Exploring the art of prose


New books: week of June 4

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


Adrienne Celt, Invitation to a Bonfire
Bloomsbury Publishing

 From Kirkus Reviews: “Trembling with atmosphere, Celt’s (The Daughters, 2015) second novel follows a young Russian émigré as she becomes embroiled in a sinister love triangle with a brilliant novelist and his exceptional wife. Constructed as a “collection of papers” bequeathed by one Vera Orlov to the posh girls’ boarding school where her husband taught before his untimely death, the book begins with the end. Leo “Lev” Orlov was murdered in 1931, according to the opening “note on the text”; the same year, a young Donne School employee, Zoe “Zoya” Andropov, “died under hotly debated circumstances.” The story—primarily told through Zoya’s supposed diary entries and Lev’s letters—is about everything that happened before… An ominous snowball of a novel (very) loosely based on the Nabokov marriage, with a slow-burning first half and a second half that hurtles toward inevitable catastrophe, it’s a book that requires some patience, but that patience—carefully calculated—pays off in spades.”


Lauren Groff, Florida

From Kirkus Reviews: “In 11 electric short stories, the gifted Groff (Fates and Furies, 2015, etc.) unpacks the “dread and heat” of her home state. In her first fiction since President Barack Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of the year, Groff collects her singing, stinging stories of foreboding and strangeness in the Sunshine State. Groff lives in Gainesville with a husband and two sons, and four of these tales are told from the perspectives of unmoored married mothers of young ones… And Groff gets the humid, pervasive white racism that isn’t her point but curdles through plenty of her characters. A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.”

Read “Dogs Go Wolf” in The New Yorker
Read “Ghosts and Empties” in The New Yorker


You-Jeong Jeong, The Good Son

From Publishers Weekly: “’The smell of blood woke me.’ So says Han Yu-jin, a would-be law student with a history of seizures who lives in Incheon, at the start of South Korean author Jeong’s superlative thriller, her first to be translated into English. After he regains consciousness, Yu-jin follows an increasingly ominous trail of bloody handprints and footprints to the kitchen, where he finds his mother’s body. Her throat has been slit and her hands posed, clasped, on her chest… Readers who enjoy grappling with the issue of a narrator’s reliability will relish Yu-jin, who believes that “being true to life wasn’t the only way to tell a story.” 

Read an interview with Jeong in Korean Literature Now


Rachel Kusk, Kudos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

From Kirkus Reviews: Brexit provides the sociopolitical background for Cusk’s existential investigation into the nature of freedom and the construction of identity, the concluding volume to her brooding trilogy begun with Outline (2015). Narrator Faye has married again since her excursions in Transit (2017), but almost everyone she meets at a literary festival in an unnamed European country is either bitterly divorced or painfully ambivalent about family life. Even pets become the source of power struggles with spouses and children in some of the seething personal narratives people share with Faye… Faye’s tender telephone exchanges with her two sons remind us there is love in the world, too (though we never learn more about her new marriage than that it exists). Nonetheless, a jarring and ugly final scene confirms an overall impression that Cusk’s views of human nature and personal relationships are as bleak as ever. Brilliantly accomplished and uncompromisingly dark.”

Read an extract of Kudos in Granta


Dorthe Nors, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Graywolf Press

From Kirkus Reviews: “In this tautly observed novel, Nors reveals a middle-age woman on the verge of disappearance and discovery. Danish writer Nors is a miniaturist; her book So Much for That Winter (2016) gathers two novellas that read like collections of epigrams, while her story collection Karate Chop (2014) brings together 15 microfictions, each imbued with an uneasy sense of loss. In this, the first of her four novels to be translated into English, she follows up on and enlarges these concerns… Not much happens here—some awkward interactions with her driving teachers, a couple of massages, some letters and phone calls with her family—but not much has to, for the drama Nors excavates is the most human one. What does it mean to keep on living? What does it mean to make a place for oneself, no matter how small or conditional? “A person who has her hand on the back of your heart,” Sonja reminds us, “shouldn’t be unsure.” Nors is an exquisitely precise writer, and in rendering her heroine’s small disruptions and, yes, victories, she is writing for, and of, every one of us.”

Read an interview with Nors and her translator with the Man Booker Prize


Tommy Orange, There There

 From Publishers Weekly: “Orange’s commanding debut chronicles contemporary Native Americans in Oakland, as their lives collide in the days leading up to the city’s inaugural Big Oakland Powwow. Bouncing between voices and points of view, Orange introduces 12 characters, their plotlines hinging on things like 3-D–printed handguns and VR-controlled drones… Time and again, the city is a magnet for these individuals. The propulsion of both the overall narrative and its players are breathtaking as Orange unpacks how decisions of the past mold the present, resulting in a haunting and gripping story.”

Read “The State,” which is drawn from There There, in The New Yorker


Nick White, Sweet and Low
Blue Rider / Penguin

From Publishers Weekly: “White’s brilliant first story collection (following the novel How to Survive a Summer) peels back the curtain on masculinity and identity in the Deep South. The stories are split into two parts—the first features misfits reeling from death, disillusionment, and trauma, while the second captures angles of aspiring writer Forney Culpepper’s life. Each illuminates sympathetic characters who feel painfully out of place, throwing the strangeness of their circumstances into sharp relief… White’s stirring stories probe the inextricable ways people’s identities are bound to and shaped by their environments, and what happens when they attempt to rise above. This is an atmospheric and expertly crafted collection.”

Read “The Last of His Kind” in Guernica