up.) “Cat Person” is told from the perspective of Margot, a college student, who's on a date with Robert, who is 34 and makes her feel at once very powerful and very small. “The Good Guy” follows Ted, a nice guy—who is not Robert but also not so different from him—whose relationships with women could be characterized as a dance of mutual contempt. (It is, of course, more complicated.) Some of the stories are drawn, with startling and nauseating detail, from life; others veer toward magical realism or nightmares. All of them, though, are united by Roupenian’s voice, which is unsparing and unpretentious and arrestingly straightforward, so that it feels, at times, less like you are reading and more like she is simply thinking for you.
Unsettling, memorable, and—maybe perversely—very, very fun.
A remarkable story of a mother whose “ingenuity and talent and dogged pursuit of happiness made possible [her family’s] beautiful home, brimming refrigerator and quality education.”
Fannie Davis was an amazing woman. Sharp and unwilling to be hemmed in by the dual restrictions of race and gender, she did what it took to raise a family and to uplift a community. In 1960s and ’70s Detroit, she ran the “Numbers,” an illegal lottery that was nonetheless central to many urban and especially African-American communities, especially in the era before states realized that licit gambling could be a lucrative trade and even as they cracked down on the gambling they defined as illicit. Above all, Fannie Davis was a mother. In this admiring and highly compelling memoir, Bridgett Davis (Creative, Film and Narrative Writing/Baruch Coll.; Into the Go-Slow, 2014, etc.) tells the story of her beloved mother. The author knew that her mom’s role in the Numbers had to be kept secret, but she also knew that it was not shameful. Placing her subject in the larger historical contexts of the African-American and urban experiences and the histories of Detroit and of underground entrepreneurship embodied in the Numbers, and framing it within numerous vital postwar trends, the author is especially insightful about how her mother embodied the emergence of a “blue collar, black-bourgeoisie.” Although there was considerable risk in running the Numbers, it also provided a path forward to a comfortable lifestyle otherwise nearly unimaginable. While critics liked to paint the game as a path toward dissolution, for the author—and many others—it was anything but. This is not a story about capitalizing on degeneracy. It is one of hope and hustling in a world where to have the former almost demanded the latter.
This outstanding book is a tribute to one woman but will surely speak to the experiences of many.
Bleak House meets Our Town in a century-spanning novel set in a New England bowling alley.
More than many writers, McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) understands the vast variety of ways to be human and the vast variety of ways human beings have come up with to love each other, not all of them benevolent. She also understands how all those different ways spring from the same yearning impulse. She names her new novel—which she calls “a genealogy”—after its setting, a candlepin bowling alley founded by the novel’s matriarch, who is said to have invented the game. “Maybe somebody else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.” McCracken's parade of Dickensian grotesques fall in love, feud, reproduce, vanish, and reappear, all with a ridiculous dignity that many readers, if they’re honest, will cringe to recognize from their own lives. The plot is stylized: One character dies in the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, another by spontaneous human combustion. There are orphans, secret wills, and hidden treasure. But unlike Dickens’, McCracken’s plot works more by iteration than clockwork, like linked stories, or a series of views of the same landscape from different vantage points in different seasons, or the frames in a bowling game. Her psychological acuity transforms what might otherwise have been a twee clutter of oddball details into moving metaphors for the human condition. “Our subject is love,” she writes. “Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most, which pin it longs to set spinning. Then I love you! Then blammo. The pins are reduced to a pile, each one entirely all right in itself. Intact and bashed about. Again and again, the pins stand for it until they’re knocked down.”
Parents and children, lovers, brothers and sisters, estranged spouses, work friends and teammates all slam themselves together and fling themselves apart across the decades in the glorious clatter of McCracken’s unconventional storytelling.
Wrought with blood, iron, and jolting images, this swords-and-sorcery epic set in a mythical Africa is also part detective story, part quest fable, and part inquiry into the nature of truth, belief, and destiny.
Man Booker Prize winner James (A Brief History of Seven Killings, 2014 etc.) brings his obsession with legend, history, and folklore into this first volume of a projected Dark Star Trilogy. Its title characters are mercenaries, one of whom is called Leopard for his shape-shifting ability to assume the identify of a predatory jungle cat and the other called Tracker for having a sense of smell keen enough to find anything (and anybody) lost in this Byzantine, often hallucinatory Dark Ages version of the African continent. “It has been said you have a nose,” Tracker is told by many, including a sybaritic slave trader who asks him and his partner to find a strange young boy who has been missing for three years. “Just as I wish him to be found,” he tells them, “surely there are those who wish him to stay hidden.” And this is only one of many riddles Tracker comes across, with and without Leopard, as the search takes him to many unusual and dangerous locales, including crowded metropolises, dense forests, treacherous waterways, and, at times, even the mercurial skies overhead. Leopard is besieged throughout his odyssey by vampires, witches, thieves, hyenas, trickster monkeys, and other fantastic beings. He also acquires a motley entourage of helpers, including Sadogo, a gentle giant who doesn’t like being called a giant, Mossi, a witty prefect who’s something of a wizard at wielding two swords at once, and even a wise buffalo, who understands and responds to human commands. The longer the search for this missing child continues, the broader its parameters. And the nature of this search is as fluid and unpredictable as the characters’ moods, alliances, identities, and even sexual preferences. You can sometimes feel as lost in the dizzying machinations and tangled backstories of this exotic universe as Tracker and company. But James’ sensual, beautifully rendered prose and sweeping, precisely detailed narrative cast their own transfixing spell upon the reader. He not only brings a fresh multicultural perspective to a grand fantasy subgenre, but also broadens the genre’s psychological and metaphysical possibilities.
If this first volume is any indication, James’ trilogy could become one of the most talked-about and influential adventure epics since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was transformed into Game of Thrones.
A hit-and-run in the Mojave Desert dismantles a family and puts a structurally elegant mystery in motion.
In her fourth book, Lalami is in thrilling command of her narrative gifts, reminding readers why The Moor’s Account (2014) was a Pulitzer finalist. Here, she begins in the voice of Nora Guerraoui, a nascent jazz composer, who recalls: "My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland.” She was drinking champagne at the time. Nora’s old middle school band mate, Jeremy Gorecki, an Iraq War veteran beset with insomnia, narrates the next chapter. He hears about the hit-and-run as he reports to work as a deputy sheriff. The third chapter shifts to Efraín Aceves, an undocumented laborer who stops in the dark to adjust his bicycle chain and witnesses the lethal impact. Naturally, he wants no entanglement with law enforcement. With each chapter, the story baton passes seamlessly to a new or returning narrator. Readers hear from Erica Coleman, a police detective with a complacent husband and troubled son; Anderson Baker, a bowling-alley proprietor irritated over shared parking with the Guerraoui’s diner; the widowed Maryam Guerraoui; and even the deceased Driss Guerraoui. Nora’s parents fled political upheaval in Casablanca in 1981, roughly a decade before Lalami left Morocco herself. In the U.S., Maryam says, “Above all, I was surprised by the talk shows, the way Americans loved to confess on television.” The author, who holds a doctorate in linguistics, is precise with language. She notices the subtle ways that words on a diner menu become dated, a match to the décor: “The plates were gray. The water glasses were scratched. The gumball machine was empty.” Nuanced characters drive this novel, and each voice gets its variation: Efraín sarcastic, Nora often argumentative, Salma, the good Guerraoui daughter, speaks with the coiled fury of the duty-bound: “You’re never late, never sick, never rude.” The ending is a bit pat, but Lalami expertly mines an American penchant for rendering the “other.”
A crime slowly unmasks a small town’s worth of resentment and yearning.
A cursed prince and a high school dropout become unlikely allies in this ambitious “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation.
Harper’s life in Washington, D.C., hasn’t been easy: Her mother is dying of cancer, and her father’s only legacy is the loan sharks her brother Jake works for to pay off his debts. Harper, who has cerebral palsy, is standing lookout for Jake when she sees a man carrying an unconscious woman. Harper intervenes—and is magically transported to Emberfall, a kingdom abandoned by its rulers and beset by both a mysterious beast and attacks from a neighboring country. She meets blond Prince Rhen, who reveals that the beast killed his family. He believes falling in love is the only way to save his kingdom, and his guard commander travels to Harper’s universe to find matches for him. Harper doesn’t buy it. Rather than acquiesce to fate, she calls Rhen’s attention to more immediate, practical actions they can take to protect his kingdom. The book follows a white default for main characters, although Jake’s boyfriend is black and Harper’s best friend in Emberfall has brown skin. Refreshingly, Harper is the undisputed hero and also not the only significant character with a disability. Avoiding disability inspiration tropes, she is a fallible, well-rounded character who fights for the vulnerable and resists being labeled as such herself despite how others perceive her.
A fast-paced, richly detailed feminist epic.
First-time author Land chronicles her years among the working poor as a single mother with only a high school diploma trying to earn a living as a minimum-wage housecleaner.
The author did not grow up in poverty, but her struggles slowly evolved after her parents divorced, remarried, and essentially abandoned her; after she gave birth to a daughter fathered by a man who never stopped being abusive; and after her employment prospects narrowed to dirty jobs with absurdly low hourly pay. The relentlessly depressing, quotidian narrative maintains its power due to Land’s insights into working as an invisible maid inside wealthy homes; her self-awareness as a loving but inadequate mother to her infant; and her struggles to survive domestic violence. For readers who believe individuals living below the poverty line are lazy and/or intellectually challenged, this memoir is a stark, necessary corrective. Purposefully or otherwise, the narrative also offers a powerful argument for increasing government benefits for the working poor during an era when most benefits are being slashed. Though the benefits received by Land and her daughter after mountains of paperwork never led to financial stability, they did ameliorate near starvation. The author is especially detailed and insightful on the matter of government-issued food stamps. Some of the most memorable scenes recount the shaming Land received when using the food stamps to purchase groceries. Throughout, Land has been sustained by her fierce love for her daughter and her dreams of becoming a professional writer and escaping northwest Washington state by settling in the seemingly desirable city of Missoula, Montana. She had never visited Missoula, but she imagined it as paradise. Near the end of the book, Land finally has enough money and time to visit Missoula, and soon after the visit, the depression lifts.
An important memoir that should be required reading for anyone who has never struggled with poverty.
A family treks south to the U.S.–Mexico border, bearing tales of broken migrant families all the way down.
In her last nonfiction book, Tell Me How It Ends (2017), Luiselli wrote about her work as a translator for Latin American families attempting to enter the U.S. This remarkable, inventive fictional take on the theme captures the anguish of those families through a deliberate piling-up of stories; reading it, you feel yourself slowly coming face to face with a world where masses of children are separated, missing, or dead of exposure in the desert. Luiselli eases into the tale by introducing an unnamed New York couple, both audio documentarians, driving their children, ages 10 and 5, to the Arizona-Mexico border. The father wants to explore the remnants of Apache culture there; the mother, who narrates much of the book, is recording an audio essay on the border crisis and has promised a woman to look into the fates of her two daughters who’ve been detained. As they drive, they alternate listening to news reports about the border and an audiobook of Lord of the Flies, and the opening sections are thick with literary references and social critique; imagine On the Road rewritten by Maggie Nelson. But the story darkens as they witness the plight firsthand and, later, as the couple's children stumble into their own crisis. There’s a slightly bloodless, formal aspect to the novel in the early going: It's structured around “archive boxes” that each character carries in the car’s trunk, and a book of elegies the mother reads to the children is made up of variations on works by Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Juan Rulfo, and more. In the current political moment, one might want a less abstruse approach. But as the novel rises to a ferocious climax in a 20-page-long single sentence, Luiselli thunderously, persuasively insists that reckoning with the border will make deep demands of both our intellectual and emotional reserves.
A powerful border story, at once intellectual and heartfelt.
Black millennials offer candid views of the challenges they face.
In her first book, journalist and broadcast producer Allen, an Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute, investigates how the enduring myth of the American dream relates to young blacks between the ages of 18 and 30: “folks,” she writes, “who looked like me.” The American dream—“the idea that anyone can succeed and enjoy a prosperous life through hard work”—applies, the author asserts, only “to a limited number of people.” For oppressed and marginalized blacks, the dream has been largely unattainable. Has that changed, Allen asks, for a new generation? What does upward mobility look like for them? How do they express their own dreams? Drawing on interviews with 75 millennials as well as studies, surveys, and articles, the author recounts stories of defeat and dashed hopes from blacks who feel that the American dream “wasn’t and isn’t for them.” Among their frustrations is education: Many believe that a college degree is essential to their future success, accumulating huge debt to pay for schooling. More than 80 percent of Blacks who complete bachelor’s degrees have debt upon graduating, compared with 64 percent of whites. Moreover, a college education does not ensure employment: “The unemployment rate for Black college graduates is the same as for White high school graduates.” For those who manage to pursue a professional career, the workplace often feels unwelcoming. As one woman told her, “Black millennials do not have stability and security” in their jobs; they are often paid less than whites, are not offered career guidance and mentorship, and “often walk a tightrope between the hood and the elite.” Home ownership eludes many blacks, as well, with redlining and predatory lenders victimizing prospective buyers. Frustrated with their efforts to hold on to middle-class status, some blacks are redefining what success means to them, rejecting ‘the White-picket fence version of the dream” in favor of “what the dream means at its core: freedom.”
Sad, revealing testimony to the continuing effects of racism and inequality.
When Raya Liston spends a month at an ashram in India, she doesn’t just find herself: She also finds true love.
Seventeen-year-old Raya has a plan: major in English at UCLA and make her Indian mother and biracial (half black, other half unspecified) father proud. Spending the summer after high school at the Rishi Kanva ashram in the Himalayas with her cousin Anandi is definitely not the plan—until she receives a phone call from her dying grandmother, Daadee, saying she’s left something important for Raya and Anandi hidden on the ashram grounds. Against her better judgment, Raya leaves for the ashram, where she unexpectedly falls in love with Kiran, a budding filmmaker who breaks rules as passionately as Raya follows them. In the process of falling in love and uncovering the secrets Daadee left, Raya realizes that the real question is not what she wants to do but who she wants to be. An insightful, layered feminist retelling of the Hindu myth “Shaktunala,” the book features a diverse cast of characters who grapple with equally diverse issues in a richly drawn setting. Raya’s candor and self-reflection infuse the narration with the perfect balance of insight and momentum. Her relationship with her family is particularly refreshing: Unlike in most books about diaspora, Raya’s Indian relatives support her, guiding her through conflict rather than creating it.
A beautifully crafted, truly feminist coming-of-age story featuring nuanced characters in a unique setting.