In this unsettling debut, a young man raised in the middle-class comforts of America encounters war, love, and drug addiction.
After the narrator awakens on the first page, he is “looking for a shirt with no blood on it” and then for his rigs—the apparatus of heroin addiction—to get him and his partner, Emily, in shape for the day. She has to be at school by 10 a.m. to teach college students remedial writing. The two met at 18 and now they are 25, living in a Cleveland suburb. Walker opens and closes the story in the couples’ present at age 25, while the bulk looks back at how the unnamed narrator found Emily and lost her and went off to war in Iraq in 2005. The writing is raw, coarse, and sometimes forced: “Your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon.” Yet it often has a brute power, tapping the unadorned, pointedly repetitive language of addiction or battle. The IED “took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming.” So many patrols deal with bombs or breaking into suspect houses: “Just IEDs. Just kicking doors. More IEDs. More doors.” Soldiers look for distraction. Two of them make snuff films with mice. Some do drugs because the Army stops checking urine. On his release from the Army, the narrator reconnects with Emily and copes with PTSD. “In these years I didn’t sleep and when I slept I dreamt of violence.” Heroin takes over, with its own awful monotony. They are “spending over a thousand dollars on dope, every week.” She keeps teaching. He robs banks.
A bleak tale told bluntly with an abundance of profanity but also of insight into two kinds of living hell.
Affecting portrait of a Chinese dissident who found a home among like-minded democrats in faraway New York.
Journalist Hilgers, who has covered China for the New Yorker and Businessweek, among other publications, met Zhuang Liehong in his home village on the southern coast of China. There, in 2011, as she reported, villagers had rebelled against corrupt officials, who had returned to power with a vengeance, backed by a brutal police force. “A proud former village leader on the ragged outskirts of Guangdong Province’s manufacturing boom,” Zhuang knew he had to get out while he could, and he weighed three plans to escape, including finding a boat to take him to the American territory of Guam. He settled on an expensive solution, signing himself and his wife, Little Yan, up for a tour of the United States that they then overstayed, making their way to Flushing, where, in time, they encountered other dissidents, notably the Tiananmen Square protest leader Tang Yuanjun. Hilgers closely chronicles Zhuang’s travails, among them the struggle to attain legal residency against the backdrop of an immigration regime that worried about offending China and seemed reluctant to house so public a figure, even if his renown had not spread widely in his adopted country. Finally, thanks to the pragmatic Little Yan, he found suitable work—and, thanks to Tang, continued his anti-corruption campaign in New York, protesting at Trump Tower, where an unimpressed Trump supporter yelled at him, “why do we have to pay attention to your problems?” Hilgers answers that question with admirable attention to narrative detail, giving a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood comprising a “community of activists” who have lent dissidents like Tang and Zhuang their support.
This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.
In this engrossing debut collection of essays, Bolin (Creative Nonfiction/Univ. of Memphis) looks at two things: America’s cultural obsession with dead girls in works of literature and on TV and Los Angeles from the perspective of both a newcomer and a veteran.
“Our refusal to address warning signs that are so common they have become cliché means we are not failing to prevent violence but choosing not to,” writes the author, the former nonfiction editor of Electric Literature’s literary magazine, Okey-Panky. In fact, according to Bolin, Americans demonstrate a specific fascination with watching women die on screen, seeing them lose control over their lives to abusive husbands and societies, and, most crucially to her story, investigating the circumstances around their murders. To study these phenomena, the author explores shows like Twin Peaks, True Detectives, and Pretty Little Liars, among others. “If you watch enough hours of murder shows,” she writes, “you experience a peculiar sense of déjà vu…the same murders are recounted again and again across shows.” Interwoven with these analyses of pop culture is the story of the author’s arrival in LA, broke, friendless, and with not much awareness of life under the sunny Californian sky. She drew many impressions of the city from the work of Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, among others, who have painted a picture of a unique, bewildering city: “I was impressed by the unnerving sense of a city that sprang up overnight and sprawled like an invasive species over the landscape.” Bolin’s LA story becomes exemplary of her insights about female-obsession culture, from her wacky roommates to her boyfriends to her eventual private and public writing practices. The author’s voice is eerily enthralling, systematically on point, and quite funny, though at times readers may not fully understand the motives behind their laughter.
An illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives.
Orange’s debut novel offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, California, through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters.
An aspiring documentary filmmaker, a young man who has taught himself traditional dance by watching YouTube, another lost in the bulk of his enormous body—these are just a few of the point-of-view characters in this astonishingly wide-ranging book, which culminates with an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, who grew up in the East Bay and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, knows the territory, but this is no work of social anthropology; rather, it is a deep dive into the fractured diaspora of a community that remains, in many ways, invisible to many outside of it. “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes. “Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum.” The plot of the book is almost impossible to encapsulate, but that’s part of its power. At the same time, the narrative moves forward with propulsive force. The stakes are high: For Jacquie Red Feather, on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time, there is nothing as conditional as sobriety: “She was sober again,” Orange tells us, “and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time.” For Daniel Gonzales, creating plastic guns on a 3-D printer, the only lifeline is his dead brother, Manny, to whom he writes at a ghostly Gmail account. In its portrayal of so-called “Urban Indians,” the novel recalls David Treuer’s The Hiawatha, but the range, the vision, is all its own. What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here.
In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.
A recent Cambridge University doctorate debuts with a wrenching account of her childhood and youth in a strict Mormon family in a remote region of Idaho.
It’s difficult to imagine a young woman who, in her teens, hadn’t heard of the World Trade Center, the Holocaust, and virtually everything having to do with arts and popular culture. But so it was, as Westover chronicles here in fairly chronological fashion. In some ways, the author’s father was a classic anti-government paranoiac—when Y2K failed to bring the end of the world, as he’d predicted, he was briefly humbled. Her mother, though supportive at times, remained true to her beliefs about the subordinate roles of women. One brother was horrendously abusive to the author and a sister, but the parents didn’t do much about it. Westover didn’t go to public school and never received professional medical care or vaccinations. She worked in a junkyard with her father, whose fortunes rose and fell and rose again when his wife struck it rich selling homeopathic remedies. She remained profoundly ignorant about most things, but she liked to read. A brother went to Brigham Young University, and the author eventually did, too. Then, with the encouragement of professors, she ended up at Cambridge and Harvard, where she excelled—though she includes a stark account of her near breakdown while working on her doctoral dissertation. We learn about a third of the way through the book that she kept journals, but she is a bit vague about a few things. How, for example, did her family pay for the professional medical treatment of severe injuries that several of them experienced? And—with some justification—she is quick to praise herself and to quote the praise of others.
An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.
Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut.
Halliday writes first, in Folly, of Alice, an editor in New York during the second Bush presidency, and her relationship with Ezra, a well-known and much older author. Alice struggles to establish her own identity at a time when Ezra’s health concerns focus his attention on mortality. Through their occupations and their relationship, the lovers examine the nature of story. “Who knows if it’s any good," Ezra says of his manuscript at one point. "It’s a funny business, this. Making things up. Describing things." Alice’s roles as both a literary gatekeeper and a much younger companion are an important, related dichotomy. Art is omnipresent; music and baseball, too, become the rhythm that runs beneath the melody of the couple's interaction. Alice wants to write about herself, but she “doesn’t seem important enough.” The lovers’ age difference adds gravity to their relationship and the stories they each tell. The second part of the book, Madness, initially appears to be wholly unrelated to the first: Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, is detained at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan in 2008. Halliday hints at her strategy, though: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” says Amar as he’s detained, quoting Bellow. Amar’s story is darker, filled with grief, and alternates between flashbacks and the present day. Though nothing is obvious about the connection of Amar’s story to Alice’s, the author gently highlights notes from the first story, and the juxtaposition of the two tales is further complicated—and illuminated—by the addition of a third and final section that brings them together.
A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.
An exposé of the underrated designer who helped shape 20th-century European aesthetics.
In his debut work of nonfiction, Australian journalist Richardson explores the life of Tommy Nutter (1943-1992), the British designer who contributed greatly to the unique fashion sense of 1960s England. Mapping out Nutter’s life from beginning to end, the author capitalizes on the moments in his subject’s life that caused significant ripples in society. “His life vividly personalized forty years of critical gay history,” writes Richardson. “From the underground queer clubs of Soho to the unbridled freedom of New York bathhouses to the terrifying nightmare of AIDS—Tommy was there, both witness and participant.” It’s as if Nutter had his pulse on nearly every significant moment of the era. After enrolling at a technical college, Nutter quickly started identifying aesthetic deficiencies in culture; three years later he began working his first tailoring job. What followed was a series of interactions with some of the biggest names of the time: John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, Yoko Ono, Elton John, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and many others. His cuts were intricately detailed, progressively modern, and inclusive. Refreshingly, Richardson has created a work that is surprisingly unpretentious; the author looks at Nutter’s life with impressive objectivity, zeroing in on significant episodes and leaving the rest on the cutting-room floor. The author also gives close attention to Tommy’s relationship with his brother, David, providing plenty of room for the telling of both brothers’ lives and experiences. “David adored all this flagrant insolence,” writes Richardson. “While hardly a hippie himself, he appreciated anything that agitated for a more open-minded conversation by treating alternative lifestyles as legitimate sources of joy.” Such were the Nutter brothers: insatiably open to the world and its opportunities and able to systematically make a splash along their way.
It’s 2011, if not quite the 2011 you remember. Candace Chen is a millennial living in Manhattan. She doesn’t love her job as a production assistant—she helps publishers make specialty Bibles—but it’s a steady paycheck. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and his own mindless job. She doesn’t go with him, so she’s in the city when Shen Fever strikes. Victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. Retail workers fold and refold T-shirts. Women set the table for dinner over and over again. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see. The fevered aren’t all that different from the factory workers who produce Bibles for Candace’s company. Indeed, one of the projects she works on almost falls apart because it proves hard to source cheap semiprecious stones; Candace is only able to complete the contract because she finds a Chinese company that doesn’t mind too much if its workers die from lung disease. This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment. This is Ma’s first novel, but her fiction has appeared in distinguished journals, and she won a prize for a chapter of this book. She knows her craft, and it shows. Candace is great, a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength. She’s sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels between her life before the End and the pathology of Shen Fever. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience.
Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror.
“I hated that I had to eat,” writes Wamariya. “I hated my stomach, I hated my needs.” Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: “I was callous and cynical….I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised.” She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister’s presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya’s experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that “you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.” The work of finding home and feeling safe—it’s something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya’s narrative is valuable.
Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.
A quiet gut-punch of a debut, Coster’s novel is a family saga set against the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn.
After five years away in Pittsburgh—a city whose primary appeal is its distance from Brooklyn—Penelope Grand, former artist and current bartender, reluctantly returns to Bedford-Stuyvesant to care for her ailing and beloved father, Ralph, moving into a sublet a few streets away from her childhood home. But the neighborhood has changed in her absence: her landlords, the Harpers, new to the block from the West Village, embody the shift—a young family, white, wealthy, attracted to the “historic” homes and the lower price tags. And yet the Harpers’ charming yellow house—and the affections of the charming father—offer Penelope an escape from the life she’s returned to. At least for a while. But when a postcard from her estranged mother, Mirella, shows up addressed to her from the Dominican Republic (Penelope isn’t the only one in her family desperate for escape), Penelope is forced to deal with a past she’d rather ignore. Alternating between Penelope’s perspective and Mirella’s, moving seamlessly back and forth in time, Coster pieces together the story of the Grand family: Mirella and Ralph’s early courtship and the first days of their marriage in Brooklyn, Ralph’s iconic record store and the accident that followed its closing, Penelope’s miserable freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, her childhood trips with Mirella to the DR, and now—in the present—their final chance at something like reconciliation. Gorgeous and painfully unsentimental, the book resists easy moralizing: everyone is wonderful and terrible, equal parts disappointed and disappointing. The plot is simple, relatively speaking, but Coster is a masterful observer of family dynamics: her characters, to a one, are wonderfully complex and consistently surprising.
Absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
An essayist’s debut memoir of how a passion for tango dancing transformed her life.
Flaherty took her first tango lessons when she was 16 and studying abroad in Argentina. Ten years later, she was living in New York, unhappily surveying the dismal prospects in both her love life and professional pursuits as an actress. Desperate “to do something, however bold or blind,” and longing for human touch, she plunged back into the world of tango. A traumatic childhood that included living with a substance-abusing, man-hungry mother marked the author at her deepest levels. The more she engaged with tango, the more she realized that at the core of her desire to master the dance was a wish to simply “close my eyes and trust.” Her first lessons felt like a liberating “insurrection.” But later encounters with “the maestro,” an older man who sought to school her in tango and a passion she did not want, tested her resolve. Flaherty persisted, and as she improved, she found other teachers who showed her that tango dancing was a dialogue of “betrayals and…broken loves” between two bodies as well as a pathway to a womanhood she had suppressed and ignored. She eventually found her way into the New York underground of tango venues, where she met Enzo, the lover who moved her into greater awareness of a body she had allowed to be led but had not allowed to lead. A fellow “tango nerd”–turned-friend named Marty helped the author evolve. With him, she learned to dance a tango that was a sensual expression of an autonomous woman unafraid to take risks in life and love. Well-researched, eloquent, and entertaining, Flaherty’s book is not only a witty, incisive reflection on a beloved dance and its history. It is also an intimate celebration of dance, life, and the art of taking chances.
Castillo’s debut novel presents a portrait of the Filipino diaspora, told through the lens of a single family.
Revolving around Hero de Vera—a former rebel (with the scars to prove it) turned au pair of sorts in Milpitas, California—this is a book about identity but even more about standing up for something larger than oneself. The idea is implicit in that name, Hero, though Castillo pushes against our expectations by bestowing it upon a woman fighting patriarchy. Her employer, after all—her sponsor, really—is her uncle Pol, scion of an influential family. For the most part, Castillo tracks Hero’s experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, highlighting two sustaining relationships: the first with Roni, her uncle’s school-age daughter, and the second with Rosalyn, with whom she falls in love. The most important relationship in the book, however, is the one she develops with herself. It’s not that Castillo is out to write a novel of transformation; Hero is on a journey, certainly, but it’s hard to say, exactly, that the circumstances of her existence change. And yet, this is the point, or one of them, that this sharply rendered work of fiction seeks to address. “She wasn’t killed…or didn’t kill herself,” the character reflects. “Tragedy could be unsensational.” Unsensational, yes—much like daily life. Castillo is a vivid writer, and she has a real voice: vernacular and fluid, with a take-no-prisoners edge. At the same time, she complicates her narrative by breaking out of it in a variety of places—both by deftly incorporating languages such as Tagalog and Ilocano and through the use of flashback or backstory, in which we learn what happened to Hero before she left the Philippines. There are also two second-person chapters (the rest is told in third-person) that further complicate the point of view. Here, we encounter Pol’s wife, Paz, who untangles the intricate ties of family, and Rosalyn, who explains the vagaries of love. Through it all, we have a sense that what we are reading is part of a larger story that stretches beyond the borders of the book. “As usual,” Castillo writes, “you’re getting ahead of yourself, but there isn’t enough road in the world for how ahead of yourself you need to get.”
Beautifully written, emotionally complex, and deeply moving, Castillo's novel reminds us both that stories may be all we have to save us and also that this may never be enough.