Novella’s Fall Book Preview

Novella’s given you, our faithful readers, a preview of upcoming movies and TV shows coming this fall. Now it’s time to shine our spotlight on books!

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (pub date: Sept. 5th)

Tracing the past and the present of Mississippi, Ward’s upcoming novel follows a family – Jojo, his younger sister Kayla, and their mother Leonie – as they move toward the state penitentiary after hearing about the release of the children’s white father from prison. Exploring the love and limitations of family in the face of racism and poverty, Sing, Unburied, Sing parallels the likes of Toni Morrison.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (pub date: Sept. 12th) 

Set in an idyllic Cleveland suburb, Ng’s latest novel centers on two mothers and their children: Elena Richardson, who parallels the suburb’s composed order, and Mia Warren, who resists the said order. Soon a divisive custody battle — a result of the Richardson’s family friends’ endeavor to adopt a Chinese-American baby — creates animosity between the two women. Described as witty and wise, Little Fires Everywhere traces the nature of secrets, art, and, above all, motherhood.

Sam Sax’s Madness (pub date: September 12th)

Sax’s debut poetry collection challenges notions of masculinity, sanity, heterosexuality, and normality. Writing about sex, hysteria and lobotomy, and his own experiences with mental health, Sax uses peculiarities in of the language to parallel and contemplate the peculiarities of the human mind.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (pub date: Sept 5th)

Smith’s second poetry collection, like his previous work, discusses race, sexuality, power, and politics. It begins with imagining an afterlife for black men shot by the police and traces desire and mortality in relation to the body. A poet and an activist, Smith’s work has been celebrated for its innovative and political voice.

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (pub date: October 3rd)

Set in Brooklyn in the 1930’s, Pulitzer-winner Egan’s novel follows an 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, her father, and a nightclub owner named Dexter Styles, whom Anna learns is critical to her family’s existence. Eight years later, America is in the Second World War and Anna’s father is missing. A chance meeting with Dexter, however, helps Anna trace the complexities and, ultimately, the truth of her father’s disappearance. Egan’s first historical fiction, Manhattan Beach explores the oppositions within and dualities of human existence.

Jermey Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (pub date: Oct. 31st)

Divided into what Dauber refers to as the seven strands of Jewish comedy, the book delves into the ways in which Jewish comedy has approached persecution and diaspora. Examining comedic archetypes along with major Jewish comedians (Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart), Dauber’s work has been described as funny and crucial scholarship of Jewish history.

Han Kang’s The White Book (pub date: Nov. 2nd) 

The White Book, described as “the most autobiographical and the most experimental to date” by Portobello Books, is Korean writer Han Kang’s third publication in English. Starting with a list of white things the author saw in Warsaw (where she completed her writer’s residency), the book centers on Kang’s older sister, who’d died two hours after birth. Paralleling and intertwining imagery of the city and a new life cut short, Kang creates a genre-defying piece of literature, reflecting on life and death and survival.

Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (pub date: Nov. 7th) 

Lieberman writes about the history of vibrators, tracing the changes in the ways in which it has been used and perceived. Starting with the lubricant in Ancient Greece all the way up to vibrators in present day, Lieberman discusses sex toys within the context of various attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, and LGBT issues, presenting sex toys in a new, less clandestine light.

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Novel Ideas: Roxane Gay’s Hunger

Author Roxane Gay. (Jay Grabiec)

Bodies are politicized figures. Our physical selves have various forms of oppressions and privileges (depending on our respective intersecting identities) planted on them. Race, gender, and disability — visible on our bodies — inform the ways in which we exist and are perceived in the world. Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, discusses body size — often overlooked and disregarded in discussions of power and politics — as a form of oppression. Gay, the author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women, writes honestly about her relationship with her body in Hunger; about, and she’s clear on this from the start, not being “Lane Bryant fat” (being able to buy clothes at Lane Bryant, which goes up to size 28), but rather “living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight”.

Early on in the book, Gay informs her readers of the following:

My life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.

It was a boy, whom she loved (in the way you do at 12 years old), who went biking with her in the woods and took her inside a cabin, where his friends were waiting. She writes thoughtfully about the violence that followed: “As a sheltered, good Catholic girl, I barely understood” the situation. But, “I did understand the pain…the sharpness and the immediacy of it.” She describes this pain as “inescapable” — so much so that she eventually turned to food to make her body into a “fortress.” Food and eating, Gay explains, became a way to feel “more solid, stronger.” It was a way to veer away attention, particularly the male, sexually predatory attention, from herself. Gay knew, from witnessing hers and others’ reactions to fat people “that too much weight was undesirable.” And to “keep…[the] hurt away” — the hurt that followed the aforementioned male, sexually predatory attention — Gay created “a new body, one that shamed [her] but one that made [her] feel safe.”

Throughout the book, Gay showcases the larger modes of power and patterns that shape her experiences: the patriarchal ways in which we view women’s bodies as open to consumption by men; the immigrant experience, the move from “the Global South” to “the Global North”, which often results in a sense of responsibility and well-to-do-ness in immigrant families, that, to some degree, kept Gay from sharing her trauma with her parents; and the capitalism-fueling fat-phobia porn in popular culture, in particular reality television like The Biggest Loser. Some of Gay’s most forceful cultural critique is in the chapter discussing this televised “anti-obesity propaganda”. Gay explains that The Biggest Loser “offer[s] wish fulfillment for people with unruly, overweight bodies” – for both those watching the show and those participating in it. What is more, these “unruly bodies” become a “spectacle”,  a form of entertainment onto themselves, constantly fat-shamed by the on-screen medical professionals and trainers until they lose their excess weight. Such television testifies to the systematic nature of fat-phobia that can be found everywhere, as Gay points out, from air travel to the medical community to fashion.

Hunger is a candid discussion and exploration of our society’s disregard towards individuals with “unruly bodies”, paving a path to a much needed conversation. It is also Roxane Gay writing her own narrative, taking control of her story, in a way she was unable to with her body (indicated in the book’s subtitle: A Memoir of (My) Body). Gay’s closing words in Hunger are powerful. She declares, “Here I am”. She declares herself taking up space on the page, on bookshelves and bookstores, in a way her body is shamed for doing. There is strength in her voice, in spite of the pain – strength to do the bold and daring, like writing this book. But also the strength to do the seemingly small, like learning to love and appreciate the sensualities of food, after and even while struggling with it as a self-harming tool. Gay writes:

I started watching Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s cooking show on the Food Network, every day from four to five p.m. … I love the show. I love everything about Ina. … [She] makes cooking seem easy, accessible. She loves good ingredients – good vanilla, good olive oil, good everything. She is always offering helpful tips – very cold butter makes pastry dough better, and a cook’s best tools are clean hands. She uses an ice cream scoop for the dough when she’s making muffins and reminds the audience of this trick with a conspiratorial grin. … She is ambitious and knows she is excellent at what she does and never apologizes for it. She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.

There is such joy in her words when she describes watching Ina Garten cooking, such joy when she describes herself doing something seemingly small. And it is this joy — simple and whole and lovely — that sticks with me, that I think of often, days after finishing the book.

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Novel Ideas: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Twenty years after her first novel, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In 1997, she published The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and marked her as an internationally acclaimed author. For the following two decades, Roy worked as a political activist, speaking out against Hindu nationalism in India, advocating for the independence of Kashmir, critiquing capitalism, and protesting against environmental degradations. Indeed, any reader of Roy’s new novel can see the heavy, intermingling threads of activism running through it. It is a demanding book that, thanks to its outspoken political nature, challenges the rigid ways in which we often see and define the novel: as an exclusive genre that adheres to its rules of plot, dialogue, form, and style. But Roy’s novel resists this, integrating political thought with narratives, poetics, and languages.

The reader first meets Anjum (described as a hijra, a Hindu term referring to those who are hermaphrodites, transgendered, or third gendered) living “like a tree in the graveyard”. She is born with both male and female sex organs, and is raised as a boy named Aftab. The reader joins Anjum when she, as Aftab, sees “a slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick” and realizes she “want[s] to be her” – and continues with Anjum as she faces the consequences that follow her choice to live as a woman. Anjum’s identity and its complexities are shown within and in relation to the political ongoings of India: for instance, the war surrounding the Line of Control in Kashmir and the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, both stemming from the centuries-old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The novel probes how a hijra is seen, treated, and heard in such situations, working with both the personal and the political. It zooms into the individual and then the collective, introducing a range of characters who are all somehow connected to Anjum, to the tree in the graveyard.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness author Arundhati Roy

Many reviewers have suggested that the novel tries to weave too much of Roy’s activism into one book: the number of characters can be overwhelming, the number of political turmoils explored can be difficult to follow, the plot and dialogue — the supposed holy grails of fiction — can fall behind the political settings. Indeed, all that can be said justly about the novel. But, as Roy herself explains, approaching and writing fiction often involves questions of experiment, of whether you can “make the foreground into the background,” of whether you can center and decenter things. As such, Roy’s decision to center the personal at a given time or the political at another time, irrespective of time and chronology, not only challenges the ways in which themes are explored in novels — integrated and often in the background of a plot – but asks what the ultimate role of a novel is. Can there ever be one set role? Or should we expect it to evolve and change? Expect ourselves, in fact, to critique and evaluate it?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a difficult, long book, requiring a second read from many. But its nuances and complexities, its poetic language and narratives are remarkable. Because of its exploration of the connection between the personal and the political, it showcases the human faces of the collective — the human faces of not just individuals from a given community, often easily accomplished in novels, but of the mass —, of those whose narratives are often shown simply as political upheavals and disruptions, rather than the human force that exists behind them. As a result, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with all its merits and flaws, insists on centering on humanity.

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Novel Ideas: David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding

In the beginning of his newest book Theft by Finding (Diaries 1977-2002), David Sedaris suggests that the reader not read the book as a whole from start to finish, but instead dip in and out of it. I elected to ignore his advice, and was surprised by how quickly I went through it. Maybe it’s because each entry has been whittled down to a few paragraphs or less, or, as is more likely, it’s simply Sedaris’s brilliant writing style. You would think that reading Sedaris recount some of the more minute details of his life would be boring, and yet there’s something about his style that has the power to make even his grocery lists interesting and his gripes about phone bills amusing.

In general, I’m not so sure publishing people’s diaries is such a great idea. I don’t think most people are all that interested in listening to someone recount all of their innermost emotions and thoughts, especially if they are ones that have been carefully selected to portray the author in the most flattering way possible.

But this is precisely what Sedaris stays away from. As he said in a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, “usually it’s the worst thing you can admit about yourself that most people can relate to…if you write about, say, your own jealousy, people aren’t going to think ‘Oh, he’s a horrible person because he’s jealous.’ They’ll think, ‘That’s me.’” 

Not that David Sedaris comes off as being particularly jealous, but it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to mold himself into a better version of himself. And though this book is apparently only a small selection of the diaries he’s kept since 1977, it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything is missing. For instance, in the early eighties, while working in construction, many of Sedaris’s coworkers express racist attitudes and use slurs. Sedaris writes that he doesn’t approve of this behavior, but he also does not pretend that he stood up to them or told them off. He creates a thoroughly honest portrayal of himself and the people around him, perhaps because when he was actually writing it he wasn’t doing so for a particular audience. Although, Sedaris does note in his introduction, “Every so often, I’ll record something that might entertain or enlighten someone, and those are the bits I set aside.” Also in the introduction he acknowledges that editing changes how he comes across to the reader. “And entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive.”

Theft by Finding author David Sedaris

It also helps that he’s just a very talented writer. While I was previously a fan of his essay-writing, I wasn’t certain that those skills would translate to his diary-writing. Luckily, they do. While Sedaris’s essays always tend to have some kind of central point or to tell a specific story, in his diaries he doesn’t feel the need to bring us to that specific point. Instead, he’s just talking about the ins and outs of his life, as well as relating anecdotes from and about his friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers. By providing the reader with a small dose of daily interactions and observations, Sedaris manages to give us many different types of stories in a short amount of space.

Sedaris talks about a wide variety of topics, from a brief note in 1981 about his first time learning about AIDS (at the time, referring to it as a “new cancer”), to a lengthy passage after 9/11. He mentions his own feelings and thoughts from time to time, but these seem mostly in passing and less important than the world outside. Sedaris’s outward focus is the reader’s gain, as we see the world through his eyes over 25 years with humor, charm, and an ever-sharpening wit. Don’t let the size of Theft by Finding intimidate you. It’s a fantastically, surprisingly fun read.

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Novel Ideas: The Stories of John Cheever

John Cheever in Ossining, New York, 1976

John Cheever has not had a good posthumous career. He is not widely read today nor is he regularly included in school curriculums where reputations live and grow; the setting of Cheever’s stories and what it’s come to represent being under general social and cultural scrutiny — and such scrutiny, anachronistic or otherwise, being generally popular —, Cheever’s stories themselves have often come under attack. ‘Cheeveresque’ has become synonymous with suburbia and middle to upper middle class and dismissed as misogynistic or just another dead white male voice. He has, somewhere along the way, become an author an English major is proud to have graduated without reading (the list may very well include some of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, T.S. Eliot, Kipling, etc.).

It should be noted that Fitzgerald — Cheever’s immediate predecessor — and Salinger — his contemporary —, whose primary subject was middle and upper middle class America, continue to be a part of the literary lexicon of our time. Jay Gatsby’s ascension to online bibliophiles’ points of reference and continued presence in ‘The Most Beautiful Quote…’ lists would have surprised even Fitzgerald himself, while Holden Caulfield maintains something of a cult status. Cheever the man, while alive, was not prone to scandal and notoriety as the Fitzgeralds were, or did his stories end up in a Southern School District’s list of banned books.

Cheever’s contemporary reputation, whatever remains of it, is largely shaped by Blake Bailey’s long biography published in 2009 that gives in full and lengthy detail the personal struggles of the troubled author; his daughter’s, Susan Cheever, memoir, Home Before Dark, published just two years after his death in 1984, which revealed her father’s closeted bisexuality and his lifelong struggle with alcoholism; and the posthumously published journals and letters that didn’t really paint a brighter portrait of the author but furthered the image of the man in a mire of emotional crisis and financial troubles.  Perhaps the fact that Cheever isn’t read so much today has more to do with the convergences of these factors that define the author outside of his works: mid-century America, suburbia, his bisexuality, his marital troubles, his strained relationships with his children, alcoholism.

Cover of Vintage International Edition of ‘The Stories of John Cheever’ (2000)

But there’s more to Cheever than the sum of the words written about him, as there are more to Cheever’s stories than the most immediate images of swimming pools and backyard barbecues. In them, bright images — or technicolor, as it was for Frank Perry’s 1968 adaptation of ‘The Swimmer’ — turn sour, sooner or later, and in Cheever’s mastery of the form, the souring makes perfect sense. Central to Cheever’s stories are not particularly 20th-century American notions of glamour of living fast and being peculiarly close to violence, the likes of which can be found in Fitzgerald and Hemingway alike. What lurks behind closed doors of Cheever’s well-to-do suburban houses and apartments, and in the crevices of safety and security of social status and wealth is an element of criminality, of venal sins, small in scale but outsized in moral connotations.

In ‘The Enormous Radio,’ Cheever’s 1947 breakout story in the New Yorker, Jim and Irene Westcott, “the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins,” brings home a radio that transmits sounds from nearby apartments. After a series of bizarre and Kafka-like instances of eavesdropping and paranoia, Jim reveals to Irene the family’s financial crisis and, to obtain a moral high ground, reminds her of how she stole her sister’s inheritance and how she went to get an abortion as if she were “going to Nassau.”

One of Cheever’s more celebrated story, ‘The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” begins Johnny Hake’s description of his house in an upstanding Upstate New York suburbs: “We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.” Johnny Hake then proceeds to tell us how he was fired from his job, lied to his wife, and resorted to stealing his neighbor’s wallet to make ends meet.

The resolution of this particular story says much about Cheever’s stories in general: Hake’s employer calls him and rehires him. That the reestablished order is tenuous and fragile at best is perhaps what makes the tranquil night of a backyard barbecue as thrilling as stealing. Or perhaps that the tranquility, the contentedness, are themselves stolen. If so, from whom or what? Or more importantly, when will they come back to get it?

In a 2012 essay in the New York Review of Books, Allan Gurganus, who studied under Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wrote, “If [Cheever’s] fiction still throws off salt spray and blinding daylight, his company amused, intrigued, specialized in dares. He always wanted to have a good time. ‘What’ll we try for fun now, and next, and…?'” Gurganus’s account of Cheever’s company differs with others that speak to his genuine inability to maintain relationships and of his close bond with his dogs as the only close bond the author had in his life. It’s difficult, and perhaps meaningless, to attempt to understand Cheever the man three decades after his death. But as for his characters, they are indeed full of intrigue, desirous of good times, and also full of darkness, weighted by unnamed remnants from past that, even in grand company, they are alone.

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