Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Publishers
As what little snow remains on the ground in many parts of the country threatens to melt under nuclear fireballs, it remains vitally important to hold fast to images of different, better, more just worlds. A host of new fiction and nonfiction titles — including a new memoir by Margo Jefferson, novels by Akwaeke Emezi, Jennifer Egan, and Chantal V. Johnson, and poetry by Ocean Vuong — can help us separate the mistakes we want to leave in the past from the new realities we want to construct for ourselves and each other.
Photo: Grand Central Publishing
In The Trayvon Generation, Elizabeth Alexander wonders where the cohort of Black Americans who grew up viscerally witnessing police brutality on social media will find creativity and pleasure. This collection of essays expands on Alexander’s 2020 New Yorker piece of the same name, and in it she leaves few aesthetic forms uninterrogated as she brings her considerable critical eye to bear on everything from Deborah Luster’s piercing portraits of incarcerated people (“the photographs capture the sitters with the formality of remembrance”) to the gravity-defying visual stylings of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 “Alright” video (“the young Black man flying in Lamar’s video is joyful and defiant, rising above the streets that might claim him”). In a taut, lyrical, and eminently readable volume, Alexander helps the reader make sense of the presents and futures being forged by Black artists who shall inherit the earth and thus have to find ways to delight themselves amid a continual abundance of racialized violence. — Omari Weekes
Egan’s latest kicks the formal experiments of A Visit From the Goon Squad into hyperdrive. In the alternate reality of The Candy House, a new technology called Own Your Unconscious archives memories in a database. This makes for easy and permanent recall of one’s past while also allowing access to the memories of anyone else who has used the same program. What results is a novel that resists form, incorporating tweets and emails from the future in a series of interconnected stories that show the promise of endless intersubjectivity and the perils of finding missed connections. As we continue to make sense of the fractured attachments that social media makes possible in our own world, Egan imagines a present and a future that push us to interrogate what such a collective mind-meld will mean. — O.W.
Photo: Little, Brown
In her debut novel, Johnson centers a dark comedy around Vivian, a young Afro-Latinx defense attorney working through the traumas of her Bridgeport, Connecticut, childhood and adolescence as she advocates clumsily for her clients, the patients of a state-run psychiatric hospital in New York City, and tries to deal with how these workplace interactions can trigger her. As she teeters through triggers and around the city making sense of her personal history, her love life, her friendships, her eating, and her weed, the deluge of stressors she tries to outpace and outsmart threaten to eventually catch up with her. And then they do, to calamitous effect. The deep anxieties that permeate Post-traumatic — “Contemporary life is a woman working out vigorously, with a look of sad straining on her face,” Johnson writes at one point — are the other side of the class ascendency that many millennials of color navigate as we square our routinely chaotic lives with memories of go-go ’80s and ’90s years that instilled in us implausible fantasies of “the good life.” — O.W.
Photo: Tiny Reparations
Is it stealing if you take back what was stolen from you? When Will Chen, a Chinese American art history student at Harvard, decides to liberate looted Chinese art and artifacts from western museums, he enlists his close friends to bypass the bureaucratic repatriation processes established by those institutions: “His whole life had brought him here, to a museum of Chinese art and the thieves that took it back,” Li writes. (They also plan to get rich in the process: A Chinese foreign trade corporation offers the group $10 million each for the return of five Chinese sculptures.) A tender and tenacious art-heist story wrapped around an intimate cultural history of extraction, Portrait of a Thief is a novel that names the unsutured wounds left by the violence of immigration, xenophobia, and diasporic longing in the lives of its Asian American characters, a story of the comradery of resistance and a testament to righteous grievance. — Jordan Taliha McDonald
An 18-year-old explorer, a detective, and an author walk not into a bar but across such far-flung destinations as a forest, moon colonies, and British Columbia, pondering if they’re trapped in a simulation of reality that’s indistinguishable from the world they know, a simulacrum of its exquisite and familiar beauty. In her sixth novel, Emily St. John Mandel — who also wrote Station Eleven, recently adapted for HBO Max — gives us a story perfectly suited to the multi-temporality of the pandemic, collapsing timelines spanning 1912 to 2401 into a postapocalyptic gumbo of sci-fi and autofiction. She has produced an inventive, haunting, and tender time-travel story that underscores the importance and resilience of art. — Safy-Hallan Farah
Photo: Penguin Press
Is anyone in American letters having a better run than Vuong? He’s collected enough accolades over the past few years to stock a trophy case, including a MacArthur “genius” grant. His latest book, a collection of poems titled Time Is a Mother, demonstrates that despite (or maybe because of) his success, Vuong is still pushing himself to discover new ways of enunciating ancient truths. These poems glisten and rattle, and they deftly mine a host of diverse topics — sex, privilege, beauty, art, poverty, death — to offer us a fresh way of evaluating and understanding our world. Vuong expertly unwraps clichés and rewraps them in fresh packaging so we can perceive their meanings anew. On each page, he demonstrates that untranslatable is a meaningless word. His poems say, “We’re all humans having human experiences. Let’s figure this all out together.” — Tope Folarin
Photo: McNally Editions
The unfinished manuscript of The Pale King (which was shuffled and assembled and finally published in 2011, three years after Wallace’s death) did contain one complete work: this novella. Tucked inside those 500-plus pages was the story of an IRS employee’s dramatic conversion from intellectual drifter to dedicated tax man after he wanders into an advanced seminar taught by a Jesuit — an unmistakably Wallace-esque tale of inanity and profundity. Dedicated DFW fans will remember it from the previous book, but the recently launched imprint McNally Editions is releasing this story on its own as “the best complete example we have of Wallace’s late style.” The entire thousand-page archive of Wallace’s notes for The Pale King is available online at the Harry Ransom Center, but there is something delicious about picking out little snippets of Wallace, like this one, and holding them up to the light. — Hillary Kelly
Jefferson has always been an astute chronicler of early days — including her own in her 2015 memoir, Negroland, and the King of Pop’s in 2006’s On Michael Jackson. In her latest memoir, Constructing a Nervous System, she sets her keen eye on the youth and maturation she shared with her elder sister, Denise, the longtime Alvin Ailey director who died of ovarian cancer in 2010, as well as on the comings-along of a host of other figures: Ella Fitzgerald, Ike Turner, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin character Topsy, and more. Jefferson is as precise and sensitive as ever, nonpareil in her scope and ability to synthesize the circus of traditions, arcs, and performances that make up a life, taking the role of stage trouper and spectator in turns. The second sentence of Constructing a Nervous System takes up the intonation of a carnival barker in a dream sequence that rattles Jefferson awake: “THIS IS THE WOMAN WITH ONLY ONE CHILDHOOD.” What an honor to settle in for the show alongside her. — Jasmine Sanders
One of the more hackneyed methods of evaluating fiction holds that you can determine the worth of a text through the first sentence. This doesn’t really work until it does, as in the case of Things They Lost, the debut novel by Okwiri Oduor: “December staggered in like a weary mud-encrusted vagabond who had been on her way to someplace else but whose legs had buckled and now she was here.” From the start, Oduor — a winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, among other honors — broadcasts her tremendous talents. Ayosa, her lonely girl protagonist who travels easily between our world and the spirit realm, pines for a friend. When she finally finds one, their friendship doesn’t develop the way Ayosa anticipates. Come for the beguiling narrative, and stay for the rich, evocative language. — T.F.
Photo: Drawn & Quarterly
For a minute there, Julie Doucet was looking like the Greta Garbo of alt-comics. After turning out reams of hilarious, filthy, intimate, visceral pages in both French and English — through her series Dirty Plotte (Quebecois for “dirty cunt”) and autofiction like My New York Diary — the Montrealer announced her retirement from comics in the mid-aughts. She was done telling the stories she had before, full of hysterical fuck-up boyfriends, sex dreams, whippets, benders, sight gags, bizarre strangers, and 20-something artists stringing out their welfare checks. She didn’t stop drawing or making collages — how could she? — but comics were out of the question. Until now. This spring, Doucet will finally release Time Zone J, a trippy, semi-tragic comic that tells the story of an amour fou she shared with a troubled Parisian man in the late ’80s. Its full-bleed pages are packed with black-pen renderings of her current middle-aged self, random advertisements, observations, and doodles. Câlice, it’s good to have her back. — Madeline Leung Coleman
Photo: Fence Books
Harmony Holiday’s Maafa asks up front, 30 lines in, “Do we have any black women in the epic hero position? / Any black witness?” Instead of conjuring one, Holiday’s epic poem proposes an odyssey without a traditional Odysseus. Through Maafa, a Black woman whose name is derived from the Swahili word for catastrophe or, later in its etymology, the Black Holocaust, what unfolds is a journey of haunting and healing amid a “neverending genocide.” Having witnessed the massacre of her people at the hands of a number of death-dealing entities — slavers, hit men, floods — Maafa wrestles with twin motifs of disrepair and reparation as she negotiates the imperiled complicity of a survivor of tragedy. “A disaster is no respecter of mirrors,” writes Holiday. The poem follows Maafa from a dislocated barracoon where she sacrifices her father to end his suffering to a “paradise of ruins” where memory is begged to “behave like a promise,” which opens to an image of the first Motown headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. In the end, Maafa offers a poetics of diaspora, trauma, and a fractal world inherited, one where our heroine must “ma[k]e herself up / Then bl[o]w herself up to survive.” — J.T.M.
When the Chinese Communist Party invites 16-year-old Mei to visit 1960s Beijing, she leaves her impoverished village for the titular, extravagant residence of Mao Zedong. But the precocious teenager ends up flying too close to the sun as she schemes her way into becoming the chairman’s courtesan and confidant on the brink of the Cultural Revolution. Vanessa Hua’s extensive research into the lives of Mao’s “private secretaries” — his many young lovers — reveals itself in this fascinating novel of historical fiction. The ambitious protagonist, obsessed with the idea of becoming a revolutionary, earns her stripes with a mission from Mao himself, but this coming-of-age story forces us to think of Mei as more than just an effective provocateur. — Jessica Jacolbe
Photo: New York Review Books
Self-Portrait, Celia Paul’s extraordinary 2019 memoir — about her relationship with fellow painter Lucian Freud, her diminishment in the public eye from artist to mere muse, and her decades-long project painting her sisters and herself — ignited interest in her visual work and her ability to write as originally and gracefully as she paints. This lush book is a series of letters from Paul to her own creative influence, the early-20th-century painter Gwen John, another woman who has often been relegated to footnote status because of her relationship with a “Great Man” (in this case, sculptor Auguste Rodin). It’s a work of biography, analysis, reverence, and supplication, and it’s filled with buoyant representations of both Paul’s and John’s work. A charge runs through it, the crackly static electricity of two connected souls touching hands across a century. “Perhaps,” Paul writes, “through you, I can begin to trace the reason for my transformation into painted stone.” — H.K.
Hernan Diaz’s previous fiction effort was a Pulitzer finalist, and he splits his gripping follow-up into four different books: a novel (short), an autobiography (unfinished), a memoir (which serves as a sort of fact-check), and a journal (fragmented). At the center of it all is a Wall Street trader and his wife who become incredibly wealthy during the Roaring ’20s and wealthier still during the Great Depression. The novel tells us the neat version of their lives, the one that becomes widely accepted, while the next three books unravel this narrative and uncover the truth hidden within it. At its heart, Trust is about the bigger lies we tell about capitalism and individual ability, about our society and ourselves, and about the price we are willing to pay to maintain such illusions. — Rozina Ali
Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Though Geoff Dyer’s latest title references the aging Swiss tennis phenom, who may be the best male player to ever play the game, The Last Days of Roger Federer could more accurately be described instead as a concatenation of thoughts on how entertainers of his ilk bide time as they regard the looming ends of their careers. Perhaps not since Claudia Rankine’s poignant ruminations on the life and career of Serena Williams in Citizen: An American Lyric has a book that is not actually about tennis used the sport so effectively as anthropological commentary. Throughout, Dyer’s reflections on watching grand slams just before and then during a global pandemic are interspersed with his memories of various “final days”: the end of his undergraduate career at Oxford, his last trips to Burning Man, watching and listening to the latter-day John Coltrane. For Dyer, encountering beauty and aesthetic complexity at any age continues to be the key to barreling through a vibrant life toward its inevitable end. — O.W.
Photo: W.W. Norton
An exacting writer of the digital age, journalist Vauhini Vara makes her debut with a trippy novel that marries the family saga with a biotech satire. The Immortal King Rao jumps around in time as the titular King Rao’s daughter, Athena, navigates his very tangible memory on an Indian coconut plantation while serving time in prison after being accused of his murder. The inventor of a personal computer called the Coconut, King Rao’s legacy is a new world order he proposed, a “Shareholder Government” run entirely by a social-profile-driven algorithm. Athena’s fate now lies with these Shareholders, and the novel asks the reader, a Shareholder, to set our protagonist free. Vara has a gift for humanizing the invisible labor that happens behind our screens. Who, if anyone, can really separate themselves from the digital ties that bind us? — J.J.
Photo: Princeton University Press
To those of us who have avidly followed Jhumpa Lahiri’s career since she published her Pulitzer-winning 1999 debut Interpreter of Maladies, her decision to begin writing in Italian was puzzling. Why, we wondered, would she take up the challenge of crafting stories in another language at the height of her career? This book, her first collection of essays, movingly describes her history with translation from her experiences as an immigrant child who struggled to determine how she should address her mother on a Valentine’s Day card — “Ma,” the Bengali term she typically used, or its American English equivalent, “Mom” — to her early literary-translation efforts and her eventual decision to move to Rome and learn Italian. In these essays, she reveals why her late-acquired language is so important to her and how her commitment to learning it doubles as a method of reconnecting herself to the joy of being an artist. — T.F.
Photo: New York Review Books
This is a kind of sequel to Darryl Pinckney’s 2017 curation, The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick. Her stylish, gutting one-liners are present — “the almost hallucinated attraction she felt for the expensive” — and they enliven a collection that can otherwise feel too diffuse. (Some of Hardwicks bons mots have aged poorly; in one essay, she opines that “a great deal of happiness and vivacity died in social life when anatomy ceased to be a sufficient designation of one’s sex.”) Still, I was struck by the prescience of the collection’s strongest inclusions, particularly a 1996 piece originally published in Art in America that has Hardwick wandering into an exhibition of models based on Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and emerging with an awareness of art’s peculiar forward vision: “We decide, with an odd unanimity,” she writes, “to call a new thing beautiful.” — Erin Schwartz
Emezi’s latest novel follows Feyi Adekola, a young woman whose lover died five years prior, as she struggles to date again. When she does find a new, passionate love, Feyi is both overjoyed and suspicious: Will a romance this fiery burn up her whole life? Fans of Emezi’s previous work will find comfort in the writer’s striking prose and well-layered characters but will also revel in the author’s bold first attempts at romance. At once a love story and a tale of deep grief, the novel beautifully displays the bravery of choosing love even in times of total despair. — Mary Retta
As two women making it work in Los Angeles slowly fall in love, their pasts continue to streak into their presents. Sara Foster lands in L.A. as a teenage runaway who eventually establishes herself as a mixologist at the high-end restaurant Yerba Buena, where she’s known for using the eponymous herb as her cocktails’ signature element. While there, she meets Emile Dubois, a recently hired floral designer who has a similarly rocky background. Their courtship may never reach its fullest potential in noted YA author Nina LaCour’s first foray into adult literary fiction. But as the lives of these women chaotically come together and break apart, the sumptuousness of the prose and its reflections of Southern California — its food, its drink, its intimacies — will make you want to take a long, slow drive along an ocean vista. — O.W.
Every product is independently selected by our editors. Things you buy through our links may earn us a commission.