As we all prepare to embark upon our journey into the multi-month steaming hot cesspool we call summer (does this sound like I hate the season? I don't! I love steaming hot cesspools, it's why I live in New York), I can't help but think to myself how lucky we are that, despite the fact that the world is in a state of great turmoil, at least there's good stuff to read. Not just good, but great. Below are the 20 books I'm most excited about right now, and I think you'll share in that excitement, too.
Read one, read them all, just make sure to spend some of your sweat-soaked time this season hunkered down with a good book. That's what I'll be doing, for sure.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (available May 30)
Besides having one of the season's best covers (this is not the most important thing about a book, but it's not not that either), Irby's new collection of essays is an often riotously funny, unflinching, and never not provocative look into her life. Irby tackles difficult topics, like her estrangement from her father and how growing up in poverty has lifelong repercussions, including making it impossible to understand how to do things like "save for a rainy day." (Read all about Irby's take on this in her recent, excellent New York Times op-ed, "If Every Day Is a Rainy Day, What Am I Saving For?" which is also included in her book.) Irby writes about the ways in which our society is so focused on aspirational living, that it neglects the people who are just trying to survive. But the book is never preachy, rather it is skillful in its ability to reveal the essential realities of how so many of us live and dream and hope and fail, in ways that are inimitably our own.
The Answers by Catherine Lacey (available June 1)
Gutted. That’s how Catherine Lacey’s sophomore novel, The Answers, leaves the soul. With modern-day New York City as its backdrop, Lacey explores the isolation of adulthood and the cult of celebrity, mixing our compulsive search for meaning in human connection with a sobering amount of ennui. Mary, a young, directionless woman, has ailments to spare. Her cosmopolitan friend refers her to a New Age healing practice called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia (PAKing, for short). Its astronomical cost leads Mary to apply to a job on Craigslist called The Girlfriend Experiment, where her duties are to fulfill the role of Emotional Girlfriend for a mega-celebrity. (Other women are hired to be his Intimacy Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, and so on.)
Lacey’s prose is dizzying in its existentialism. Or is it nihilism? She addresses her own questions with further questions. What’s the point of joy if it’s fleeting? Why connect with anyone if we're all going to die anyway? The Answers is a New Yorker’s story, jaded in its outlook and confident in its belief that real life is truly stranger than fiction. —Hayden Manders
This review appears in NYLON's June/July 2017 issue
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (available June 6)
Who knew that one of my favorite books I'd read this year would feature an epigraph by Arnold Schwarzenegger? Not me. And yet, here we are. "The mind is the limit," Schwarzenegger exhorts, and that is a really important thing to keep within your own mind as you start the at times surreal, at times manic, always explosive and alive journey into the life of Stephen Florida, a high school wrestler with one of the most unique narrative voices I've come across in some time. In Stephen, author Gabe Habash has created an unforgettable protagonist, whose wry, dark voice has a peculiar strength to it; it's impossible, while reading, not to feel like the sentences are almost stalking you, wrapping themselves in and around you, pinning you down for the count. This trip Stephen takes you on, which includes both the dark, lonely recesses of his mind and those of the American West, is a powerful one, and a worthwhile one. Surrender, and see how far you can push your mind's limits.
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim (available June 6)
This utterly entrancing novel is hard to explain in a mere blurb, thanks to the fact that it combines two main narratives. One centers around two Asian-American boys in a small Midwestern town who form a friendship based on their love for comics and the fact that they have no other friends; the other takes place in a superhero-filled alternate universe. It subverts the predicted sci-fi narrative by adding overt political elements (protest and resistance play a big part in the story), pulp detective story strains, as well as cultural critiques and philosophical explorations. Does this sound like a lot? Maybe it would be in hands less deft than Lim's. It is instead a lucid, provocative exploration of contemporary culture and themes like power, money, and friendship.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (available June 6)
This long-awaited follow-up to Roy's masterful The God of Small Things is finally here, and it lives up to everyone's admittedly super-high expectations. In it, Roy uses magical realism to tell the sprawling story of a host of characters in India, all of whom have lives filled with love, loss, grief, and redemption; each life is rendered with the empathy and compassion for which Roy is known. What is perhaps most unforgettable about this novel is the way in which Roy takes such huge and often enigmatic universal truths, but makes them comprehensible by writing with an intimacy and generosity that makes the most mystical things in life feel like a part of our common humanity.
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (available June 13)
Sherman Alexie's memoir is a stunning and vitally important portrayal of his incredibly complicated relationship with his mother, a woman whose own violent upbringing led to a lengthy battle with addiction and a lifelong struggle with multiple demons. In Lillian Alexie, her son has one of the most incredible characters he's ever put on the page (and, if you're familiar with Sherman's work, that's really saying something). She is a tempest—alternately kind and cruel, passionate and distant, more of a force of nature than capable of nurture. Beautiful and brilliant, Lillian was also abusive and unreliable to her children, but Sherman never attempts to make his mother a villain, or, really, anything other than what she was, a human who was trying to do her best in a world that had rarely looked out for her needs. This results in a memoir that is full of compassion and wonder, pain and beauty and is a searing testament to the ways in which our parents and our pasts fully make us who we are as adults.
Blind Spot by Teju Cole (available June 13)
For Teju Cole, traveling the world is about seeing the unseen. Such is the essence of his new photo book, Blind Spot, which comprises over 150 pairs of images and lyrical text drawn from his own personal journeys. The congruence in size of the images and their corresponding captions speaks to their equal importance, as the photographer and writer poetically connects each vivid photo to a moment in history related to its setting. (It would serve the reader well to heed the advice of novelist Siri Hustvedt in the foreword, and have Google at the ready to search for the little-known cities mentioned in the book.) The draped curtains in Cole’s hotel in Nuremberg, for example, are far more than that: They’re layers of fabric “facing themselves,” akin to the drapery depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings that Nuremberg’s own Albrecht Dürer studied while visiting the polymath in 1507; they’re reminders of the white cloth shrouding Jesus Christ’s body while he lay in his tomb before his resurrection, much like the man Cole encounters lying outside of a church in Lagos. Readers need not be ashamed if they’re unable to see Cole’s clever parallels upon first inspection of the photos—after all, humans do have a literal blind spot, as Hustvedt notes. Ultimately, Blind Spot is an eye-opening exploration of the world, time, and how the two connect. —Keryce Chelsi Henry
This review appears in NYLON's June/July 2017 issue
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (available June 13)
This isn’t a story about weight loss. Roxane Gay makes that much clear in the first few lines of her new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. No miraculous diet will be revealed, nor will it encourage you to give up gluten. Rather, this work offers a timeline of Gay’s young, safe body up to the moment it was violated. That’s her trauma to reveal, so we won’t discuss it here, but it marks the start of her descent into a kind of nothingness. The beginning of her “after.”
She copes by turning inward. She does so through theater, reading, writing, tattoos, the internet, and food. It is her relationship with the latter that forms the foundation of the narrative, but the definition of “hunger” also extends far beyond physical appetites into deeper yearnings.
The world has plenty of stories about bodies—how to take care of them, how to understand them, how to love them. But few feel this raw. In the process of composing this book, Gay has said that she used her Tumblr entries as a starting point, and it reads as such. The chapters are short, often comprising stream-of-consciousness thoughts that she works through in real time. They sometimes seem so intimate, you almost wish you’d asked permission before reading them.
The truths Gay writes about aren’t easy to digest, but they’re necessary if we ever want to reach a place of understanding on the realities of bodies other than our own. —Taylor Bryant
This review appears in NYLON's June/July 2017 issue
Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker (available June 20)
This might just be the perfect beach read. Why? Well, there's nowhere better than the beach to read about the lives of the really, really, fabulously wealthy. I think that's because, on the beach, we're all naked, or close to it, and there's a seemingly inarguable equality to that level of collective exposure; it allows us to feel like we're all part of something bigger, some larger teeming mass of freckled, goose-bumped, prickly haired humanity. And then you remember that we're not because the really rich are off on some private beach somewhere, and so it's probably best to just read about the insanity of their lives and put on more sunscreen, because, you know, safety first.
And so, speaking of safety and humanity and nakedness and wealth, Our Little Racket takes place just after the financial crash of 2007 and centers around the downfall of a Greenwich, Connecticut, CEO, Bob D'Amico, whose family must deal with the fallout from D'Amico's malfeasance. It's a fascinating look into an insular, moneyed world, one in which friendships—and even familial relations—are often all too conditional on wealth and status. Baker skillfully grapples with questions of complicity and people's unwillingness to see what is going on right in front of their eyes; the novel is never less than gripping, and even if this is a world seemingly unfamiliar to you, it's impossible not to be swept up in the hard universal truths uncovered within its pages.
The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan (available June 20)
Reading Scott McClanahan leaves me feeling like I just took a shot (or three) of moonshine brewed in a backyard cemetery, deep in the kudzu-covered hills of West Virginia. This is to say that I feel dizzy; like I just jumped off a high cliff into dark waters below, even the hairs on my body buzzing from the thrill of it all. In this latest, semi-autobiographical book, McClanahan gives us a love story, only it's one that centers not simply around the act of falling in love, but also on love's breakdown, and the effects that such a dissolution causes. Love is the splash a rock makes when thrown into a river, and this book captures that splash and all the ripples afterward, and even what it's like after that river has dried up in its own bank, and all you see are all the rocks that were ever thrown, lying in the dust. This is to say, it's beautiful and strange, mesmerizing and sobering, and it wonderfully captures the ways in which we are all just living in a sort of a bedtime story, one that, the narrator explains, would be about the ways in which "we are all babies and we are all being held by an invisible force and we are all eating potato chips... We are all waving so desperately hello."
The End of Men by Karen Rinaldi (available June 20)
I mean, I don't know, with a title like this, do you really need a reason to read it? Well, I'll give you one: This funny, cogent novel centers around four women who are determined to figure out who and what they want to be for no other reason than that they know it's a journey they deserve to be on, and fuck whatever society tells them they're supposed to want or who they're supposed to be. Rinaldi's voice is refreshingly, relentlessly honest, and reading this feels like dousing yourself in ice cold waters. You'll feel awake, alive, and ready to take on the world.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting (available July 4)
There is a multitude of paths to a dystopian reality. We’re all pretty familiar with most of them by now: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, the rise of religious extremism, economic collapse, even the election of a cretinous buffoon with the vocabulary of a seven-year-old. But there’s also another less-considered route: love. Perhaps it doesn’t register as disastrous in the same way that, say, catastrophic climate change does, but who says apocalyptic hell has to be global? In Alissa Nutting’s new novel, Made for Love, dystopia gets personal, as one woman, Hazel, flees a toxic marriage in which her husband, Byron, has been using all the means at his disposal to control every aspect of her life. And what means they are! Byron is a tech magnate whose monolithic corporation, Gogol Industries, is making great progress toward its goal of inserting itself into all elements of human existence. Byron tracks Hazel’s every move; it’s Fitbit-as-marital-prison. The last straw for Hazel comes when Byron wants to take their love to the next level, by connecting them via brain chips for a literal “mind-meld.” Hazel flees, and finds herself attempting to forge a new life from a senior-citizen-filled trailer park, where she lives with her father and his sex doll, Diane. Nutting’s uniquely hilarious voice is the perfect guide to this darkly surreal, extremely relatable universe, in which the absurd becomes expected and our own personal hells feel like they’ve been perversely rendered in neon, airbrushed paint. Oh, and there are dolphins. What more could you want in a book, really?
This review appears in NYLON's June/July 2017 issue
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (available July 11)
This debut novel (which has been praised by The Sellout author Paul Beatty, which is very high praise indeed) is a stunning coming-of-age story, centered around Thandi, a young black woman who is grappling with the trauma of her mother's death and what it means for her own complicated sense of identity. Though Thandi was raised in Pennsylvania, her mother grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and thus she has always struggled with feelings of not belonging to one place or another. Clemmons deftly explores this problem of feeling in-between, and how an absence of any distinct identity is its own difficult category of being. With lyrical prose, Clemmons offers up one of the best meditations on love, grief, and what it means to find yourself that we've come across in ages.
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat (available July 11)
Danticat's latest is both a meditation on the death of her mother and on the ways in which writers deal with writing about death—easily, along with love, one of the most explored literary topics, ever. As Danticat notes in her introduction, "I have been writing about death for as long as I have been writing," and this is certainly the case with all of our greatest writers, from Roland Barthes and Joan Didion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison. There is, after all, no more universal experience for humans, other than birth, and that is, in some ways, what this beautiful book feels like; it is an offering, almost, a renewal about the ways in which we think about the unthinkable, force ourselves to confront the dark in order to live with light in our lives. It is elegant and thoughtful, and a fascinating meditation on the thing that brings us all together in the end.
Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong (available July 11)
Khong (who, by the way, is responsible for one of the greatest Grub Street Diet's ever) is here to brighten up your summer with a debut novel that is sure to leave you laughing and crying in delightful recognition at the absurdities of life that she so perfectly renders. Centered around a young woman (well, Ruth is 30, which, who even knows what "young" means anymore), who is devastated about her engagement ending, quit her job, and then moved back in with her parents, who are dealing with the fact that her father is battling Alzheimer's. Sounds funny, right? Well, it is! It's also poignant and compassionate, accurately demonstrating the ways in which we struggle to maintain our composure even when we're sure we're falling apart on the inside. Khong's insights into our relationships with our parents, our partners, and ourselves are profoundly moving, as is the entirety of this wonderful novel.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (available August 1)
There are the writers whose work makes you feel like you’ve arrived home, and there are the writers whose work makes you feel like you’ve gone somewhere entirely new. Then there are the writers whose work makes you feel both of those things at the very same time. Jenny Zhang is one of them. Her writing, whether it’s her poetry, essays, criticism, or fiction, is resolute in its ability to unsettle and even uproot—lighting your every nerve on fire, leaving your every synapse flashing—before gracefully relocating you with a newfound sense of firmness in yourself, a new understanding of who “yourself” actually is. Zhang’s debut story collection, Sour Heart, comprises seven narratives that can fairly be categorized as coming-of-age tales, but which transcend any notion you might have of what that even means, courtesy of Zhang’s singular voice. The collection, which is the first release from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s new publishing imprint, Lenny, takes readers into the lives of several young women growing up in New York City, and explores issues of family, displacement, identity, belonging, and struggle. The stories also examine different aspects of the immigrant experience, affording a multifaceted, exquisitely beautiful take that feels especially relevant right now. It’s an insightful and striking work, one that aptly demonstrates Zhang’s prodigious gifts.
This review appears in NYLON's June/July 2017 issue
Eat Only When You're Hungry by Lindsay Hunter (available August 8)
Addiction issues are the focal point of Hunter's wonderful second novel, which centers around a road trip that 58-year-old Greg takes in order to find his missing son, GJ, who has been battling addiction his entire adult life. Along the way, Greg—who is convinced that he is the sole person who can save his son—reveals how his own past behaviors contributed to the situation in which GJ found himself as an adult. Hunter beautifully reveals the ways in which our past, and its many complicated elements, contribute to the decisions we make—or refuse to make—in our present. Heartbreaking and illuminating, Eat Only When You're Hungry is a necessary and never, thankfully, accusatory portrayal of addiction as a disease that has many enabling factors. It serves as a reminder that addiction cannot be treated by shaming or ostracizing those who suffer from it, and that compassion and prevention are the best tools we have to remedy a devastating situation.
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry (available August 22)
Let's take this summer as an opportunity to go back to another decade, one which, from our vantage point, almost seems like it existed in a state of perpetual summer—at least in the sense that it was filled with, like, constant discomfort and a sense of existential despair. (That's what summer is, right? Anyway.) So: 1973. That's when Gilvarry's second novel takes place, and it centers around Alan Eastman, a New York writer, whose life is falling apart around him. Eastman's career is floundering and his wife has left him and taken their kids to live with her mom in Jersey. Ouch. So what's a guy to do? Well, if he's Alan Eastman, he's going to jump at the chance to go to Vietnam and write about the waning days of America's longest (at that point) war. But what Eastman understands once he gets to Saigon is that you can't ever really leave your problems behind, even if you're half a world away from them. Gilvarry's book perfectly grapples with issues of identity in a world seemingly gone mad, and what it means to be a man who is losing all the things that he once thought made him who he was; it's a story of redemption and reclamation, and it's one that feels especially important to read right now, as so many of us in this country struggle to redefine who we are, both individually and collectively.
Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin (available August 22)
Martin's book of essays is funny and searching, shockingly honest and relentless in its exploration of her own life, yes, but also just life in general. For anyone who has ever felt weird or poor or misunderstood or just... weird, well, this is the book for you. Martin chronicles her own bizarre upbringing in such a way that the strangeness of it all manages to still feel universal. She recounts everything from her attempt to manifest an alien invasion (she was just 11; what 11-year-old doesn't want E.T. to visit?), to the fights she had with her family, to what it was like to be diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome as an adolescent. It's a wild ride of a memoir, and a true glimpse into the mind of an artist as she's figuring out what life is all about.
Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (available September 5)
There's no better way to end your summer than with this achingly gorgeous poetry collection by the brilliant Danez Smith, in which they evoke an afterlife where all the young black men who have been killed by police gather together and form a new reality, a post-reality, one in which compassion and security are the common language, rather than fear and suspicion. Don't Call Us Dead also addresses disease and mortality, desire and love; the poems can serve as indictments of our contemporary culture, but they are also full of forgiveness and understanding. There is a hope here, pleas and prayers; these poems pierce and they burn, they work as incantations, they lift you up, but refuse to settle you back down. They are miraculous, sublime; if you do one thing for yourself this summer, let it be to read this book, and linger over each and every word, like these from "notes on a body": "everyday you wake you raise the dead/ everything you do is a miracle."