By Nick Drnaso
(Drawn & Quarterly)
Though it’s a work of graphic fiction, Nick Drnaso’s Acting Class is a facsimile of our world, maybe even our lives. There is angst galore in the suburbs and the city. Disparate individuals join an acting class to “turn things around”, rekindle sparks, make friends, heal trauma, or simply find a place to belong. Acting Class is a tender and disturbing glance into average Americans’ modern and ever-drifting life. Drnaso displays his understanding of a specific type of human psyche – scarred by the wards of the past and held down by the ennui of the present. They are brought together by their attempts to deal with the “imperceptibility of a different day.”
Self-care becomes a gateway into fantasy existences. For Acting Class’ characters, an imagined world is more worthwhile than their day-to-day reality. Does this sound relatable? In our age of constant performance, Drnaso’s Acting Class is not an escape; it’s hyperreality.
Read Luis Aguasvivas review here.
All Your Children, Scattered
By Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse
Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s All Your Children, Scattered, is a compact, trance-like meditation on the unintended effects of love and survival in the Rwandan diaspora. Now living in France, the grown daughter is tortured with survivors’ guilt, but the story of her mother, Immaculata, depicts how the genocide has re-infected the raw wounds of Rwanda’s past. The mother’s riveting monologues illuminate her rue as a single mother of two. Her homilies on motherhood sizzle with subversion as they incinerate gender myths.
“If women kill less,” Immaculata muses, “often it’s not because they’re overflowing with tenderness, it’s because they’ve had their fill of repressed violence, the one that inhabits the hollows of their fecund bodies, which belong to all of society.”
Read Shaun Anthony McMichael’s review here.
By Ling Ma
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ling Ma’s short story collection, Bliss Montage, brilliantly explores the absurdity and alienation of living under late-stage capitalism. To read Ma’s work is to step into her meticulously crafted worlds where fantasy and reality blur and bleed into one another. Ma grounds the fantastical in tangibility, often in the form of emotions, relationships, and relatable life events — a painful break-up, a toxic friend, immigrant parents, and a relationship between mother and daughter. Ma’s fiction finds mundanity in the absurd and the absurd in mundanity. Through a surrealistic lens, she reflects our nature, and we cannot look away. Like the bliss montage that this story collection is named after, Ma’s stories are ones I want to revisit again and again.
Read Eleni Vlahiotis’ review.
A Book of Days
By Patti Smith
Patti Smith’s A Book of Days creates an ironic loop of parasocial relationshipping, generating a kind of intimacy through photographs of objects. Like Year of the Monkey, which covered her life daily throughout 2016, A Book of Days covers her life daily during the pandemic. The difference is that Year of the Monkey directly offers up memoir while A Book of Days is more meditative.
Among other things, there area lot of photos of beds that were slept in by the famous people Smith admires, which is an interesting extension of the audience mentality for this book: we’re trying to ferret out a deeper connectivity to Smith by looking at her mundane objects while she is trying to ferret out a deeper connectivity to her heroes by looking at their mundane objects. It’s an ironic loop of parasocial relationshipping, and so A Book of Days succeeds in generating a kind of intimacy.
Read Megan Volpert’s review.
Call Me Cassandra
By Marcial Gala
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In Call Me Cassandra, Marcial Gala dismantles the suffocating binary of unyielding machismo in pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba. Cassandra is born with a gift that doubles as a curse. Her ability to see the future of everyone around her – family, classmates, and fellow soldiers on the front – isolates her. Not that anyone believes her visions, but they see something ‘strange’ about her and resent her for her difference. The character also happens to be trans.
A fitting tribute to the tenacious and brilliant gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), Call Me Cassandra repurposes an age-old myth to meld together a bitter war tale, a trans coming-of-age story, and a drama of a family splitting at the seams. Gala dismantles the binaries that suffocate the region while confirming his standing as one of the most inventive new voices in contemporary Latin American fiction.
Read Derick Gomez’s feature article.
The Candy House
By Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House is an EDM concert, a prestige drama, a mind palace – and a warning. Beyond technology, even beyond people, Egan seems in awe of the idea, the power of stories themselves. She seems to see story—the long narrative arcs of our lives—as different from plot—the things that happen to happen.
In this way, along with evoking Freud and Jung, as well as Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, The Candy House seems in keeping with the school of literary criticism known as Russian Formalism. The Russian Formalists saw story as crucially different from plot, to understand not just what stories say, or what they are about, but how stories work.
Egan has opened up the potential for a new genre: not a series, or a set of sequels—there’s certainly no shortage of those. But rather, a set of novels that, like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Candy House, create a series of characters and stories that both fill gaps and create them, rabbit holes filled with Easter eggs, so that the records and narrative mic-passing can go on for as long as Egan wants to keep them spinning and singing. Not Russian Formalism, but maybe Russian dolls.
Read Jesse Kavadlo’s feature article.
By Alejandro Zambra
While reading Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra, you are likely to make strange noises. Gasps of astonishment, anxious finger-tapping, laughter when seeing a super-specific moment from your past characterized in unvarnished terms. Zambra strikes a perfect balance of self-aware yet sincere. He reaches the sublime through descriptions of everyday routine. He never takes himself too seriously while acknowledging the gravity of introducing a child to the world in all its glorious contradictions. He exhibits the distance between who people tell themselves they are and the actions that betray their self-perception. The tone is never mean-spirited but rather based instead on a recognition of the inevitable shortcomings of love and the language we use to describe it in all its forms.
Read Derek Gomez’s feature article.
Desolation Peak: Collected Writings
By Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac’s posthumous Desolation Peak establishes that Kerouac was more than a road warrior out for kicks. Or some wayward beatnik. Here we witness Kerouc in the throes of his “long night of life”. He endures personal torment and unbridled bliss through suffering. As he writes in a 1954 notebook, “Birth was the cause of suffering, and suffering was the cause of enlightenment, and enlightenment is the cause of the destruction of suffering…” It is a journey, not “on the road” to the American West, but of the road toward inner peace.
A handful of prose and poetry rounds out a splendid volume that unfolds a significant chapter in Kerouac’s life. It is his turning point. From here on out, the dissolution of Kerouac escalates after On the Road is published in 1957. Kerouac is a rising literary star in a downward spiral. Desolation Peak channels him at the height of his powers.
Read Paul Maher Jr.’s feature article.
Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You
By Ariel Delgado Dixon
Ariel Delgado Dixon’s compulsively readable debut novel, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You, explores what it means to cope with a shared, painful past. A gripping first-person psychological study of a queer young woman willing to sacrifice herself to become someone else’s ideal partner, the story reveals that the performance cannot hold.
Mistakes abound in Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You. Over the course of the novel, a teenager impales himself scaling a fence, a house is set ablaze in a misplaced expression of love, and someone falls from a rooftop deck. The scale and frequency of the calamities our narrator encounters (and instigates) give off Euphoria-like soapy teen drama vibes in the best possible way. Dixon is unafraid of big, dramatic plot points.
Read Derek Gomez’s review here.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
By Kate Beaton
(Drawn and Quarterly)
Not just one of (if not the) the year’s great graphic novels, this memoir from Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton is one of the year’s most indelible reading experiences. Raised in Canada’s lovely and characterful yet economically challenged Cape Breton, she followed a common route for East Coasters and lit out for Alberta’s oil sands. A fish out of water in that harsh environment, she experiences dislocation and homesickness and a miasma of sexism that takes a dark turn. Although the alienation and dehumanization of the raw, frequently brutal extraction industry backdrop is visceral, so too is Beaton’s humanizing of the men she was surrounded (and sometimes even threatened) by. Ducks is remarkable turn from an artist previously best known for goofy drawings of historical figures (e.g., Hark! A Vagrant). – Chris Barsanti
Eat the Rich
By Sarah Gailey
Karl Marx’s death pact is made literal in Sarah Gailey’s Eat the Rich, a remarkably fun comics series given its subject is the horror of capitalism. It’s unclear if Gailey has read Marx, but Eat the Rich evokes themes reminiscent of his magnum opus Capital. Marx frequently drew on the language and imagery of the monstrous and horrific while articulating the exploitation of workers under capitalism. In one chapter, he writes: “The capital given in exchange for labour-power is converted into necessaries, by the consumption of which the muscles, nerves, bones, and brains of existing labourers are reproduced, and new labourers are begotten.”
Gailey eschews a more nuanced, complicated examination of capitalism for a shorter, punchier story peppered with sly humor. It’s at once heavy-handed yet still remarkably subtle. She doesn’t wade too deep into political theory here but still drops enough nuggets of information to hint at the monster lurking beneath the surface without outright naming it.
Read Eleni Vlahiotis’ review here.
Good Pop, Bad Pop: An Inventory
By Jarvis Cocker
Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker rummages through his cluttered closet to tell the story of his life via the objects he finds in his fascinating memoir, Good Pop, Bad Pop. Structured around a storage closet, this is the story of Cocker’s musical career – at least, of the formative years before Pulp emerged as one of the defining bands of ‘90s Britpop – but it’s also the story of Cocker’s personal life, told with the same type of quirky observations and narrative diversions that make his songwriting so distinctive.
Cocker’s self-reflections give a glimpse into the complexities and rewards of artistic creation. Good Pop Bad Pop is presented as “an inventory”, but it’s so much more than a dry presentation of relics from past times. Cocker skillfully weaves the contents of his closet into a tale that is both verbally and visually engaging and an extremely satisfying read.
Read Fionna McQuarrie’s review here.
How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them
By Barbara F. Walter
The same forces that tore apart societies from Yugoslavia to Iraq, Columbia, Northern Ireland, and the West Bank are fully present in the US, warns professor and Council on Foreign Relations member Barbara F. Walter in How Civil Wars Start. present in the United States. One is whether a country is moving toward or away from democracy.
As anybody watching America’s curtailment of voting rights, gridlocked Congress, and the terror tactics deployed against government officials who believe in the results of the 2020 presidential election can attest, American democracy is far from fully functioning. Instead, it seems to be what experts call an “anocracy”, a grey zone between autocracy and democracy where the people’s will is frequently thwarted but the government isn’t authoritarian enough to quash an uprising.
Read Chris Barsanti’s feature article.
It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful
By Jack Lowery
In 2022, AIDS organizations, survivors, patients, and millions whose lives were changed by the epidemic marked the 40th anniversary of the Center for Disease Control’s naming of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. From the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco to the New York AIDS Memorial, collecting and sharing narratives of the previous four decades was central to commemoration.
Jack Lowery’s history, It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful, captures the stories of the artist-activists collective Gran Fury, the group responsible for the iconic Silence=Death image. Lowery brings the personal stories of the 11 people who comprised Gran Fury into the larger narrative of AIDS art and activism, creating a historical, personal, important, and deeply moving book. – Linda Levitt
Laurie Anderson’s Big Science
By S. Alexander Reed
(Oxford University Press)
Laurie Anderson’s Big Science blends cultural critique, scientific speculation, philosophical musings, and a unique creative voice. Professor and music critic S. Alexander Reed considers Anderson’s album, Big Science, from these various perspectives, arguing for the need for a multifaceted interpretation. He marks 1982 as the pivotal year between the industrial age and the information age, a fitting moment for the arrival of Big Science.
Reed strikes an effective balance throughout, informing a reader unfamiliar with Anderson’s oeuvre while offering a knowing wink to her devotees. He takes an immersive approach to Anderson’s album and writes as if he is in conversation with the artist. Drawing from his own mastery, Reed lays out the arguments to praise Big Science as a canonical text across the preceding and current century.
Read Linda Levitt’s review.
The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States
By Brian Hochman
(Harvard University Press)
Only the surveilling technology is new, Brian Hochman’s The Listeners contends in his history of surveillance in the United States by means of technological cunning up to 2001. Hochman would like readers to pause over the broad moral challenge raised here: that one still has a choice in the extent to which one acquiesces to the normalization of electronic surveillance carried out by governments and big businesses in the post-9/11 era. As long as eavesdropping has been carried out by governments, businesses, criminals, and law enforcement agencies, Hochman articulates, it has existed alongside critics of the practice.
Hochner traceS how popular attitudes towards “listening” have evolved. He does this with techniques used by cultural historians – episodic detours, examples drawn from popular culture, the insight provided by tech hobbyists and businesspeople – and intellectual historians.
Read Jordan Penney’s review.