According to people who keep track of these things, the COVID-19 era has been a golden age for bookselling. People are buying — and maybe even reading — books at levels not seen since the days when Harry Potter, Morrie, and the Horse Whisperer roamed the Earth.
Why? Maybe we’ve realized that anti-intellectualism is the root of all of the world’s problems and we need to be well-read warriors for human smartness. Or maybe we feel like the people and pets we’ve been locked down with are no longer pulling their weight, conversation-wise. It’s probably the second one.
Unfortunately and predictably, the Pandemic Bookaissance has been mostly an online bookselling phenomenon. Things have been rough for your local mom-and-pop bookshop, and will probably stay that way until we’re all vaccinated and comfortable seeing noses and mouths again.
When this is all over, fingers x’d, we’re going to want aisles to wander and stacks to accidentally topple again at our favorite brick-and-mortar stores, and that means supporting them now. Place an order and use curbside pickup or make a quick, masked dash inside to snag the big winter titles, like these.
Remote Control, Nnedi Okorafor. The endlessly inventive Nigerian American author has won a Hugo, a Nebula, and just about every other award a fantasy author can hope for, so any day now the larger reading public will take notice. Perhaps it’ll be from HBO’s planned series based on her 2010 novel Who Fears Death, or her screenwriting credit on the film adaption of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed for Amazon Prime, or her work for Marvel Comics. Or maybe it’ll be Okorafor’s bewitching new novella Remote Control, about a little girl who becomes “the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death.” (Macmillan Tordotcom, available now)
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders. It’s no surprise Saunders has some thoughtful, passionate, unexpected things to say about short stories. He’s made a career out of writing them, and teaching master classes about them at Syracuse. Nor would it surprise me if some Saunders readers are feeling inclined to skip this one, as it appears at first glance to be a book-length meditation on his favorite dead Russians (as opposed to another stunning story collection, or an ethereal epic like 2017′s Lincoln in the Bardo). But before you decline, consider Saunders’ track record for elevating the mundane, and for discovering humanity and humor in dark places. If it still sounds like homework, opt for the audiobook, in which Saunders’ voice is joined by the likes of Glenn Close, Phylicia Rashad, and Nick Offerman. (Random House, available now.)
Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Avi Loeb. I’ll admit to having read a sizable stack of “aliens are totally real!” books in halcyon days of Art Bell and The X-Files, when struggling novelists and mostly harmless conspiracy nuts could spin dubious tales of aliens visiting earth to dissect cows and still find their books charitably shelved under “nonfiction” (or at least “occult/UFOs/other”). But those guys didn’t have Loeb’s big-brain credentials. He’s a Harvard astronomer and theoretical physicist with a wall full of diplomas, and a Very Serious Person. His intriguing new book is an evidence-based argument that an object created by a faraway alien race did a flyby back in 2017. Look for it on the science shelf. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishes Tuesday)
Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler. Suspicious of her boyfriend’s secretive nature — for one thing he keeps his phone under his pillow at night — the narrator of Oyler’s ravishing debut novel starts prying. Is he a spy? A terrorist? A cheating wretch? No, he’s a conspiracy theorist who believes stupid things and posts them online. Maybe the stakes seem low in Fake Accounts, at least at first, but you’ll be charmed from the start by Oyler’s astute, slyly scathing take on living and dating in the Trump era. (Catapult, Feb. 2)
My Year Abroad, Chang-Rae Lee. The title of Lee’s new novel is a bit cheeky, bringing to mind “How I spent my summer vacation” essays and not at all hinting that it’s the story of a guy from Jersey abandoned on the other side of the world. But protagonist Tiller Bardmon’s unexpected adventures in Asia after an entrepreneur invites him along on a business trip are as illuminating as they are disconcerting. Fast-paced, unpredictable, and lovely in a thousand tiny ways, this novel may come as a surprise to those who know Lee only from 2014′s claustrophobic dystopia On Such a Full Sea. (Riverhead Books, Feb. 2)
Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert. After scaring the stupid out of us with 2014′s climate-crisis Pulitzer winner The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert returns with a new book about the people trying to science us out of this mess. Or through it with the least amount of damage. Can we unboil the Earth by filtering carbon out of the air, turning it into rocks, and burying it a mile underground in Iceland? Would it help if coral had more sex? And what about shooting diamonds into the sky? There are researchers out there doing strange, important, thankless things right now, and Kolbert contemplates our uncertain future with many of them in this eye-opening, globe-trotting adventure/dirge. (Crown, Feb. 9)
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro. There’s a ton of science and philosophy out there on the prospects of an artificial intelligence achieving some sort of sentience — Nick Bostrom’s 2014 nonfiction classic Superintelligence, for one. But it’s novelists who’ve pondered the meaning of an A.I. achieving personhood. Nobel prizewinning Ishiguro, who put clones through the emotional ringer in 2005′s magnificent Never Let Me Go, does something similar for robots in his new one about a solar-powered artificial friend purchased to keep a dying girl company. Ishiguro is a master at telling humane stories while only hinting at the larger dystopia just out of view. (Knopf, March 2)
Later, Stephen King. The Hard Case Crime imprint specializes in pulpy paperbacks with stylishly painted covers and noir yarns about guns, girls, and grifters. Can Stephen King do hard-boiled? Stephen King can do whatever he wants, but expect some ghosts. Later — King’s third Hard Case contribution — bears some surface similarities to The Sixth Sense, something the protagonist acknowledges early on. But mostly this book will remind you of the author’s early, angsty works like Carrie, Cujo, and Christine. Getting into plot specifics would ruin the fun, but suffice it to say King’s tics and tricks are all in bloom: folksy dialogue, cockeyed worldview, rising tension, pure evil, etc. (Hard Case Crime, March 2)
How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue. The Cameroonian American author — whose 2016 debut Behold the Dreamers scored a bunch of awards and an Oprah Book Club blessing — returns with another insightful, heart-stirring novel. How Beautiful We Were tells the fictional-but-true-enough story of an African village facing off against an American oil company. The environmental and political factors are formidable, but this perspective-hopping generational saga deals just as effectively with the emotional and cultural implications of a foreign corporation making tracks on somebody else’s ancestral homeland. There are also layers that push How Beautiful We Were into less familiar territory. Mbue calls this a “Goliath vs. Goliath story;” you’ll have to read it to find out why. (Random House, March 9)
Creatures of Passage, Morowa Yejidé. Morowa Yejidé's surreal new novel has no shortage of otherworldly surprises, but it’s her this-worldly protagonist who steals the show. Nephthys is a bone-weary, cab-driving auntie who specializes in transporting wayward spirits to the next realm in her rattling old ’67 Plymouth Belvedere. (There’s also a ghost in the trunk.) Informed by a richly woven mythology and propelled by themes of regret and revenge, Creatures of Passage has earned some apt comparisons to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Akashic Books, March 16)
A few more to consider:
In the Land of the Cyclops, Karl Ove Knausgaard. If you’ve been looking to enter the ever-expanding Knausgaard universe without committing to the wordy Norwegian’s multiple multi-book autobiographies, this collection of essays on art and philosophy is, if nothing else, shorter. (Archipelago, out now)
The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, Charles Blow. The New York Times columnist and cable news commentator delivers a powerful, personal guide to dismantling white supremacy. (HarperCollins, publishes Tuesday)
Girl A, Abigail Dean. After her mom dies in prison, a young British woman returns to the scene of her childhood torture and abuse to reunite with her siblings and reconcile with her past. (HarperCollins, Feb. 2)
Machinehood, S.B. Divya. Billed as “Zero Dark Thirty meets The Social Network,” this tense futuristic thriller is full of robots, terrorists, and powerful pharmaceuticals. (Simon & Schuster, March 2)
The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Vietnamese-American novelist delivers a sequel to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer. (Grove Atlantic, March 2)