Exploring the art of prose


New books: week of February 5!

Here’s a quick look at some of the great books out this week. Happy pub day to all!


Will Boast, Daphne

From Kirkus Reviews: “Boast (Epilogue, 2014, etc.) writes about Daphne, who isolates herself from most other people by choice and strict routine. While her mythical namesake turns into a Laurel tree to avoid Apollo’s pursuit, this Daphne “explode[s] into lush forest,” freezing when she feels anything too intense. Her rare, unnamed condition means she absorbs powerful emotions around her, and her own feelings are paralytic: “I couldn’t move at all,” she says, recounting her first episode… Boast leads Daphne—and the reader—through many of the Bay Area’s corners of art and culture. Daphne’s “fluttering and slumping” that result from emotion are one thing, but her real fear? “I’d twisted and twined and bound myself up inside,” she says, “to avoid death.” “When you insulate yourself against disaster, you’re always waiting for it to arrive.” Boast’s story is rooted in myth. But it’s his perceptive take on the risks of emotion that the reader will remember.”


Joseph Cassara, The House of Impossible Beauties

From Kirkus Reviews: “A first-time novelist visits queer Harlem in the 1980s. Founded in 1982, the House of Xtravaganza was the first strictly Latinx house to join New York’s ballroom community, the gay subculture brought to the popular consciousness in 1990 by Madonna’s “Vogue” and the film Paris Is Burning. Although Cassara is careful to note that his debut is a work of imagination, this is a story about the House of Xtravaganza, the people who created it, and the people who made it their home. AIDS, of course, casts a terrible shadow over the community depicted here. But this is not, primarily, a social novel. In terms of tone and style, it’s closer to Valley of the Dolls than Giovanni’s Room, and this feels absolutely appropriate. Glamour is a refuge to Angel, Hector, and the kids to whom they give a home. Their stories deserve a bit of glitter. Fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.

Read an interview with Cassara.



Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone
St. Martin’s Press

From Publishers Weekly: “Hannah’s vivid depiction of a struggling family begins as a young father and POW returns from Vietnam, suffering from PTSD. The Allbright family, barely making ends meet in 1974, moves from Seattle to the untamed wilderness of Kaneq, Alaska, to claim a parcel of land left to Ernt by a slain Army buddy…  Together with his wife, Cora, who spurned her middle-class parents to marry him, and their 13-year-old daughter, Leni, who barely remembers the adoring dad who’s become so restless, Ernt is totally unprepared for the rigors of the family’s new home. Hannah skillfully situates the emotional family saga in the events and culture of the late ’70s—gas shortages, Watergate, Ted Bundy, Patty Hearst, and so on. But it’s her tautly drawn characters—Large Marge, Genny, Mad Earl, Tica, Tom—who contribute not only to Leni’s improbable survival but to her salvation amid her family’s tragedy.”

Read an excerpt.


Tayari Jones, An American Marriage
Algonquin Books

From Kirkus Reviews: “A look at the personal toll of the criminal justice system from the author of Silver Sparrow (2011) and The Untelling (2005). Roy has done everything right. Growing up in a working-class family in Louisiana, he took advantage of all the help he could get and earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. By the time he marries Spelman alum Celestial, she’s an up-and-coming artist. After a year of marriage, they’re thinking about buying a bigger house and starting a family. Then, on a visit back home, Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit…This novel is peopled by vividly realized, individual characters and driven by interpersonal drama, but it is also very much about being black in contemporary America…This is, at its heart, a love story, but a love story warped by racial injustice. And, in it, Jones suggests that racial injustice haunts the African-American story. Subtle, well-crafted, and powerful.”

Read an interview with Jones.
Read an excerpt.


Danielle Lazarin, Back Talk

From Publishers Weekly: “Lazarin’s exceptional debut collection digs deep into the lives of women, telling complex stories of loss, hope, and joy…The title story, one of the collection’s shortest, powerfully conveys the experience of seeing a moment of youthful pleasure transform into a gossiped-about scarlet letter, while in “Gone,” two teens create a list of girls in their neighborhood who have died as they face their own struggles with boys and school. Lazarin’s work is confident and exhilarating; this auspicious collection is uniformly excellent.

Read the short story “Back Talk.”
Read the short story “Appetite.”
Read an interview with Lazarin.
Read another interview with Lazarin.


Rachel Lyon, Self-Portrait with Boy

From Kirkus Reviews: “When an ambitious young photographer captures an unthinkable tragedy—and creates an accidental masterpiece in the process—she is forced to make a choice that will define her future. Thick with the atmospheric grime of early 1990s New York, Lyon’s haunting debut hinges on a single instant: the moment when recent art school graduate Lu Rile, broke and ruthless, sets up her camera for a self-portrait—the 400th in her series—and captures, by chance, the image of a little boy falling from the sky…From its first sentences, the novel is hurtling toward its inevitable and nauseating conclusion as Lu chooses between her friendship and her art, a choice that wasn’t ever really a choice at all. More than a book about art, or morality, it is a book about time: Lyon captures the end of an era. Lu, after this, for better and worse, will never be the person she was before the photograph. And as the warehouses get developed and the rents rise, the city won’t ever be the same, either. Fearless and sharp.”

Read an interview with Lyon.
Read another interview!


Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Penguin Random House

From Kirkus Reviews: “Quietly brilliant and darkly funny, Nunez’s (Sempre Susan, 2011, etc.) latest novel finds her on familiar turf with an aggressively unsentimental interrogation of grief, writing, and the human-canine bond. After her best friend and mentor’s suicide, an unnamed middle-aged writing professor is bequeathed his well-behaved beast of a dog. Apollo is a majestic, if aging, Great Dane, whom her friend—like all the human characters, unnamed—found abandoned in Brooklyn and kept, against the rather reasonable protests of his third and final wife. And so, in the midst of her overwhelming grief for the man whose life has anchored hers, the woman agrees to take in the animal, despite the exceedingly clear terms of her rent-stabilized lease…In contemplating her current situation—the loss, the dog—the woman is oriented by art: not just Rilke but Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, the relentlessly grim Swedish film Lilya 4-Ever, Joy Williams, Milan Kundera, the British writer J.R. Ackerley in love with his dog. It is a lonely novel: rigorous and stark, so elegant—so dismissive of conventional notions of plot—it hardly feels like fiction.”

Read an excerpt.


Joyce Carol Oates, Beautiful Days

From Publishers Weekly: “Oates (A Book of American Martyrs) toes the line between condemnation of and fascination with her characters in this collection of ethical failures. In part one, the characters’ self-definitions blind them to the pain they cause themselves and each other—as in “Fleuve Bleu,” in which lovers promise complete honesty and deliver needless pain. In the second part, assumptions, biases, and privilege stymie awareness among people of different races, genders, and body types…Throughout the book, the characters speak to themselves at least as often as they speak to each other. The Pushcart-winning “Undocumented Alien” is composed entirely of lab notes by postdocs more concerned with their work conditions than the ethics of their research. In Oates’s narrowly constructed cast of ivory tower intelligentsia, subtle, toxic failings go unchecked.”