The best new books to read in April
Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility, Claire Kohda's Woman, Eating, Riley Black's The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, and other books worth reading this month.
Last weekend, the AWP conference was in town to remind aspiring creative writers that there is simultaneously a) hope for them, b) a community that supports them, and c) maybe too many of them? It was a bit of a shock sharing masked breathing space with that many strangers.
Short for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, AWP (are missing a W somewhere?) hosted a conference with all manner of readings and panel discussions at the Convention Center, with titles like “Poetry Makes Things Happen,” “Myth & Monsters in Memoir,” and “Noir as an Agent for Social Change.” There was also a magnificently serpentine book fair, just row after row of booths beckoning you to learn more about this M.F.A. program, that literary journal, those independently published anthologies.
Regular readers of this space will note its predilection toward prose, be it fiction or non, but AWP offered a resounding reminder that poetry exists. Poets are still out there, publishing chapbooks, hosting open mics, and scoffing at the rules of proper grammar. And they want to be heard.
To my mind, poetry is best enjoyed aloud and in person. One poet I saw perform at AWP, Patrick Rosal — a Rutgers Camden professor with words like Guggenheim and Fulbright on his CV — crushed it with a midafternoon performance of emphatic, hip-hop-inflected verse. His words boomed across the ballroom. The applause was considerable. Good stuff.
When it comes to poetry, I tend to take an I-know-what-I-like approach. Sonia Sanchez. The latest Leonard Gontarek. That one where Yeats says “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” At the book fair I picked up a promising collection called The Miracle Machine by Virginia poet Matthew Pennock. It was inspired by a 200-year-old automaton on display at the Franklin Institute.
This Friday, I’ll likely swing by the Free Library to see Ocean Vuong. His new one’s a collection of poems called Time Is a Mother; I very much enjoyed his dreamily lyrical 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Time Is a Mother, Ocean Vuong
Miracle Machine, Matthew Pennock
In the meantime, here’s what’s new in the world of complete sentences and by-the-book capitalization.
Lucky Breaks, Yevgenia Belorusets
At press time, author and journalist Yevgenia Belorusets was still in her home city of Kyiv, Ukraine, and filing ground-level reports on the Russian invasion to isolarii.com. Her updates are full of stress and horror. She swaps information with fellow Ukrainians about this bombing, that fire, what might happen next. She sleeps in hallways, wakes up to air raid sirens, and somehow keeps her smartphone charged. Lucky Breaks, Belorusets’ first book, a collection of short stories long in the works but published about a week after the invasion began, uses detail, humor, and surrealism to introduce us to people and places whose existence is under threat right this minute. What once might have been merely “recommended reading” now feels essential and urgent. (New Directions, $14.95, out now)
Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel
The author of 2014′s Station Eleven (now an apocalyptic tearjerker series on HBO Max) and 2020′s The Glass Hotel (about financial ruin; also slated for a prestige TV interpretation) returns with another dire and highly visual novel that will certainly show up on some sort of screen someday. As always: Read the book first. Set in the past, present, and future — on Earth, the moon, and beyond — Sea of Tranquility bats around some time-tested science-fiction concepts in the service of its larger themes of overpopulation, greed, and hope. There’s plenty of heartbreak and dread, but some winking meta moments, too. This might one day be known as Emily St. John Mandel’s “fun” novel. (Knopf, $25, April 5)
The Candy House, Jennifer Egan
Though there’s a Black Mirror-worthy bit of tech at the core of Jennifer Egan’s masterful new mosaic of a novel — scan your brain, upload your memories to the cloud, have fun! — its light-touch dystopia is mostly identical to the one we’re living in now. Like a well-curated playlist, The Candy House uses chapter breaks to switch perspectives and tempos without killing the mood, and each sensuous little story feels like a peek through the blinds at people whose larger journeys we can only guess at. Once in a while, somebody from Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad makes a walk-on, but both books stand alone in the vast and expanding Gooniverse. Egan will read from The Candy House at the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library on Thursday, April 7. (Scribner, $28, April 5)
Woman, Eating, Claire Kohda
These are complicated times and we deserve a complicated vampire like Lydia, the perpetually frustrated and forever young semi-demonic multiracial misanthrope at the center of Claire Kohda’s oddly touching debut horror novel. The human world is a hateful place; Lyds would rather sit around in her dark London art studio watching old Buffy episodes and drinking pig’s blood. But sometimes she gets these cravings for human contact and, even weirder, for human food. That’s a no-no for vampires, but still she binges YouTube videos of pretty people eating, and wishing that was her on the screen. Hard-core vampire lit fans might snort at all the malaise and introspection in Woman, Eating, but there’s something special about its sensuous mix of teeth and tenderness. (HarperVia, $26.99, April 12)
The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Riley Black
Most of us know the gist of what happened 66 million years ago: A gigantic meteor hit Earth and the dinosaurs died. It was a huge win for us mammals, not gonna lie, but you could argue — as paleontologist Riley Black does in her new book — it was also “the worst single day in the entire history of life on Earth.” Where science usually yadda-yaddas the gory details, Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs reconstructs that bad day and its fallout in vivid, sometimes granular detail: the smoke, the ash, the sudden synchronized deaths of amoebas, clams, pterosaurs, etc., the years of cold and darkness, and, eventually, the roly-poly little proto-rodents that popped out of the dirt to inherit the earth. Grandpa! (St. Martin’s Press, $28.99, April 26)
Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart
Douglas Stuart follows up his brutal, bleak, and Booker Prize-winning with another arrestingly visceral novel that examines queerness and masculinity in working-class Scotland. (Grove Hardcover, $27, April 5)
Riverman: An American Odyssey, Ben McGrath
New Yorker writer Ben McGrath recounts the wild adventures of Dick Conant, a charming but troubled man who spent two decades paddling alone on American rivers until one day his canoe washed ashore without him. (Knopf, $29, April 5)
Things They Lost, Okwiri Oduor
Okwiri Oduor’s debut novel is set in a small East African town where folklore and legend keep spilling over into the everyday life of an 8-year-old girl. Early peeks peg Things They Lost as an elegant, enchanting coming-of-age story. (Scribner, $26.99, April 12)
Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel
Perhaps thanks to the popularity of Madeline Miller, we live in an era of top-notch literary reinterpretations of mythological figures. Here, Chicago author Vaishnavi Patel centers a novel on Kaikeyi (a queen from Hindu epic the Ramayana) with delightful and surprising results. (Redhook, $28, April 26)
Finding Me, Viola Davis
The Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress (for Fences, and How To Get Away With Murder, respectively) aims to inspire with a memoir that takes us from small-town Rhode Island to the top tiers of her craft. (HarperOne, $28, April 26)
More books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in the Inquirer on the first Sunday of the month.