book club: the two best books of the month
by two game-changing, new(ish) authors.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
This year, the writer Roxane Gay will be the literary equivalent of one of those bands that is slightly bewildered to receive a Best New Artist award, when, really, they've been doing their thing for years already. A familiar name within indie fiction circles, Gay is poised to hit the big time thanks to two new books: An Untamed State (a novel that was released in May) and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist, out this month. The latter comprises 30-odd pieces in which she grapples with substantial topics like sexuality, race, and gender equality, often through the lens of whichever pop culture phenomenon has her riled up on that particular day. (Django Unchained, Girls, and Chris Brown all feature.) One of the most fun things about being a Roxane Gay reader is that you get to watch so many of her opinions take form online. It can also be distracting: I'd have finished this review 30 minutes earlier had I not been taking breaks to follow her live-tweeting an episode of Barefoot Contessa. MALLORY RICE
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
It's 1993 in the Eastern European immigrant enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where the Nasmertovs—the Ukrainian Jewish clan at the heart of Yelena Akhtiorskaya's debut novel Panic in a Suitcase—now reside. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with cancer, so her prodigal poet son Pasha, the final holdout in their native Odessa, has come to New York for an extended visit (a trip his relatives hope will finally convince him to stay for good). Comically clumsy attempts at bonding ensue, endeavors that are flawed and strange in the way only a family can make them. Meanwhile, Pasha dabbles in the expat literary scene, but still finds himself disenchanted with his kin's new home. Fast-forward to 2008: Pasha's mother has died and he remains in Odessa, now a local literary lion. His son will soon marry and his American niece Frida, in an act of identity-seeking, insists on traveling to Odessa alone for the event. The trip becomes a counterpoint to Pasha's experience of New York—weird and life-altering in ways unanticipated. Panic joins a vast canon of immigrant tales, but its prose truly sets it apart, each sentence bursting with such striking imagery, syntactic complexity, and poeticism that it would do its own protagonist proud. LISA MISCHIANTI