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Exploring the art of fiction

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New Books: April 2019


Here’s a look at some of the April releases CRAFT can’t wait to read. Happy pub day to one and all!

 

Jennifer Acker, The Limits of the World

The Limits of the World is a riveting and nuanced study of how we belong—to a lover, a family, a country. The prose is beautiful, the story is refreshingly original, and the characters are achingly human. The novel announces Acker as a writer of deep feeling and intelligence, a formidable writer whose talent is limitless.” —Bret Anthony Johnson

The Chandaria family—emigrants from the Indian-enclave of Nairobi—have managed to flourish in America. Premchand, the father, is a doctor who has worked doggedly to grow his practice and give his family security; his wife, Urmila, runs a business importing artisanal Kenyan crafts; and their son, Sunil, after quitting the pre-med track, has gotten accepted to a PhD program in philosophy at Harvard. But the parents have kept a very important secret from Sunil: his cousin, Bimal, is actually his older brother. And when this previously hidden history is revealed by an unforeseen accident, and the entire family is forced to return to Nairobi, Sunil reveals his own well-kept, explosive secret: his Jewish-American girlfriend, who has accompanied him to Kenya, is, in fact, already his wife. Spanning four generations and three continents, The Limits of the World illuminates the vast mosaic of cultural divisions and ethical considerations that shape the ways in which we judge one another’s actions. A dazzling debut novel—written with rare empathy and insight—it is a powerful depiction of how we prevent ourselves, unwittingly and otherwise, from understanding the people we are closest to. (From Delphinium Books April 16)


Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative

From Publishers Weekly (starred review): “[A] boundlessly inventive look at narrative form… It would do a disservice to this work to pigeonhole it as ‘literary criticism’; the study is filled with clarity and wit, underlain with formidable erudition.”

As Jane Alison writes in the introduction to her insightful and appealing book about the craft of writing: “For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—one we’re actually told to follow—and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides… But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculosexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?”

W. G. Sebald’s Emigrants was the first novel to show Alison how forward momentum can be created by way of pattern, rather than the traditional arc—or, in nature, wave. Other writers of nonlinear prose considered in her “museum of specimens” include Nicholson Baker, Anne Carson, Marguerite Duras, Gabriel García Márquez, Jamaica Kincaid, Clarice Lispector, Susan Minot, David Mitchell, Caryl Phillips, and Mary Robison.

Meander, Spiral, Explode is a singular and brilliant elucidation of literary strategies that also brings high spirits and wit to its original conclusions. It is a liberating manifesto that says, Let’s leave the outdated modes behind and, in thinking of new modes, bring feeling back to experimentation. It will appeal to serious readers and writers alike. (From Catapult April 2)


Ann Beattie, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

From Booklist (starred review): “Gimlet-eyed Beattie has created a stunningly unnerving and provocative tale spiked with keen cultural allusions and drollery. This jarring dissection of privilege and anxiety, gender expectations, lust, ludicrous predicaments, defensive selfishness, moral confusion, and numbing loneliness projects a matrix of angst somewhat countered by the solace and sustenance found in a quiet life far from the grasping, hurried, hostile world…. Beattie’s literary reign continues apace, thanks to her stealthily eviscerating insights and disquieting wit.”


Sarah Blake, Naamah

From Kirkus (starred review): “Blake’s writing is deeply feminist…. Comprised of mesmerizing prose poem–esque sections, the novel explores themes of sexuality, purpose, loss, love, and faith. A poetic debut of biblical proportions.”


Belle Boggs, The Gulf

From Kirkus (starred review): “[T]he heart of this novel is its cast…. A smart, slightly kooky exploration of art and money, faith and politics.”

Marianne is in a slump: barely able to support herself teaching, not making progress on her poetry, about to lose her Brooklyn apartment. When her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, and his venture capitalist brother, Mark, offer her a job directing a low-residency school for Christian writers at a motel they’ve inherited on Florida’s Gulf Coast, she can’t come up with a reason to say no.

The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch is born, and liberal, atheist Marianne is soon knee-deep in applications from writers whose political and religious beliefs she has always opposed, but whose money she’s glad to take. Janine is a schoolteacher whose heartfelt poems explore the final days of Terri Schiavo’s life. Davonte is a former R&B superstar who hopes to reboot his career with a best-selling tale of excess and redemption. Lorraine and Tom, eccentric writers in need of paying jobs, join the Ranch as instructors.

Mark finds an investor in God’s Word God’s World, a business that develops for-profit schools for the Christian market, but the strings that come along with their support become increasingly problematic, especially as Marianne grows closer to the students. As unsavory allegations mount, a hurricane bears down on the Ranch, and Marianne is faced with the consequences of her decisions.

With sharp humor and deep empathy, in this timely debut novel Belle Boggs plumbs the troubled waters dividing America. (From Graywolf April 2)


T.C. Boyle, Outside Looking In

From Kirkus (starred review): “Keeping his own stylistic flamboyance in check, Boyle evokes a cultural flashpoint with implications that transcend acid flashbacks.”

In this stirring and insightful novel, T.C. Boyle takes us back to the 1960s and to the early days of a drug whose effects have reverberated widely throughout our culture: LSD.

In 1943, LSD is synthesized in Basel. Two decades later, a coterie of grad students at Harvard are gradually drawn into the inner circle of renowned psychologist and psychedelic drug enthusiast Timothy Leary. Fitzhugh Loney, a psychology Ph.D. student and his wife, Joanie, become entranced by the drug’s possibilities such that their “research” becomes less a matter of clinical trials and academic papers and instead turns into a free-wheeling exploration of mind expansion, group dynamics, and communal living. With his trademark humor and pathos, Boyle moves us through the Loneys’ initiation at one of Leary’s parties to his notorious summer seminars in Zihuatanejo until the Loneys’ eventual expulsion from Harvard and their introduction to a communal arrangement of thirty devotees—students, wives, and children—living together in a sixty-four room mansion and devoting themselves to all kinds of experimentation and questioning.

Is LSD a belief system? Does it allow you to see God? Can the Loneys’ marriage—or any marriage, for that matter—survive the chaotic and sometimes orgiastic use of psychedelic drugs? Wry, witty, and wise, Outside Looking In is an ideal subject for this American master, and highlights Boyle’s acrobatic prose, detailed plots, and big ideas. It’s an utterly engaging and occasionally trippy look at the nature of reality, identity, and consciousness, as well as our seemingly infinite capacities for creativity, re-invention, and self-discovery. (From Ecco April 9)


Susan Choi, Trust Exercise

From Publishers Weekly (starred review): “Choi’s superb, powerful fifth novel, after 2013’s My Education, marries exquisite craft with topical urgency…. Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”

In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.

The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either. It takes until the book’s stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place—revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence. (From Henry Holt April 9)


Maria Gainza, Optic Nerve, translated by Thomas Bunstead

From Publishers Weekly (starred review): “Gainza’s phenomenal first work to be translated into English is a nimble yet momentous novel about the connection between one woman’s personal life and the art she observes…. With playfulness and startling psychological acuity, Gainza explores the spaces between others, art, and the self, and how what one sees and knows form the ineffable hodgepodge of the human soul. The result is a transcendent work.”

The narrator of Optic Nerve is an Argentinian woman whose obsession is art. The story of her life is the story of the paintings, and painters, who matter to her. Her intimate, digressive voice guides us through a gallery of moments that have touched her.

In these pages, El Greco visits the Sistine Chapel and is appalled by Michelangelo’s bodies. The mystery of Rothko’s refusal to finish murals for the Seagram Building in New York is blended with the story of a hospital in which a prostitute walks the halls while the narrator’s husband receives chemotherapy. Alfred de Dreux visits Géricault’s workshop; Gustave Courbet’s devilish seascapes incite viewers “to have sex, or to eat an apple”; Picasso organizes a cruel banquet in Rousseau’s honor… All of these fascinating episodes in art history interact with the narrator’s life in Buenos Aires—her family and work; her loves and losses; her infatuations and disappointments. The effect is of a character refracted by environment, composed by the canvases she studies.

Seductive and capricious, Optic Nerve marks the English-language debut of a major Argentinian writer. It is a book that captures, like no other, the mysterious connections between a work of art and the person who perceives it. (From Catapult April 9)


Myla Goldberg, Feast Your Eyes

From Booklist (starred review): “From Bee Season (2000) onward, Goldberg has portrayed girls and young women with fluent sensitivity. In her brilliantly structured fourth novel, she revisits the theme again, in the story of photographer Lillian Preston, who, chronically shy yet determined, flees Cleveland for New York in 1953 at 17 and becomes an accidental single mother at 19… This is a novel of infinite depth, of caring authenticity both intimate and societal, of mothers and daughters, art and pain, and transcendent love.”

The first novel in nearly a decade from Myla Goldberg, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Bee Season—a compelling and wholly original story about a female photographer grappling with ambition and motherhooda balancing act familiar to women of every generation.

Feast Your Eyes, framed as the catalogue notes from a photography show at the Museum of Modern Art, tells the life story of Lillian Preston: “America’s Worst Mother, America’s Bravest Mother, America’s Worst Photographer, or America’s Greatest Photographer, depending on who was talking.” After discovering photography as a teenager through her high school’s photo club, Lillian rejects her parents’ expectations of college and marriage and moves to New York City in 1955. When a small gallery exhibits partially nude photographs of Lillian and her daughter Samantha, Lillian is arrested, thrust into the national spotlight, and targeted with an obscenity charge. Mother and daughter’s sudden notoriety changes the course of both of their lives and especially Lillian’s career as she continues a life-long quest for artistic legitimacy and recognition.

Narrated by Samantha, Feast Your Eyes reads as a collection of Samantha’s memories, interviews with Lillian’s friends and lovers, and excerpts from Lillian’s journals and letters—a collage of stories and impressions, together amounting to an astounding portrait of a mother and an artist dedicated, above all, to a vision of beauty, truth, and authenticity. (From Scribner April 16)


Christian Kiefer, Phantoms

From Kirkus (starred review): “[S]weet life spills from every perfect word…. It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy.”

Torn apart by war and bigotry, two families confront long-buried secrets in this haunting American novel of World War II and Vietnam.

In the panoramic tradition of Charles Frazier’s fiction, Phantoms is a fierce saga of American culpability. A Vietnam vet still reeling from war, John Frazier finds himself an unwitting witness to a confrontation, decades in the making, between two steely matriarchs: his aunt, Evelyn Wilson, and her former neighbor, Kimiko Takahashi. John comes to learn that in the onslaught of World War II, the Takahashis had been displaced as once-beloved tenants of the Wilson orchard and sent to an internment camp. One question has always plagued both families: What happened to the Takahashi son, Ray, when he returned from service and found that Placer County was no longer home—that nowhere was home for a Japanese American? As layers of family secrets unravel, the harrowing truth forces John to examine his own guilt.

In prose recalling Thomas Wolfe, Phantoms is a stunning exploration of the ghosts of American exceptionalism that haunt us today. (From Norton April 9)


Angie Kim, Miracle Creek

From Kirkus (starred review): “With so many complications and loose ends, one of the miracles of the novel is that the author ties it all together and arrives at a deeply satisfying—though not easy or sentimental—ending. Intricate plotting and courtroom theatrics, combined with moving insight into parenting special needs children and the psychology of immigrants, make this book both a learning experience and a page-turner.”

In rural Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night—trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges—as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author’s own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. Both a compelling page-turner and an excavation of identity and the desire for connection, Miracle Creek is a brilliant, empathetic debut from an exciting new voice. (From FSG April 16)


Sally Rooney, Normal People

From Publishers Weekly (starred review): “Rooney (Conversations with Friends) stuns with her depiction of an on-again off-again relationship between two young adults navigating social pressures…. Rooney crafts a devastating story from a series of everyday sorrows by delicately traversing female and male anxieties over sex, class, and popularity. This is a magnificent novel.”

At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal.

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship. (From Hogarth April 16)


Miriam Toews, Women Talking

From Kirkus (starred review): “An exquisite critique of patriarchal culture from the author of All My Puny Sorrows (2014)…. Stunningly original and altogether arresting.”

One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.

While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women-all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in-have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?

Based on real events and told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide. (From Bloomsbury April 2)