SHE WOULD BE KING

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SHE WOULD BE KING BY WAYÉTU MOORE

“If she was not a woman,” says the wind of Gbessa, a girl who can revive herself after dying, “she would be king.” The complex origins of Liberia, the first African settlement for emancipated African-Americans, forms the backbone of Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut. The narrative focuses on three characters and their unexplained powers: Gbessa, a young indigenous Liberian exiled from her village on suspicion of witchcraft; June Dey, an inhumanly strong runaway slave from Virginia; and Norman Aragon, the son of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica who inherited the power of invisibility from his mother. The three meet in the settlement camp of Monrovia, where they use their gifts to help temper the tense relationship between the settlers and the native peoples.

Moore’s use of magical realism fits aptly into the proto-mythic atmosphere of a country coming into being amid the realities of African diaspora. The wind often interjects as a combination of narrator and chorus, animating the African landscape that shelters the characters. The settlers’ fraught relationship with the peoples indigenous to Liberia casts a welcome light on the complexities of African culture and life. Moore’s novel, most of all, constructs an African narrative that is not focused on war, poverty, or a simplified village life. She Would Be King explores universal themes of ethics, familial expectations, and unexpected passions in the midst of a new nation settling itself among existing African societies.

Graywolf Press.

— Review by Emma Van Dyke

THE NEW ORDER

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THE NEW ORDER BY KAREN E. BENDER

Karen E. Bender’s new story collection is steeped in the present political moment, with an eye to our future. Our cultural corrosion—especially our denial of sexual assault and gun violence—impacts Bender’s female narrators in quiet, resounding ways. The young protagonist of “This Is Who You Are” develops anxiety as she copes with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a classmate and the bombing of a Jewish school, made personal by her identification with one of the bombing victims. “History always felt like it was breathing softly behind us,” she says.

The New Order delivers deceptively straightforward reflections on the mundane, as the reader is drawn into worlds much like our own. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” a small family moves to an unnamed Asian city to escape a stalker back home, only for their daughter to be bullied at school: “We stood under the sky, a fragile blue tarp; beneath it, we felt almost invisible. Most people were invisible to other people, except when others saw them and wanted to harm them.” Cruelty is not always immediately evident in Bender’s stories, though its consequences echo. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” a government initiative to pay complainants in the workforce for their silence backfires when a woman facing harassment refuses to barter away her pain for monetary compensation. The narrator’s final, plaintive thought captures the essence of the collection’s wist and cynicism, hope and hopelessness. She sits on the discarded couch of a woman whose life has been obliterated because she spoke out, and wonders “what would happen to all of us.”

Counterpoint Press.

— Review by Sara Ramey

THE SON OF BLACK THURSDAY

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THE SON OF BLACK THURSDAY BY ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, TRANSLATED BY MEGAN MCDOWELL

Those familiar with the surreal landscapes and sheer unpredictability of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films will find that The Son of Black Thursday, a retelling of his childhood in Chile, is a remarkably cinematic novel. In this new translation by Megan McDowell, readers of English are gifted with a further look into the boundless imagination of the artist.

The story begins in the bleak, mining town of Tocopilla in the 1930s and is populated by an eccentric cast: Sara Felicidad, his giantess mother who doesn’t speak but sings in arias; Raquel Lea, his twin sister who recites verses as a baby and eventually grows fat from all of the poetry inside her. There’s also the Rabbi, a ghost who has accompanied the family for generations. “Without him,” Jodorowsky writes in his introduction, “I never could have put down roots in this world that is made, to a large extent, of aggression.” This is precisely the type of world in which Alejandro’s parents find themselves. The country’s government headed by Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, and Jaime, Alejandro’s father, becomes convinced he must murder the tyrant. He sets off on the mission, leaving his family behind. Without her husband, Sara Felicidad shrinks into herself, hides her “long, sensual hair [in] a severe bun,” and opens a litany of businesses in Santiago. While Raquel Lea is sent away, young Alejandro grows up with his mother in shops like “The Eighth Chakra” and “The Apple of Harmony,” absorbing the wild stories around him. Jodorowsky seems to use this novel to repurpose some of the pain from childhood. He rewrites his parents—who he has referred to as “distant” and “oppressive”—into dream-like characters and he mythologizes every event, blurring the line between what is real and imaginary. As in his cinema, the audience of The Son of Black Thursday will gladly suspend their disbelief to witness the captivating and delightfully off-kilter scenes of Jodorowsky’s early years.

Restless Books.

—Review by Anna Vilner

THE GOVERNESSES

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THE GOVERNESSES BY ANNE SERRE, TRANSLATED BY MARK HUTCHINSON

Mark Hutchinson’s translation of Anne Serre’s elegant French novella, The Governesses, brims with restless energy and fairy-tale eroticism. Addictively sensual and subtly violent, the titular trio of governesses emotionally manipulate the house staff, ignore their pupils, and devour handsome strangers who wander to their gates. They perform for the old man watching them through his telescope, always aware of his gaze. Stunning, selfish, and seemingly ageless, like baroque sculptures come to life, the governesses explore the house’s enchanted, endless gardens, packed with every place and experience that they’ve ever known, and explore their sexual and romantic power over those around them.

In her simple, elegant style, Serre often directly invites the reader into her carefully crafted, waking dream world, and shows us all the contradicting sides of these women, their strengths in the strangeness of their world and in their own exceptional loveliness, as well as their weaknesses when the realities of the outside world invade their home. Like the book itself, they are at times frenzied, while at others, they turn dark and sweet, never fully forming, never submitting to capture. Anne Serre’s debut in English, The Governesses is exhilarating and hedonistic, an enchantingly dark French fable that delights to the last line.

New Directions.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

SKY WRI TEI NGS

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SKY WRI TEI NGS by NASSER HUSSAIN

From Coach House Books, Nasser Hussain’s collection SKY WRI TEI NGS operates within the three-letter bounds of existing airport codes. His resulting poetry is inventive, playful, and never breaks form, making the read a bit of a grownup Where’s Waldo as the eyes try to spot the words inside these trios. Sketches of the globe with flight routes drawn between airports appear throughout—as if to show us the journey the poem has traveled to come into being.

But Hussain’s poems do more than merely play with language and airport codes, they play with familiar narratives too—riffing and rewriting them—from biblical stories to famous poems and poets. “TEN DRR BUT TON (FOR GER TIE)” is one such example, a whimsical allusion to and after Gertrude Stein: “ROA STA COW; MUT TON; BRE AKF AST; SUG ARR; / CRA NBE RRI ESS; MLK; EGS; APP LES; TAI ELS; / LUN CHH. . .” There is even a Dr. Seussian poem, “THE CAT THE HAT,” still composed from airports, but in all lowercase for an emphasized feeling of story-time. To its end, SKY WRI TEI NGS is always clever, often funny, and globally conscious, and without doubt, the perfect companion for your next delayed flight.

Coach House Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

AN UNTOUCHED HOUSE

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AN UNTOUCHED HOUSE BY WILLEM FREDEIK HERMANS, TRANSLATED BY DAVID COLMER

Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House provides a wrenching glimpse of a Dutch soldier’s experience several years into World War II. The atmosphere of the novella is surreal in its believable disorientation. The sparse but precise prose captures a sense of desolation, a meaninglessness at the heart of the war that emerges in innumerable casual atrocities, from murder to the destruction of art. The unnamed narrator’s psychological trauma manifests as confusion and resignation layered over his raw and equally unnamable longing. “I no longer knew how tennis was played,” he relates. “I didn’t know what the net, the white lines, the tall white chair, that heavy roller in the corner meant.”

The narrator attempts to reconcile barbarity with the veneer of civilization that he discovers in a remarkably, almost miraculously, untouched house in the middle of a bombarded European town. Inside the house are wonders foreign to the narrator—lush furs, a piano, hot water. How can such a place exist? As the narrator unravels the mysteries of the house, the truths he learns are neither reassuring nor beautiful. The line between war and culture, violence and peace, is indistinct, an illusion ultimately incapable of concealing the interdependence of the two, and the artificiality of our loyalty to either.

Archipelago.

—Review by Sara Ramey

BITTER ORANGE

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BITTER ORANGE BY CLAIRE FULLER

Set in the summer of  1969, Claire Fuller’s sensational story of guilt, voyeurism, and sexual obsession burns deliciously while it holds a mystery open at the center, until its final moments. From her deathbed, Frances Jellico recalls meeting and living with Clara and Peter, a seductive couple, in an ornate, decaying mansion. Here she quickly finds herself lost in the beautiful maze of their charms and lies. As an aging, socially inexperienced academic who’s used to caring only for her ailing mother, Frances is surprised and then delighted by the intensity of their friendship that catches her in an all-consuming and decadent spiral toward catastrophe. The glamorous couple, and even Frances herself, are just as enigmatic and damaged as the mansion they are meant to be surveying—peel back another layer and something new and crumbling waits.

Fuller’s language too is as hedonistic as her characters—dark, atmospheric, and bittersweet—lingering just long enough to grab at your senses. A mystery lies at the heart of this slippery novel, unfolding piece by piece, and never quite what it seems. For as soon as you have the story in your grasp, Bitter Orange darts away, proves you wrong, and drags you in deeper and through to the very last page.

Tin House.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

HEARTH: A GLOBAL CONVERSATION ON COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, AND PLACE

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HEARTH: A GLOBAL CONVERSATION ON COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, AND PLACE EDITED BY ANNICK SMITH AND SUSAN O’CONNOR

Hearth: A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place is a multidisciplinary and multicultural anthology, edited by Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor, exploring the physical and spiritual manifestations of home in the era of the Anthropocene. This compilation of poems, stories, and essays—divided in three primary sections: “Heart,” “Earth,” and “Art”—moves us to rekindle our local and global communities. Dedicated to those who have lost their hearths and seek new ones, it explores themes of vagrancy, displacement, expatriation, immigration, family, climate change, technology, politics, loss, and discovery. Contributors include: Geffrey Davis, Gretel Ehrlich, Jane Hirshfield, Barry Lopez, and Bill McKibben, who provoke with questions of community and open doors to a wider discussion for making the world a more nurturing place. And a small but wondrous section of landscapes, from Brazilian photographer Sabastiao Salgado, supplements the conversation.

The anthology explores the full weight of the spaces we inhabit, the spaces of belonging. “Our hearth is our home in ever-expanding circles of connectivity—local, bioregional, continental, planetary, solar, galactic, and cosmic,” writes Mary Evelyn Tucker. It has always been a gathering place, a shelter, and a sanctuary that provides refuge. But from climate changes, wars, refugees, evolving technologies, to natural disasters, for many, the hearth becomes problematic. Here is a book for our real or imagined hearths, prompting us to discover and redefine them. Gretel Ehrlich offers: “Home is anywhere I’ve taken the time to notice. Where there is no ‘I.’ It shouldn’t be called a sense of place, but a flat-out, intimate sensorium where Emerson’s dictum suddenly makes sense: ‘I am nothing. I see all.’” Hearth serves as a guide and a tribute to our collective struggles and the many possibilities of home.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Samuel Binns