All the 2022 National Book Award nominees, reviewed –

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Every year, the National Book Foundation nominates 25 books to be eligible to win a National Book Award. The nominations highlight fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young adult books. For the past 9 years, the Vox staff has read them all, and we’ve shared our thoughts on what’s worthy.

The winners will be announced on Wednesday, November 16; this story will be updated at that time. Our musings on the 2022 nominees and winners are below.

A book cover with an anatomically correct heart with an arrow through it.
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty.
Penguin Random House

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Tess Gunty’s debut novel features the misfit residents of an affordable housing complex in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a dying post-industrial city in the Midwest. At its center is Blandine Watkins, an ethereal child of the foster care system with a terrifying brilliance and an affinity for Christian mystics. Or maybe its true central character is Vacca Vale, with its crumbling infrastructure and its unspoiled park, under threat from a proposed economic revitalization effort. Over the course of a week, the residents intersect in ways that reveal the extent of their alienation.

While the story has elements familiar to a certain microgenre of literary fiction (the quirky child genius, the multi-character viewpoint, the build-up to a cataclysm, etc.), Gunty wields these elements with such freshness and sophistication that the book feels thrilling and new. As a daughter of the Rust Belt who’s read enough literary fiction about elite New Yorkers to last a lifetime, I couldn’t get enough of the world she built. Gunty’s writing is impressionistic and original — a technicolor kaleidoscope of the earthly and otherworldly. —Marin Cogan, senior correspondent

The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones

Sometimes the sun warms, sometimes the sun stings, and sometimes the sun just flat-out burns. In this novel, Gayl Jones sweeps readers away to the isle of Ibiza and pours upon them all three of these sensations in the most artistic of ways.

Amanda, an older expat on the island of Ibiza and a “self-proclaimed” divorcee, is an erotic novelist turned travel guide writer. Jones colors the life of this peregrine traveler in a way that maintains her anonymity while providing slices of herself to the reader throughout the text. Gathered like little treats for later, Jones sweetly provides payoff for each inciting action in glorious and unconventional ways.

This novel takes a generous and sometimes scathing look at the various manifestations of an artist’s life, dreams, and liminal station. Kaleidoscoping from dreams into reality, to giving readers a choice in deciding the protagonist’s fate, you never know what’s coming next — but isn’t that just the thing to keep somebody going? —Tonika Reed, editorial coordinator

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak is a book of shape-shifting. Kochai constantly experiments with form and voice, deftly stepping between photorealism and fantasy to create a vivid, surreal short-story collection that is both a modern parable of American imperialism and a testament to Kochai’s skill as a writer. Afghanistan — particularly the province of Logar, where Kochai’s family is from and his debut novel is also set — and the legacy of the War on Terror ripples through the background of this collection. Many of Kochai’s characters are Afghans or Afghan Americans who experience transformations of their own, whether they are Californian college students enduring months-long hunger strikes in solidarity with Palestine or an Afghan teen on the eve of her wedding.

Violence and upheaval are constantly apparent in the book, but so is a sort of fragile tenderness that seems to hold everything together. About halfway through the collection, I found myself catching my breath as I finally realized what Kochai had assembled. As Afghanistan fades into the background of American discourse, Kochai’s voice is essential. We may not wish to see what we have wrought; Kochai, it seems, will ensure we do not forget. —Neel Dhanesha, science & climate reporter

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews.
Penguin Random House

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Sarah Thankam Mathews has written a character-driven novel that explores the power of friendship, navigating one’s sexuality, and being a young immigrant. It follows Sneha, a queer, first-generation Indian American who graduates from college during the Great Recession. Sneha miraculously lands an entry-level corporate job that takes her to Milwaukee, where she navigates new friendships, dating women for the first time and living in the shadow of her family.

I wanted to be totally immersed in the world that Mathews created, but for me, the door would not open so wide. The novel was somewhat of a slow burn, but radiant all the same. The plot trudged along very slowly. At times, I wanted to put it down completely, but knew I shouldn’t. And I really couldn’t. Mathews’ writing is daring, sharp, and authoritative. She’s a master in building rich characters that are imperfect and complicated, charismatic and lovable. At times, the prose felt luxurious and welcoming in the way that the scent of your favorite candle might slowly fill up an ever-expanding room. —Shira Tarlo, senior social media manager

The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela

The Town of Babylon is a magnificent debut from Alejandro Varela. The novel tells the story of Andrés, a queer Latino American man who grew up in a small suburban town on Long Island. Andrés left his hometown for college and cut off contact with all his neighbors and friends, never looking back until 20 years later, when he visits to take care of his ailing father and ends up going to his 20th high school reunion. As Andrés reconnects with old friends, enemies, and first loves, Varela deftly chronicles several elements of the modern American experience that we rarely see represented in popular culture: the experience of being a child of immigrants who strives to move up in society, being a person of color in predominantly white spaces, being a queer person in predominantly straight spaces. It’s a beautiful story about community, friendship, and figuring out one’s place in the world. —Nisha Chittal, managing editor

The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke.
Penguin Random House

The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke

The Invisible Kingdom is a remarkably frustrating book to read, which I say as a compliment. This book is about the failures of the medical system in coping with chronic illness, about the number of patients who go to their doctor with symptoms and are roundly dismissed, ignored, and told that they’re lying or that their symptoms are all in their head. Reading about these issues should be frustrating.

Journalist and poet Meghan O’Rourke spent about a decade nearly incapacitated by a mysterious autoimmune disorder that wouldn’t be diagnosed for years. The first doctors she saw brushed aside her complaints when diagnostic tests failed to turn up any explanation. Perhaps the reason she had electric pains shooting up and down her limbs every morning, one suggested, was dry skin. As a defensive measure of sorts, O’Rourke began to research chronic illnesses and all the ways in which our siloed medical system is poorly equipped to deal with them — a major problem, she points out, as about 7.5 percent of American adults are facing down long Covid. The resulting knowledge O’Rourke has compiled into this lucid, at times lyrical, and always outrage-inspiring book. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry

In the opening of Imani Perry’s lyrically gutting travelogue, she asks us to remember the choreography of the French quadrille — a dance where two couples face each other in a square, a progenitor of American line dancing. Refrain, figure, refrain, figure. That rhythm haunts the history of the American South, she posits. South to America chronicles Perry’s journey across several notable places in the South, dissecting the politics, pop culture, and pressing yet occasionally unspoken rules that dictate life for Black Americans living below the Mason-Dixon Line. The underlying thread, beyond the thump-thump-thump of history, is the charge to bear witness. When no one is thinking beyond their God of Masters, who is thinking of those who time and time again are pushed to the margins? Perry weaves the narration of her own history beautifully alongside escaped slaves, prideful rappers, and architects of universities. From Appalachia to the Caribbean, Perry’s dutiful analysis brings a more honest perspective to the South. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus by David Quammen.
Simon & Schuster

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus by David Quammen

Breathless is an apt name for David Quammen’s latest book. In what can only be described as a rapt, whirlwind tour of the scientific landscape behind the experts and professionals working to stop Covid-19, Quammen masterfully untangles the often mired narratives surrounding the virus. Quammen — best known for his 2012 book Spillover, which explains how viruses jump from animals to humans — homes in on the basic questions that haunt scientists today: Exactly where did SARS-CoV-2 come from?

When it feels as though the pandemic has been litigated, analyzed, and turned on its head in literature, Quammen brings a refreshing perspective that’s rooted in the technical. There’s little about lockdowns, politics, or social factors. Rather, Quammen breaks down the nitty-gritty in a way anyone can understand. Admittedly, in terms of prose and narrative, the book pales in comparison to his previous work (which benefited greatly from in-person reporting). But if you’re not afraid of getting elbow-deep in bat guano or genetic material, Breathless is an illuminating read. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor

The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ grandfather was a curanderoa spiritual healer who could cure ailments and converse with the dead. In Colombia, where the author was born, these powers, known colloquially as “the secrets,” were meant to be the purview of men. But after falling down a well and suffering amnesia as a child, Rojas Contreras’ mother uncovered that she was as supernaturally gifted as any man, capable of appearing in two places at once and able to see ghosts walking among the living.

Years later, after the family has fled political violence in their home country, Rojas Contreras crashes into a car door on her bicycle and temporarily loses her memory. As she attempts to reconcile the fragments of her memory post-accident, she discovers that she is more a part of the family lineage than she’d previously realized. After several family members report that her grandfather has been visiting them in dreams, asking for his body to be exhumed, Rojas Contreras and her mother travel to Colombia to honor her Nono’s final wishes. With gorgeous, dream-like prose, Rojas Contreras excavates a story about family secrets, colonialism and violence, magic and memory. —Marin Cogan, senior correspondent

His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa

Things that happened last year, last month, can feel like events long past. Something that happened at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic might as well have taken place in ancient Rome. And yet, being reminded of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 brings up the same shock, horror, and rage as though it were happening today.

His Name Is George Floyd presents a history of an ordinary life. Floyd wasn’t famous; he wasn’t known outside his small community. He was, in this account, just a Black man getting by, struggling to stay off drugs, trying to keep his life from falling apart. He certainly wasn’t a hero. But circumstances made his name, his life, and his death into something extraordinary.

Told with incredible attention to detail, the story covers Floyd’s life as well as the history of his family from slavery to the Jim Crow South to Minneapolis. We see Floyd attempting to get a rap music career off the ground; we watch him being hassled by police for minor drug offenses and for merely existing. The story dives sideways to talk about Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck. It continues into the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Chauvin’s trial, and the mingled outpourings of grief and activism that accompanied them. In all, the book takes the mundane and meticulous details of one man’s life and seems to make the argument that his experience is a microcosm of the Black experience in America. Whether it is or not, it’s a well-told story that brings nuance to the news. —Elizabeth Crane, senior copy and standards editor

Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.
Coffee House Press

Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

For a person who can’t stand not knowing exactly what’s being discussed, this chronicle of the bygone or nearly bygone wonders of Native California might be best read with Google close at hand. Every page of Look at This Blue, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s lament for the state she loves, surfaces a tragedy or tragedies that our culture has largely written off, from catalogs of ravaged wildlife to the Camp Fire deaths to her own mother’s schizophrenia.

Take, for example, a list of 32 massacres. They’re all simply named, right in a row, starting with the Sacramento River Massacre and ending with the Kingsley Cave Massacre. The former, which happened in 1846, resulted in somewhere between 125 and 900 Wintu deaths; the latter, in 1871, saw a man named Kingsley murdering 30 of the remaining 45 Yahi tribesmen in a cave. Early in the poem, Hedge Coke invokes a man called Ishi (which is approximately Yahi for “man”), who was supposedly the “last wild Indian” and last of that tribe. Forty years after that massacre, Ishi spent the final few years of his life living in a San Francisco museum, only to have his brain pickled and put on display for white people to ogle. In 1999, it was returned to his closest possible relatives, the Yana people, as the Yahi were thought long gone.

Throughout, the poem is densely packed with allusions to the flora, fauna, and humanity decimated or near-decimated by colonization, corporatization, selfishness, and fear. One beautifully broken line at a time, Hedge Coke opens up a disappeared and disappearing world, a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding what we’re losing and what we’ve lost. —Meredith Haggerty, senior editor, culture

Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene

This collection from MacArthur genius John Keene is wide-ranging in all the ways — bringing together decades of work, rendered in a variety of poetic forms, examining the many facets of queer Black life in America. Keene’s description of the volume as a mixtape is apt, and the poems layer on top of one another to compose a picture of the poet in full.

Keene is never vague or coy, whether he’s expounding on the urgent (as in “Pulse,” dedicated to the victims of the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre) or the meta (one poem is literally titled “A report on the ‘What’s American about American poetry?’ conference at the New School”). His work is so clear in its intentions and its language, though Keene never trades precision for lyricism.

Take this passage, which just about knocked me out: “You have smallish hands for a brother, he says,” starts a poem of the same name, “but beautiful. Manly; compact; soft as chamois, velvety but copper-woven, almost golden-red, the Indian blood glows in them; the veins so large they snake beneath the skin like fresh creeks; full nails, white-tipped, not nicotined, not streaked with melanin and fungus like his own, and pale half-moons in each thumb appear to be setting.” —Julia Rubin, editorial director, features & culture

Balladz by Sharon Olds

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds has assembled a collection of poems that ruminate in ways that will be familiar to any reader who spent quarantine lost in their own head. The works reflect thought patterns in the style of the early pandemic days, where there was much time to think about the painfully ancestral and familial, as in “What Came Next After Our Father’s Death (“my sister, with the power to ensure / that I would not know, during his life, / the worst of our father, that I’d never know him / until he was safely dead, so that for his / whole life I had been safe from the knowledge / of him, and he had been safe from the knowledge of him.”), the lucid morbid truths of reality, as in “Ballad Torn Apart” (“Now that I understand / that the world / as we know it / is going to end”) or inescapable awareness of the physical self, as in “Spotted Aria” (“just outside — I see myself, / spotted as a salamander, an / albino newt speckled with golden oval spots.”)

While the ballad poems she includes don’t feel particularly gripping to me, and her unpacking of race made me wince with exasperation (“I lay a curse on every person of no / color who had kneeled on the throat of a person / of color.”), Balladz is a worthy read that runs a silk thread through the lonely and joyous realizations that come with solitude. —Melinda Fakuade, staff editor, culture and features

Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves.
W.W. Norton & Company

Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves

Roger Reeves once said of his poetry that he was “interested in troubling my reader–nothing easy, nothing without a little blood and bleeding.” His new collection, Best Barbarian, often drops devastating, cold clarity on the reader about the stakes: “Empathy will not end / Genocide. It won’t / Even delay it.” He opens with an image of Beowulf’s Grendel seeking out human companionship, “Bringing humans the best vision of themselves, / Which, of course, must be slaughtered.”

But Best Barbarian also seeks out the best of humanity, tripping across a pantheon of Black cultural inspiration from Baldwin to Beyoncé. He enacts a familiar poetics within an epic tradition, with fixations on nature and small serendipitous moments drawn in a sharply imagist style. But in this performance, his attempt to deliver a Whitman-y, arms-outstretched view of America instead constantly constricts, doubling over from grief and PTSD. The death of Reeves’s father, acts of police brutality, slavery, generational trauma, and the climate crisis all become intrusive poetic thoughts. Sometimes this trauma verges on funny (“It turns out however that I was deeply / Mistaken about the end of the world”) but it often simply resides, acknowledged and lived with and directly observed.

But, still, a wry form of hope — for “what is not dead in your death” — persists in drowning out the despair. “Life, it is at every window,” he writes. “It’s what rots the Senators’ teeth.” —Aja Romano, culture writer

The Rupture Tense by Jenny Xie

Jenny Xie’s second collection, The Rupture Tense, prods at the silence of the Asian diaspora, attempting to glean meaning and memory from things that are seen but unseen, heard but not spoken, told but not shown.

With lyrical and devastating language, Xie begins The Rupture Tense with clear reflections on the photography of Li Zhensheng, a Chinese photojournalist who documented the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These sequences are more than just captions to frames missing from these pages, they are a guided tour; Xie beckons us from the foreground to the background of these important images, taking readers into time and place and depositing us into the yawning silences that have been left in the wake of our ancestor’s forging ever forward.

As readers leave the photographs, Xie examines her and her family’s history with the diaspora. What does it mean to be from a place? What does it mean to leave and to come back? All of this intertwines with the long gaze back to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the inheritance of generational trauma, and the poet’s familial history. Finally, The Rupture Tense concludes with an elegy for Xie’s grandmother, moving readers seamlessly from foreground to background to foreground once more, like a camera’s lens unfocusing and refocusing on a single point. —Jayne Quan, social media manager, video

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse.
Fitzcarraldo editions

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse; translated by Damion Searls

Jon Fosse is one of those writers who is a giant in their own language and little read in English. In Norway, Fosse is considered one of the country’s greatest writers. He taught Karl Ove Knausgaard, who considers him a major influence, and he’s a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize. But in the Anglophone world, Fosse hasn’t had a breakout until now, with the final volume of his Septology.

In English, the Septology is also a trilogy, translated by Damion Searls into three parts. Each volume begins and ends the same way: The elderly artist Asle is trying to figure out how to complete a painting of one purple line and one brown line intersecting into an X to form a St. Andrew’s cross. After much reflection and memory, Asle falls into prayer, and each volume finishes in the middle of his Latin incantations. There are no periods, so the whole 800-page Septology is a single sentence.

In A New Name, some of Asle’s questions resolve themselves. He decides he will never finish his St. Andrews’s cross, and that in fact he is done with painting altogether. Art has brought him what it needed to bring him, which is the ability to get closer to God. Now, it gradually becomes clear, Asle is ready to die.

Fosse’s single sentence unspools in rhythmic, melodic waves, ebbing and flowing with Asle’s memories until it finally explodes into a virtuosic burst of images in the final pages. The sentence is a whole life, and it ends where a life ends. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga; translated by Mark Polizzotti

Kibogo is a fable of colonization and of what colonization does to fables. It concerns Kibogo, a Rwandan prince said to have volunteered to be struck by lightning in order to bring down a rain that would end a famine. Over the course of this spare, sly novella, we watch Kibogo’s story rewritten, revised, repressed, and resurgent.

In the 1940s Rwandan village where Kibogo takes place, Christian evangelizers don’t care for the story of Kibogo. They decry it as pagan nonsense, and since the village chief has converted to Christianity after being well paid for it, the villagers agree to forget Kibogo. Some of them express some skepticism as to the utility of Christianity, however, when the village is hammered by the twin blows of a vicious drought and a Belgian regime that forces farmers to redirect their crops and manpower to European wars. Kibogo, some villagers note, at least knew how to bring down the rain.

Meanwhile, some of the Europeans around them are trying to preserve the story of Kibogo. They’re writing it down so that, they explain, they can tell it back to the Rwandans later, when the villagers have become “civilized” enough to understand Kibogo’s story as a metaphor. But which version of the story are they getting? It seems to keep changing.

In an interview with Le Monde, Mukasonga referred to her books as “paper tombs” for a Rwandan way of life that has been crushed by colonization and genocide. In Kibogo, that lost world comes to vivid, sardonic life. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda.
Coffee House Press

Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda; translated by Sarah Booker

If you’ve ever pondered the overlap between Catholic schools and weird queer horror, Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone was made for you. Ojeda’s swirling, nonlinear narrative, superbly translated by Sarah Booker, manages the paradox of feeling both sprawling and claustrophobic. On one level, it’s a classic dark academia tale of private school girls pushing one another to the psychosexual brink, this time set in present-day Ecuador; it’s also a sharp meta-study, replete with pop horror references, of the forces that create queer villainy.

Ojeda slowly composes a heated, cacophonous death dance between intimately entwined opposites: fear and desire, pleasure and pain, mothers and daughters. (“Fear was much like always being outside of a mother’s room.”) The enigmatic student Fernanda, her horror-obsessed frenemy Annelise, and their repressed teacher Miss Clara make a fantastic set of antagonists — an erotically charged trio of deranged queer gals in the grand tradition of mad lesbians. Uniting them all: a yearning for maternal acceptance, queer kinship, and — of course — a little blood-letting. —Aja Romano, culture writer

Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin; translated by Megan McDowell

Samanta Schweblin, a Berlin-based Argentinian writer who broke out in the US with 2017’s Fever Dreams, flourishes in the liminal space between the everyday and the uncanny. In the seven short stories that make up her new book Seven Empty Houses, no one does anything supernatural or unearthly, but they frequently behave in ways that feel confusing, unsettling, and just a little bit off.

That creeping, unsettling sense comes across most clearly in “Breath From the Depths,” the longest and richest story in the collection. There, an old woman engaged in a frenzied form of Swedish death cleaning spends her days boxing up all of her possessions so no one else will have to do it for her when she dies. She suspects, spitefully, that her husband is making friends behind her back, and she’s haunted by her own rasping breath, which seems to fill her house like a monster. With longtime translator Megan McDowell, Schweblin renders the old woman’s cramped and vengeful life into prose so precise it will haunt you when you close the book. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani

Pretty much the last things I want to read about right now are large-scale disasters and their aftermaths, and yet Yoko Tawada’s 2018 novel (translated and published in the US in 2022) is so wide-ranging in its interests and so light in its tone that I forgot that was precisely what I was doing.

The novel, the first in a trilogy, follows a handful of characters as they traverse the world in search of, among other things, language. Their driving force is a woman named Hiruko, who comes from a country never named as Japan, only ever referred to as “the land of sushi,” which we come to realize has been permanently lost or destroyed, likely in some sort of climate catastrophe (it’s clear that this is a world that has been rocked by recent major events). As such, Hiruko’s native language has been cast asunder, and so while living in Norway she’s cobbled together an entirely new dialect she refers to as Panksa (which comprises “pan” and “Scandinavia”). She meets a number of other finely drawn characters, including Knut, a boy who loves her and hates being tailed across greater Europe by his overbearing mother; Akash, a trans student from India who loves Knut; and Tenzo, whose name is not really Tenzo.

They form a ragtag band in search of someone who will be able to speak Hiruko’s native language, and in the process raise questions about what language is and is not for, what limitations and possibilities it can contain, and what constitutes “native” speaking in the first place. The book is told from almost every named character’s point of view, switching off from chapter to chapter, and while that could become exhausting or hard to follow in a different context, in a novel so concerned with speech and words and expression, it feels paramount to be able to see just how each character deploys their own. Now all I can hope for is that the next book in the trilogy doesn’t have to wait four years for a US release. —Alanna Okun, senior editor, culture & features

An ogress by her kitchen fire hands a human-sized bowl of soup to a small child.
The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill.
Workman Publishing

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill

“Listen,” as the long-unidentified narrator of The Ogress and the Orphans might say. This is not a tale — fairy in both nature and spirit — that breaks terrifically new ground. That’s the point, though. Instead, it says a lot of things very worth saying again and again, in a lovely way.

From Newberry medal winner Kelly Barnhill, this fable about a little town called Stone-in-the-Glen and its community that isn’t a community anymore has some not entirely subtle parallels with modern life. We have a flashy, inexplicably beloved leader who says “I, alone, can fix it,” an untrusting citizenry locked away and apart in their homes, and a host of winning orphans reminding themselves and one another that “Facts matter.” It’s not simply a parallel to America circa 2020, but, as the book makes clear, it’s a terribly old story, one we tell again and again, in different ways and with different villains and heroes, but always the same vital lessons: that fellowship with our neighbors is invaluable, that libraries rule, that doing good is more important than any fuzzy idea of “being” good, and that you should not throw rocks at birds. —Meredith Haggerty, senior editor, culture

The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes

This was a good year for the NBA and Latina lesbians in private schools (see also: Jawbone). Yamilet, still reeling from being outed by her ex-girlfriend, views her new school — rich, white, and very Catholic — as a new start. With her Papi deported, her brother Cesar constantly getting into fights, and her mom trying to hold the family together, Yamilet’s goals are simple: “1. Find a new best friend. 2. Don’t be gay about it.” But that’s before she meets bouncy, adorable Jenna and badass Bo Taylor.

What Reyes’ sparkling, wry voice captures so well is the burbling feeling of a teenager who’s in love with love, newly awakened to the possibility of romance around every corner. Yamilet’s excited crush spills over and threatens to ruin all her efforts to stay closeted despite her best efforts. Watching her struggle to suppress her bold, exuberant love while trying to protect her family is a painful, relatable reminder that coming out is the ultimate trust fall. —Aja Romano, culture writer

Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile

At the 1968 Olympics, the gold and silver medalists in the 200-meter event held up black-gloved fists as the US national anthem played to protest racial inequality. It’s a famous event given new life in Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist For Justice, a graphic memoir by the gold medalist, Tommie Smith; writer Derrick Barnes; and artist Dawud Anyabwile.

Tales from Smith’s childhood and early running career form the core of the book; they’re interspersed purposefully throughout a taut retelling of the gold medal-winning race. Challenges Smith faces in his dash summon memories that conclude with a lesson that helps spur him on to victory.

Those memories serve as poignant vignettes into Black life in the early 20th century; reminiscent of the Langston Hughes classic Not Without Laughter, they show how faith, family, and early experiences with racism shaped Smith into one of the greatest athletes — and activists — of his time.

It’s a compact, tightly written volume. The simplicity of its prose makes you feel as though you’re sitting with your eyes closed, imagining the past as you listen to Smith reflect. It’s an effect magnified by Anyabwile’s sharp and sinewy linework, and his deeply expressive faces, all rendered in crisp black and white.

Those looking for a deep dive into Smith’s life might be better served by his autobiography or other books about him. However, those seeking the highlights or a strong introduction to Smith’s work to give to young readers will be well served by this volume that is a brief look into a significant battle in the ongoing fight against white supremacy. —Sean Collins, news editor

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

Having shot to the top of the bestseller list with her fantasy series An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir’s latest is her first contemporary YA novel. The book is inspired by her own experience growing up in a motel “in the barren wasteland of the Mojave”; last year, she wrote an essay for Vox about her difficult childhood in the desert.

All My Rage finds its protagonists Salahudin (whose parents also run a motel in the Mojave) and Noor nearing the end of high school, uncertain about their individual futures, as well as their collective one. Are they in love? Are they just friends? What happens if they want different things? But the will-they-won’t-they — that most delicious of teen romance tropes — is overshadowed by the almost unimaginably bleak family histories and current circumstances of the pair.

Tahir weaves their stories in alternating chapters, also inserting some from the point of view of Salahudin’s mother Misbah, who immigrated to California from Pakistan with her husband following one of the book’s many tragedies. All My Rage is a difficult read with much-substantiated content warnings, but Tahir’s tenderness for her characters shines through. —Julia Rubin, editorial director, culture & features

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance by Lisa Yee

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance is a book I wish I had while I was growing up. Part mystery novel, part historical fiction, the book follows Chen, the 12-year-old protagonist, as she navigates a temporary move from Los Angeles, California, to Last Chance, Minnesota, where her grandparents own a restaurant called The Golden Palace. Geared toward younger readers, the novel offers an illuminating primer on Chinese American history, US immigration policy, and the rise of present-day anti-Asian hate crimes, providing an education that’s often missing from traditional textbooks.

The novel is far from a stuffy history lesson, however. It’s filled with vibrant characters including Maizy, an endlessly curious writer who’s eager to trace the origins of her family’s journey in the US, and Lucky, Maizy’s great-great-grandfather, who pursued his goals of working in and then owning a restaurant amid rampant discrimination in both California and Minnesota in the 1800s. By telling their stories in parallel, author Lisa Yee introduces readers to policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act while commenting on the enduring nature of anti-Asian sentiment, which Maizy experiences in the form of micro-aggressions from classmates in her grandparents’ predominately white Minnesota town.

Despite its weighty subject matter, the novel manages to strike a creative — and entertaining — balance that’s a nail-biter to the finish. When a hate crime takes place against her family’s restaurant, Maizy sets out to figure out who the perpetrator is, with unexpected and startling results. —Li Zhou, politics reporter

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5 Books to Read About Qatar Before the World Cup – The New York Times

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Qatar is the first Arab nation to host the tournament, bringing all the country’s contradictions to the fore.

When the soccer World Cup kicks off in Qatar on Nov. 20, it will accomplish two milestones. It will be the first World Cup played in the Arab world, bringing the globe’s favorite game to one of the regions where it is most loved. It will also be the first to be held in the Northern Hemisphere during its winter — essential in a nation where in June and July, when the tournament is normally held, the average daily high is around 107 degrees .

Qatar is one of the world’s smallest, but richest, countries: a tiny peninsula of land, barely the size of Connecticut, jutting into the turquoise waters of the Arabian gulf. It will host all games within Doha, the capital, and its satellite towns. The nation has seized on the global sporting and cultural event as an opportunity to announce itself on the world stage. Its brand-new stadiums, hotels, roads and metro system — built at hundreds of billions of dollars of expense — are designed to paint the picture of a futuristic hub of sports, tourism and education.

Yet the lead-up to this World Cup has been dominated like no other by negative headlines.

Human rights groups have drawn attention to unpaid wages , restrictive labor practices and unexplained deaths among low-income migrants, some of whom built the particular air-conditioned stadiums where the games will unfold. Soccer fans have criticized the decision to hold the world’s largest party in a country where homosexuality is illegal — and to one with too few hotels and very expensive beer . And an F. B. I. investigation of corruption in worldwide soccer has cast a shadow over Qatar’s hosting of the tournament.

Qatar’s gloss and grit speak to its broader contradictions. Before the discovery of hydrocarbons, it was one of the poorest places on the planet, its economy reliant on pearl diving. Today it drips with seemingly limitless wealth and ambition. It touts itself as a beacon of free speech plus education, home to the media giant Al Jazeera and satellite campuses of Georgetown, Cornell and Northwestern. But the local news media cannot officially quote the country’s ruler without written permission . And for all the allegations of worker abuses, tens of thousands of migrants still flock there in search of a better life.

To help improve your understanding of the place, here are five books that shed light on some of its most important aspects.

This is a highly-readable account from the satellite news service that will shot to Western attention over its coverage of the U. S. -led “war on terror. ” The book charts the channel’s birth and development, helping to demolish myths and misunderstandings about the Arab world along the way.

A moving and funny coming-of-age memoir by a Qatari American artist, this is one of the rare insights into life for Qatari nationals, who make up only 11 percent from the population of Qatar and are famously reticent in the company of outsiders.

Qatar’s biggest modern crisis unfolded from 2017-21 when, without warning, its neighbors placed the country under economic and political embargo, in a dramatic escalation of a long-running regional rivalry. This account moves from origin to (almost) conclusion, capturing how badly the initiative backfired, strengthening Qatar’s independence and global standing.

Several books cover FIFA, corruption and the awarding of the hosting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. This one, by a New York Times reporter, gets the nod for its pace, clarity and unrivaled access to the particular F. B. I. and I. R. S. — the key instigators of the huge (and ongoing) corruption case being brought against many of those who run the global game.

A cleareyed account of Qatar’s many communities by a sociologist previously based in Doha. The author is sympathetic to the country’s challenges, but doesn’t pull his punches when exploring issues around free speech, sexuality, and the treatment of migrant workers.

John McManus is the author associated with “Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth, ” an account of life in the country told through the eyes of those who call it home.

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A Mother and Daughter Face off in Zoje Stage’s Latest Thriller – Publishers Weekly

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Zoje Stage’s fourth psychological thriller, Mothered (Thomas & Mercer, Mar. 2023), is terrifying and claustrophobic, but it is not, as Stage clearly expresses in an author’s note, meant to document the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. The story of a mother plus daughter with a complicated relationship, confined in a house, takes place with an unspecified pandemic because background, and the isolation creates a volatile situation that results in shocking violence.

When Grace buys a house, then loses her job, it seems logical for her newly widowed mother, Jackie, to move in. They share a difficult past, with memories of Grace’s twin sister, Hope, who had cerebral palsy and died when they were children, the catalyst for Grace’s nightmares and her descent into madness. What is real and what is not?

Mothered opens with a psychotherapist reading a file with information about Grace, his new patient, and the crime scene the police found when they were called to her house: “Blood had dripped from the walls, ” Stage writes. “Overkill wasn’t uncommon in crimes associated with passion, where love and hate bred a frenzy of mixed emotions, deep and personal, but ninety-one stab wounds? ”

Grace’s explanation for killing her mother reeks of insanity: “ ‘I had to do it. She was contagious’—[Grace’s] greeting as she’d opened the door to let the police in. A miasma of decay had wafted out like a poisonous cloud, making the uniformed officers gag. How had she lived with the stench? And why? ”

Stage tells me that the girl never made a conscious decision to write in a particular genre but has “always been attracted to dark stories where something odd is going on. I like to read page-turners plus always felt I should write the kind of books I like to read. ”

In late 2019, she was talking with her agent, Stephen Barbara at InkWell Management, and told him about being in her mother’s apartment and thinking that “if we lived together one of us would not get out alive. ”

Stage recalls Barbara’s reaction: “What a great concept—do it! You’re so good at mothers and daughters, ” he said, referring to Stage’s bestselling 2018 debut Baby Teeth , about a couple with a mute child who, though seemingly a darling girl, is intent on destroying her mother. Stage’s two other novels also delight in the fear factor: there’s 2020’s Wonderland , about a family that leaves New York City only to discover something ominous lurking in the woods behind their new Adirondack farmhouse, and 2021’s Getaway , in which a hike into the Grand Canyon turns into a version of hell.

Stage says her real thought about Barbara’s suggestion was that if the lady did write it, “the characters of mother and daughter would have to be far removed from the reality of my mother and me with no relation to real life. I didn’t want to be in that head space. ”

She started writing in April 2020. “In that moment, we did not know what we were in for, ” she states. “I wasn’t thinking of the pandemic, but it crept into the book. I was thinking of the particular claustrophobia of living with someone and being haunted by your past, your past physically manifest in your life. ”

Stage adds that she “loved writing the chapters where things go off the rails, and the nightmares. ” The book took a year and a half, whereas “typically I’d have a draft in three to four months, ” she says. “I learned important things with this book: taking time, knowing my voice, what’s important. ”

The idea of twins evolved from the idea of sisters. Stage has a sister very close in age, and says that “people thought we looked alike but we are so different internally. ” She wanted the sister’s death to be “a lingering trauma with regard to Grace and her mom. ”

Barbara says he was in L. A. having lunch at the Cavatina restaurant in the Sunset Marquis hotel in 2019 when he got a call about Stage looking for an agent. “I knew the girl work and was excited hearing that she was looking, ” he recalls. “Zoje has such a talent for dark twisted family stories. We spoke over the phone, and I signed her in August 2019. ”

The manuscript of Mothered was ready in fall 2021 plus Barbara sent it out widely. “I felt like Mothered was something special, ” he says. “It was visceral with real energy and creepy and disturbing. ” There was a lot of interest plus good feedback, he notes—and also hesitancy about the fact that it’s a pandemic novel.

But Liz Pearson, senior acquisitions editor at Thomas & Mercer, was enthusiastic from the very beginning. “Liz completely got it, ” Stage says. “She completely understood. ”

When Pearson got the particular submission from Barbara, the girl “dove in, ” the lady says. Pearson brought Mothered to the acquisitions team and a few weeks later had the contract for world English rights.

“It’s unusual for a deal to happen so fast or to have the bandwidth to spend time with one book, but it happened with Mothered , ” Pearson says. “The book is propulsive, timely and a fun read. Are the dream/nightmare sequences real or not? I like mysteries and thrillers, the darker the better. Books that have a scary element but are fast paced and character driven. ”

Barbara says, “What we liked about Liz was that she saw Zoje as a career, not one book. She saw the future plus Zoje’s potential. Initially she wanted a two-book deal. ”

Originally a filmmaker—she has “written, directed, and produced numerous zero-budget films, ” according to her bio—Stage says that will at first she was intimidated by the idea of writing the novel but realized it means wearing all the hats of a filmmaker, and now, “I’m hooked for life. ”

I leave you with 1 image that has stayed with me: Grace is playing paper dolls with Hope, who says her doll needs a handbag—something small and soft. “Cut off your earlobe, ” she tells Grace. “It will be perfect. ”

A version of this article appeared in the 11/14/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Just the Two of Us

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The best new books to read in November – The Philadelphia Inquirer

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As a recovering music critic, I’m still getting used to the glacial pace at which authors move. Taylor Swift has released five records during the pandemic (which is still going on, by the way — get your booster). In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Willie Nelson was dropping three or four albums a year.

Meanwhile here in the literary world, Cormac McCarthy has emerged from a 16-year slumber atop a mountain in New Mexico with two new novels. This feels both miraculous and par for the course. After all, the vaunted author of The Road, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men , etc ., wasn’t actually slumbering, he was writing. And living. Both things take time.

The new novels — The Passenger , released last week, and its companion Stella Maris , due out Dec. 6 — concern the unique relationship between Bobby and Alicia Western, siblings whose father helped develop the atomic bomb. Further details are unnecessary; of course I’m recommending you read these books.

It’s a nice surprise when an author comes chirping back from the void like some long-buried cicada. The great Gayl Jones is on a hot streak, with two acclaimed books in two years, after two decades of silence. By my calendar, Donna Tartt — good for a gorgeous, weirdly divisive novel every decade — should have one for us in the next year or so. Plus (calculating… ) a long lost Harper Lee novel might surface somewhere in the neighborhood of 2070.

But here are some novels worth chirping right now.

‘The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, ’ Siddhartha Mukherjee

Physician and biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee is fascinated by the tiny, amoral forces at work in the human body. See 2010′s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer , which won him the Pulitzer Prize and 2016′s The Gene: An Intimate History , which topped the best-seller list. His newest breaks all living things down to their bricks on the way to exploring evolution, mutation, and disease. Mukherjee’s writing is sometimes called romantic for the intimacy and wonder with which he describes such minuscule signs of life and the intricate puzzles modern medicine is hoping to solve. ( Scribner, $32. 50, out now )

➡️ Buy it right now on bookshop. org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘The World We Make, ’ N. K. Jemisin

Generally speaking it’s fine to skip the “love letter to New York” subgenre — too myopic, too smug, too cringey — but an exception should be made for the “Great Cities” series by perpetual Hugo-winner N. K. Jemisin. Begun in 2020 with The City We Became and concluded with the engrossing new The World We Make , the fantasy duology imagines a planet dotted with hotspots of a next-level Lovecraftian nature, each one gaining sentience and becoming the site of an epic battle of good and evil once it crosses some ancient threshold of population, power, plus importance. Especially in the expanded playground of the sequel, this is Jemisin in her wheelhouse: subverting expectations while spinning an intricate mythology and giving humanity a fighting chance. ( Hachette, $30, out now )

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop. org | Borrow this from the Free Library

‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, ’ Shehan Karunatilaka

In Shehan Karunatilaka’s grim, funny, ravishing new satire — which won the particular esteemed Man Booker prize before even hitting the shelves in the United States — a photojournalist covering the Sri Lankan civil war wakes up dead, confused, and ensnared in the robust bureaucracy of the afterlife. But he does have a purpose: Before he died, the titular Maali Almeida snapped some photos he’s certain will change the course of the war, and he’s only got seven days to find them before moving on to whatever mysterious realm comes after this one. When it comes to trauma, the novel doesn’t blink, but its charm and irreverence will light your path to the last page. ( WW Norton, $18. 95, out now )

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop. org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Now Is Not the Time to Panic, ’ Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson’s latest is an endearing and off-kilter coming-of-age story about two 16-year-old misanthropes who find each other at just the right fleeting moment to give each other purpose. It’s also kind of a Frankenstein tale, about how even small acts of creation can escape the control and intent of their makers and get the world’s attention. Pardon the particular vagueness; Now Is Not the Time to Panic is best enjoyed cold. ( Ecco, $27. 99, Nov. 8 )

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop. org | Lend it from the Free Collection

‘Butts, ’ Heather Radke

By all rights, this could have been an asinine bathroom book, full of paper-thin factoids and cheeky humor, but Heather Radke has a brain that just won’t quit. A funny and studious storyteller, the Radiolab reporter leads us on an eye-opening journey that starts within Kenya 1 . 9 million years ago, where “the first known hominid with a butt” enters the fossil record, and marches through centuries of changing art, fashion, plus cultural norms to the modern era where the dreams of Sir Mix-a-Lot are finally being realized. But what is a butt, biologically speaking? And how did it become such a hot-button issue in conversations about race, gender, and class? The butt, as it turns out, occupies a prominent space within the human story even though, as Radke points out, we rarely get a good look at our own. ( Avid Reader Press, $28. 99, Nov. 29 )

➡️ Buy it today on bookshop. org

Also out this month:

‘White Horse, ’ Erika T. Wurth

This stylish horror novel by a good Indigenous American author pits a moody, reluctantly badass heroine against a literal monster in a world associated with grit, ghosts, and dive-bar smoke. Old-school Stephen King fans, get on board. ( Flatiron Books, $27. 99, out now )

➡️ Buy it now upon bookshop. org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, ’ Ted Conover

The famously “immersive” journalist — previous books have had him hopping trains and working as a prison guard at Sing — puts down roots in rural Colorado among disenfranchised folks eking out a difficult, independent existence. ( Knopf, $30, out now )

➡️ Purchase it now on bookshop. org

‘Toad, ’ Katherine Dunn

A wounded recluse looks back on her ‘60s counterculture heyday in this posthumously published novel by the author of the 1989 carnival classic Geek Love . ( MCD, $28, out now )

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop. org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Saha, ’ Cho Nam-Joo

The author of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 returns with an intense and subversive dystopian thriller that’s earning comparisons in order to Squid Game for its portrayal of a society manipulated by unseen oppressors. ( Liveright, $22, out at this point )

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop. org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Anon Pls., ’ DeuxMoi

The anonymous author(s? ) of gossipy Instagram account @Deuxmoi makes their longform debut with a recursive, Devil Wears Prada -ish novel about a stylist’s assistant who starts an anonymous, gossipy Instagram account. ( William Morrow, $27. 99, Nov. 8 )

➡️ Purchase it now on bookshop. org

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6 New Books You Should Read This November – Vulture

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The Dreariness of Book Club Discussions – lareviewofbooks

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I AM A MEMBER of two book clubs, and both of them follow the same format: 20 minutes of discussion about our lives, a half hour of discussion about the book, and an hour of discussion over what book to read for next time.

And in each of the book clubs, the discussion inevitably defaults to the same amateur book review format. Each person says, “I liked it because X, although Y was lacking. ” And then we total up all the Xs and Ys and figure out which features worked or didn’t work for each person. Thus, we achieve some broad consensus about the features of the text, and we learn a little about how each person responded to those features. Sometimes there is a disagreement about whether the book really had slow pacing or whether the ending really did follow logically from the events, but usually, because we are all friends and are motivated to respect each other’s opinions, we eventually say something like, “Oh yeah, I can totally see how you would’ve felt that way. ”

And then … what? There’s nothing more to discuss! All we’ve learned is that, yes, we all read the same book, but that some parts of the book resonated more with some people. Now if we want to know the why of what makes some people like some things and other people like other things, well … we can talk about it if we want, but on a fundamental level, does anyone care? We already know that different people respond to the same thing in different ways. Surely this isn’t why we started a book club.

It’s fine. We enjoy each other’s company. We drink coffee, we eat crackers, we get reacquainted with each other’s love lives, and we have an excuse to read the books that’ll appear on The New York Times ’s notable list this year. And of course, reading the books is the point. The whole book club is predicated on the notion that will reading these books will improve our minds in some way, and that it’ll contribute measurably to our intellectual lives. And yet, month after month, I leave each meeting feeling as if we’ve engaged in an empty, meaningless exercise.

Is the answer that we’re simply bad readers? Are all of us like the status seekers C. S. Lewis decries in An Experiment In Criticism (1961), when he says:

As there are, or were, families plus circles in which it was almost a social necessity to display an interest in hunting, or county cricket, or the Army List, so there are others where it requires great independence not to talk about, and therefore occasionally to read, the approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy.

I love to decry the moral decrepitude and shallowness of the bourgeoisie as much as anyone, but the problem here is that I’m part of these terrible book discussions, and I myself am a literary critic! I read plus write about books for fun. And yet, time and again, my mind goes blank during book discussions, and all I can muster up is “Er, I thought the particular book was good, because …”


What’s interesting is the blankness doesn’t happen every time! One book club had a strong, vigorous discussion associated with Patrick Radden Keefe’s history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Say Nothing (2018). Another book club had an equally prolonged discussion of Cory Doctorow’s quartet associated with speculative novellas about the future of work, Radicalized (2019) .

So , what separated these books from ones we’ve had trouble discussing, books like Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (2020), Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021), or even Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007)?

I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t this? The latter books are contemporary literary novels, whereas the former are nonfiction and science fiction, respectively. Say Nothing and Radicalized were fundamentally about ideas: What does the future hold? What motivates a person to kill for a cause? These are big, open questions that you can readily discuss. We all think about ideology. We all think about current events. We can engage easily with these texts and do it on a more even footing, arguing with their conclusions and adding our own experiences to provide a counterpoint.

But because it’s not grounded in literal truth or in ideology, most fiction isn’t as permeable. You can read it. You can enjoy it. But when the experience is over, you’re left with nothing to say other than “I liked it” or even “I didn’t like it. ”

And although you can go deeper, trying to justify or analyze your reaction, what’s the point? The particular book exists: it got critical acclaim — obviously somebody liked it. Ergo, you can’t say the book is bad or it shouldn’t exist. All you can say is that you wish you hadn’t read it, and saying something like this tends to undercut the whole basis of the guide club: if you didn’t like it, then that means you only see the book in order to discuss this, and yet your discussion consists only of the fact that you wish a person hadn’t read it!


One problem with discussing literary fiction is that, ultimately, even while one might read novels to improve one’s mind, the experience is still supposed to be enjoyable.

Although, as writers, we try to fill our books with all kinds of complexities and nuances and powerful themes, we expect that the reader will essentially only make it through the book because they enjoy reading it.

Book clubs, by their nature, interfere with the way a book is meant to be experienced. By removing enjoyment as an explicit factor in picking up or sticking with the book (because you’re reading through it for the book club), they call into question the worth of the exercise as a whole.

In this, book clubs obviously draw their inspiration from that great temple of forced reading: high school.


Every child in the United States will graduate high school with the experience of reading some novel that they often didn’t enjoy, purely for the purpose of discussing it in a group setting.

But what’s fascinating about guide clubs is that we instinctively drop everything we learned from high school English class. We have the form of the classroom (the schedule, the conversation, the forced reading) but not the content. I’ve never been in a book club where someone did a close reading of a sentence or highlighted foreshadowing or looked for symbols.

Of course , those academic tools are all holdovers from the New Criticism, which is coming up on 80 years old now, and which long ago lost its foothold in the American university. What almost every college graduate uses now, instead of these skills, are the twin tools given to us by Foucault and Derrida: the analysis of power relations and deconstruction.

My fellow publication clubbers are, as far I know, all college graduates, and for most of them the application of these types of skills is so effortless which they tend to apply them even in daily life. For instance, when presented with an objectionable statement by their boss, a friend might explain their discomfort either through deconstruction (“My boss just thinks IT is a lesser job due to the fact we maintain things and provide support to people instead of creating them, even though what we do is way more complicated than what the programmers at our own company do”) or she might use power analysis (“IT is more equal, a lot more meritocratic, less elitist, so my boss needs to insist that programming is the tougher job, or he’d be forced to admit that fancy credentials don’t matter”).

Deconstruction allows us to dredge up the particular unsaid from the text. Therefore , for instance, if we were talking about O’Farrell’s Hamnet , we could say:

This is a book about a play, but we all hardly see the play onstage. Instead, the “real life” of the novel, Shakespeare’s home life, is held in service to the distant life of the “play. ” And yet, isn’t it really the play that gives meaning to the home life? This novel wouldn’t exist without the play, so inside trying to bring the minor characters in Shakespeare’s life to center stage, doesn’t it eventually end up just confirming his primal importance?

And you can go on and on in this vein, inverting and finagling the book and making it say whatever you want. Nevertheless it comes to book club conversations, deconstruction ends up being rather sterile precisely because it is therefore destructive. It tends to attack the text’s reason for existing and whatever overt meaning it had, and since that overt meaning is exactly why you chose to read it, you lose your reason for coming together in the first place. The problem along with deconstruction is that, since it reduces everything to a text and finds hidden meaning in everything, it makes the choice of text seem immaterial.

The other main tool we’re all equipped with, power evaluation, is much more fruitful and familiar. This is the tool conservatives are carping about when they talk about “Social Marxism” or “Critical Race Theory. ” This is the search for the ways in which the text supports preexisting power structures. Essentially, you look for ways the text is racist or misogynist or homophobic or even whatever.

So , for instance, I could say that, by focusing on the prosperous bourgeoisie, Hamnet ignores the exploitation of the poor and working class, the laborers who also enabled Shakespeare’s production. That it’s a typical tale of white feminism — of a bourgeois, well-off woman who’s angry because she’s been cut off from her patrimony and subordinated to a man — and that this shores up white feminist narratives in our culture.

Power analysis has the advantage of being less diaphanous than deconstruction. It doesn’t involve the manipulation associated with symbols and games with words. And it’s a way of placing even ostensibly nonpolitical texts within a broader framework of issues that we care about.

The problem, however , is that it has essentially nothing to do with the literary qualities of the text. It doesn’t matter whether you’re analyzing Two Broke Girls or Hamnet — you’re always going to get the same answer: “This text supports preexisting energy structures. ” In fact , the very things that make a text great — nuance and complexity — make it more vulnerable to power analysis, because it will contain suggestions and possibilities that power analysis can pick up on.

The bigger problem with power analysis within the context of a book club is that it’s like pulling the pin from a grenade: it destroys the conviviality that is the whole reason for the gathering’s existence. First of all, it makes anyone who liked the book seem like a bad person, because the book is clearly just a tool for supporting preexisting power structures. Secondly, it brings in a lot of implicit political assumptions. I don’t know the politics ideology of the other members of my various book night clubs. I assume they’re all what used to be called “limousine liberals” or “bourgeois bohemians, ” and that many of them are probably very sympathetic to, for instance, the problems of upper-class white professional women. If you spend the first half of the book club complaining about the glass ceiling at work, you can’t very well spend the second half talking about how this book reifies the glass ceiling myth as a way associated with dividing up the global proletariat.

So , even though we’re all sophisticated people, we’re at a loss during guide club discussions because the usual tools of analysis are so powerful and destructive that to unholster them would wreak carnage on both the text and the cohesion of the group.


The obvious solution, which is what I always advocate, is to simply stop picking fiction. This is the choice that most serious review outlets plus book pages have chosen. If you open up The New York Review of Books or London Review of Publications or The Times Literary Supplement , you’ll see hardly any fiction titles reviewed, and for the same reason: unless you resort to deconstruction, power analysis, or high school–style New Criticism, there’s simply not much to say beyond “This is why you should/shouldn’t read this book” — a topic for which, honestly, a few hundred words would usually suffice.

Nonfiction, in contrast, offers a jumping-off point for talking about the particular broader implications of ideas and for arguing with the author’s conclusions. For instance, with the Radden Keefe book, we discussed how the United States has traditionally been quite sympathetic to the IRA. Then we talked about whether the author sympathized with them or not (consensus was that he did not) and if the terrorist tactics in the book experienced achieved their aim or not (opinion was mixed), and talked in more detail concerning the difference between a political and a nonpolitical criminal.

Now, could fictional notionally also provide this jumping-off point? Well … yes, but the problem is that good hype doesn’t contain a clear viewpoint on the material. In its nuances and complexities, good fictional works already contains whatever broader points you would want to make. Moreover, fiction doesn’t generalize: it’s about specific people doing specific things. You, as a reader can say, “Well, a person in this situation could do different things! ” or “This situation might happen differently! ” But that’s not much of a comment, since the novel isn’t making the claim that life is always this way. It’s merely presenting one way things can be.

So if, in talking about Hamnet , all of us talked about “ways that male creators are supported by way of a wives, ” then it starts to feel a bit reductive, for two reasons: (a) the book explores those themes better than our discussion could; and (b) the protagonist, Anne, is complex in a way that makes it hard to say she actually “supported” Shakespeare. So , when it comes to using fiction as a jumping-off point for discussing wider social issues, all your points feel trite before you make them.


But the problem is that people love fiction. They enjoy reading fiction. These people don’t want to read nonfiction all the time. It’s simply unaccountable that — even though nonfiction gets more respect, has higher per-title sales, and has the weight of “being about real things” behind this — book clubs are usually inevitably going to choose novels. Maybe it’s a hangover from English class. Or maybe, dare I say it, there is something to be said for the complexity of the novel — for the way this eludes easy answers.


So where does that leave us? Are we going to, month after month, have boring discussions about the latest book simply by Zadie Smith or Yaa Gyasi or David Mitchell or Meg Wolitzer? Or can we come up with a different way of talking about books?

Maybe the solution is to work backwards and to think about what we require from a book club discussion.

First, it has to be civil. We need to be able to stay friends afterwards. This means it can’t get too political (unless that is the point of the club), or the book club will disintegrate.

Second, it has to be grounded in the idea that reading this book was an educational experience. Thus, it can’t solely consist of attacking or dissecting the guide. This means deconstruction and power analysis, while inarguably effective tools, are out.

Third, we’ve already sat through the book. All of us don’t need a book review. We know what’s in the book. We’re not recommending it to a friend, we’re having a discussion about it.


A logical choice that now presents itself may be the idea of using the book for our moral education. This idea used to be quite popular. Almost every educated Englishman would have been familiar with Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks plus Romans , which pairs notable figures from all those ancient civilizations and offers a good analysis of their lives: their strengths and failings, and the ways each improved on the other. For instance, Cicero (a Roman statesman who resisted Mark Antony) is paired with Demosthenes (a Greek statesman who resisted Philip of Macedon), and Plutarch, going through their biographies, concludes that Demosthenes had more gravity of manner and was less self-aggrandizing, but Cicero was the more honorable and honest in pursuing his duties.

A remnant of this tradition survives in the high school English course, where we’re asked to understand, in a very general way, the themes that animate a work. For instance, we’re asked to understand how Gatsby’s pursuit of “the American Dream” as symbolized by the green light ultimately proves hollow when this individual sees that the wealthy class he idolizes is itself venal and self-indulgent.

Generally speaking, in online discussions of a work of art, whenever we’re not resorting in order to power analysis, we’re generally engaging in moral analysis. The two are related in some ways, yet power analysis is about situating the work within the overarching strength structure (and critiquing that will power structure), while moral analysis is a bit simpler: it takes the work as given, nearly as if the story were nonfiction. In a moral analysis, you talk about the characters as freely and simply as if they were real people you know.

That is, after all, the particular striking contrast between our weak, tepid book golf club discussions and the vigorous freewheeling discussions we have about ourselves and other people. When we are discussing an acquaintance, it’s easy to say, “What was the girl thinking? Why did the lady do it? Do you think they were the match? Did they make the right choice? ”

I have literally spent hours dissecting the marriages of friends of mine, and yet with regards to the fictional marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare in Hamnet , my book club disposed of it within 15 minutes.

But there’s so much to talk about! Was Will right to leave the girl at home? Is Hamlet a worthy price to pay for someone’s death? Would Anne even have liked Will if he or she wasn’t a playwright — wasn’t she somehow drawn to that potency in him? You could go on and on, reading more into the lives of these figures. It’s certainly a capability that any of us has, and it’s one we’re usually unafraid to exercise when it comes to television shows or the lives of our friends.

But when it comes to a book club, we’re reluctant. After all, virtually every 30 days we’re treated to viral articles or Twitter threads about how “the desire for likability” is poisoning modern misinformation. Characters in fiction aren’t like characters in a sitcom. They’re powerful and vital, and they’re beyond likability.

Moral evaluation has its defenders, generally among those who think the primary purpose of fiction is to engage with and elucidate moral problems. C. S. Lewis would count himself among their own number. John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1978) is also a classic text in this vein. But probably the most forceful plus convincing advocate for the basically moral quality of fiction was Tolstoy, who, at the beginning of his late-period polemic What Is Art? (1897), engages in the bravura analysis of hundreds of years of aesthetic theory, which usually he proceeds to dismiss by saying:

Just as people who think that the aim and purpose of food is pleasure cannot perceive the true meaning of eating, so people who think that the aim of art is pleasure cannot know its meaning and purpose, because they ascribe to an activity which has meaning in connection with some other phenomena of life the false and exclusive aim of pleasure.

And then he spends a few hundred pages claiming the purpose of artwork is to improve a people’s moral fiber. It’s really convincing, until you actually think about it.

The problem with claiming that fiction has an inherently moral quality is… where does it end? One might say that narrative art is moral, but what about ballet? Or opera? What about visual art? What about abstract art? Is all art about moral problems? Is noise music about moral problems? If you’re Tolstoy, you solve the problem quite neatly by saying that whatever doesn’t fit your own theory simply isn’t artwork (he famously claimed that this works of his middle period — Anna Karenina and War and Peace — were immoral and worthless).

But if you’re more clearheaded, you have to admit that some forms of art have almost zero moral content, and from there you’re left with a debate: Are the costumes or cinematography of a film essentially moral? When it comes to books, is the cover moral? What about the character names, the rhythm of the terms, the choice of metaphors? All of these things have an aesthetic effect — they engage with our own sense of beauty — but if they have any ethical component, then that component is extremely obscure.

The problem is that whenever we engage in moral analysis, we all experience the nagging feeling that we’re ignoring the aesthetic aspect of the book, which it’s exactly these aesthetic qualities that elevate the particular novel as a topic associated with discussion and make it more important than the details of our friends’ marriages.

After all, moral analysis involves abstracting the characters from the books in which they live plus treating them as if these were real. The artistry from the book is still a part of the discussion, but it’s quite sublimated. To the extent the artistry has added nuance and complexity to the characterization, the writer’s craft becomes a part of the discussion, but not the main part. Moral analysis is not going to cut straight to the heart of the book and tell you how the words on the page turned into a story. It’s not going to show you how words become poetry, or how the organization of information and the various stylistic devices used by the author contribute to its themes and story. Those tools, unfortunately, belong primarily to the New Criticism, and, if I’m being honest, most book clubbers don’t have enough familiarity with those tools to make use of them.

I think a book club where the members paid serious attention to the words themselves — to sentence length and syntax and rhythm — could be quite interesting, but I possess never in my life encountered a group of people willing and able to engage in that discussion (and that includes the book golf club I formed with the additional members of my MFA cohort).


To be fair, I think my opinion will be slightly stronger than “most book club members are unable to engage with a book on the deepest possible level. ” I’m more in Tolstoy’s camp than I’d like to admit. I think that a value-neutral analysis of a book’s aesthetic qualities does most books a disservice. In my opinion, the greatest possible understanding of a book just comes when you let it live and when you engage with the story that it’s trying to tell.

Seen in this way, by paying attention to what the author doesn’t say (deconstruction), or why the author said it (power analysis), or how the author said it (New Criticism), or how we felt about what the author said (book reviewing), we’re missing the point, that is that something happened . Something was at stake in this story. Characters made decisions. Those decisions had consequences. And it is in that specificity — in what Hegel would call the “determinate content” — how the real value of the story lies. I personally don’t think it makes sense to spend half an hour talking about the language and the structure of The Sound and the Fury and only five minutes talking about how they castrated Benjy. The castration is at the particular core of the story, and all of the rhetorical and visual devices are meant to amplify that will story, not cover up or even erode it.

Moral analysis is a powerful and fruitful way of discussing books, particularly in groups of friends, precisely because it is disconnected from the real world, and because it is so specific, and because this doesn’t presuppose a certain political or ethical framework. People can discuss Benjy without having their own views about parenting or ableism called into question. The author has done the work of incorporating all the difficulty of the issue, and you’re allowed to discuss the story through the eyes of its characters, without implicating yourself.


Honestly, I don’t see meaning analysis catching on. For one thing, I suspect my book clubs might be a bit of an outlier, and that Middle-American book clubs are rather more likely to engage in moral analysis — which means, fundamentally, that this becomes a marker of social class plus sophistication. Are you a real reader? Someone who appreciates art for itself? Or some Nebraska housewife who gets lost in stories and treats them as if they were real?

Moral analysis feels, in a way, like giving up. It involves putting down our weapons and coming to the reserve with fresh eyes. Obviously, we are still ourselves; we still have all our sophistication, but when it comes to moral evaluation, it tends to be our ethical intuitions and spiritual development that come to the forefront. Moral analysis doesn’t silo fiction as something separate from life. It involves the same skills one uses to make choices on a daily basis.

And that means that it exposes the reader in a way that a more academic analysis doesn’t. The reader who is unable to perceive the ethical technicalities in a text or who is unable to sympathize with the characters’ struggles — the one whose comments inevitably begin with “Why didn’t they just .? ” — is often the least empathetic and spiritually developed in their personal life.

And yet that exposure is exactly why it’s worth doing.

I don’t think the point of joining a book club is to improve our reading skills. That would be horribly empty, if we were just reading books in order to become better readers of publications. I think we read textbooks to become better people, and we can’t become better people today unless we admit that we are flawed and human and insensitive and that all of us vitally need the perspective that this book is capable of providing.

This is an admission that comes with a real cost. It means saying something like, “Hey, uh, lots of kids died of the plague, but not all of them inspired Hamlet , and isn’t that actually, like, kind of worthwhile? Or even should Anne have refused to forgive him? ” These questions might be uncomfortable, but if we don’t want to explore that discomfort, we should probably just join the knitting circle instead.


Naomi Kanakia is the author of three novels, out and forthcoming from Little, Brown and Harper, and of a guide to the publishing industry.


Featured image: Joseph Schillinger. Key Blue (from series, the Mathematical Basis of the Arts) , ca. 1934. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Schillinger. , CC0. Accessed October 11, 2022

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14 Books to Add to Your Reading List in November – E! NEWS

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It’s going to be a November to remember for book lovers .

This month is jampacked with highly anticipated new releases, including Matthew Perry ‘s long-awaited memoir in which the Friends star details his decades-long battle with addiction and shares behind-the-scenes secrets from the set of the iconic NBC sitcom. Plus, Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham   is back with another collection of essays as quick-witted and endearing as her beloved character Lorelai. Oy with the laughs!

If thrillers are more your thing, Lisa Unger and Holly Jackson ‘s latest novels are sure to keep you up at night, while we’ve also got the perfect recommendations for any rom-com fan. Finally, a new YA book  gives Little Women a delightfully modern update and Rainbow Rowell is delivering her first-ever compilation  of short stories.  

Oh, and have we mentioned all of our picks would make a great gift for anyone on your nice list this holiday season? (Yes, it’s totally OK to include yourself. )

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The 10 books you should read in November – Sydney Morning Herald

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November releases include new books from Holly Throsby, Heather Rose, Alex Miller, Don Watson, Colm Toibin and Haruki Murakami.

November releases include new books from Holly Throsby, Heather Rose, Alex Miller, Don Watson, Colm Toibin and Haruki Murakami.

And so the countdown to Christmas begins. It’s the last full month of new books and there are still masses due out.

Here are just 10 of them – memoirs, novels, histories – but you’ll find plenty more crackers on the bulging bookshelves of your local bookshop.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers through books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday .


Getting Lost , Annie Ernaux

Fitzcarraldo, $27. 99, November 15

There was almost universal rejoicing among literary types when the French writer won the Nobel Prize earlier this month. So it’s timely that this diary, which served as the basis for her autobiographical novel, Simple Passion , should appear in translation now. In the earlier book, she wrote of her affair with a Soviet diplomat; this is the candid account of that relationship. Rereading her diaries of the time, she found a different truth from the novel – “something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation”.



Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here , Heather Rose

Allen & Unwin, $32. 99, Nov 1

To say this memoir from the Stella Prize-winning author of The Museum of Modern Love is surprising is something of an understatement. When Rose was 12, her beloved brother and grandfather were drowned, an event that has informed her life and sent her off on a search for meaning, truth and comfort. It has also opened her to some remarkable spiritual and hair-raising experiences. And, no, she has said, the title is not ironic.


The Passion of Private White , Don Watson

Scribner, $49. 99, November 2


A new book from Don Watson is always a treat and this is a particularly personal one to him. Watson met Neville White at university. White was conscripted to serve in Vietnam and survived, emerging with PTSD and a desire to “understand more about why people differed”. As an anthropologist, he has worked and lived with the Indigenous people of north-east Arnhem Land, trying to preserve them, their culture and lands, and at the same time heal himself plus mates from Vietnam he encouraged to travel north.


Novelist as a Vocation , Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, $35, November 15

The latest book about a writer’s creative process comes from the Japanese superstar novelist who’s loved by millions around the world. The book, which was first published in Japan seven years ago, consists of a series of essays Murakami began in 2010. There’s some pithy stuff here, not least his view that novelists can’t be friends – “writers are basically an egoistic breed, proud and highly competitive”. And he puts great store by his need for physical fitness to boost his mental ability for the rigours of writing.


A Brief Affair , Alex Miller


Allen & Unwin, $32. 99, November 1

The two-time Miles Franklin winner’s last book was Max , a wonderful memoir about his friend Max Blatt. His 13th novel, A Brief Affair , marks a welcome return to his unique sort of meaningful fiction. In it, the particular romantic entanglement of the title leads Frances Egan in order to reconsider all sorts of things in the girl life. She is an academic working in what used to be an asylum. The diary of a former resident who was confined in what is now her office comes to play an equally significant role in the woman life.


Elizabeth & John , Alan Atkinson

NewSouth, $39. 99, November 1

You may have read Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves , which breathed fictional life into the historical figure of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John, the so-called “father of the Australian fleece”. But Alan Atkinson, author of the three-volume award-winning Europeans in Australia , makes a point of taking “everything back to the beginning”, to start a fresh inquiry into the lives from the couple and trawl typically the vast amount of material still extant. He makes the point that the internet has transformed history writing, making “vastly more information easily available”.

Credit score:


Clarke , Holly Throsby

Allen & Unwin, $32. 99, November 1

I really liked Holly Throsby’s first two novels, Goodwood in addition to Cedar Valley . There’s a warm tone to the world of small towns somewhere to the south of New South Wales that she creates. Not so warm, though, that there aren’t mysteries to disrupt the lives of your ex carefully crafted characters such as poor Barney Clarke, who is taken aback when the police arrive at his rented home to search for a missing woman. Throsby’s books seem to have slipped a bit under the radar, yet really deserve more attention.


Wandering with Intent , Kim Mahood

Scribe, $35, November 1

Betty Mahood says she writes about the things she’s passionate about – “art, country, and the interface between Indigenous and even non-Indigenous Australia”. She was brought up in central Australia and wrote a magnificent, prize-winning memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake . These essays were written over a period of about 15 years. She acknowledges the cultural privilege she exercises, nevertheless “the question is whether I exercise this privilege in a way that can be justified”. Read it and judge for yourself.



Boundary Crossers , Meg Foster

UNSW Press, $34. 99, November one

Everyone knows about the Ned Kellys together with Captain Moonlights, but what about all the forgotten bushrangers whose lives have not been mythologised to the same degree? This is the area that Australian Cambridge University historian Meg Foster has spent years researching. In Boundary Crossers the girl unearths the hidden lives and exploits of Aboriginal, African-American, Chinese and female outlaws. A new take on a well-thumbed history.


A Guest at the Feast , Colm Toibin

Picador, $34. 99, November 8

This time last year, this Irish writer’s novel regarding Thomas Mann was published. Now we have a collection of his essays, the bulk of which were written for The London Review of Books , that range from his revealing account of his cancer – “it all started along with my balls” – to be able to his curious encounter together with Irish composer Frederick May in the Stag’s Head pub in Dublin. Diverse topics – sexuality, religion, literature, John McGahern and the controversial Francis Stuart.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter with regard to book lovers from publications editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday .

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6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week – The New York Times

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FIVE TUESDAYS IN WINTER: Stories, by Lily King

King, as our reviewer, Megan O’Grady, noted, is at her best when writing about desire and “the hubris and folly of it. ” The 10 stories in this collection put this strength on full display, following several grieving protagonists whose loss gives way to a creeping hunger.

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The Best Books of 2022 So Far – The New Yorker

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In 1968, three years after T. S. Eliot’s death, his drafts of “The Waste Land, ” long thought lost, were unearthed in the New York Public Library. First published in 1971, edited by Eliot’s widow, they revolutionized the understanding of the poem’s creation, by making apparent Ezra Pound’s outsized editorial role, including many ruthless cuts, and also the input of Eliot’s troubled first wife, Vivienne. These pages—some handwritten, some typewritten, with wordless loops and slashes scrawled across the text and brusque observations at the side—have become famous in their own right, and, for the hundredth anniversary of the poem’s publication, the edition has been reissued, with extra material. If you badly wish to know how much Eliot spent on breakfast at the Albemarle Hotel, Margate, on the north coast of Kent, in October, 1921, your craving can now be satisfied, because his hotel bills are shown in all their glory. Few Eliot fans will be able to resist.

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