Most of the time, authenticity in art is a nebulous sort of thing, better settled by a smell test than a Google search. Of course some stuff is going to be made up — it’s fiction. The story only needs to feel real.
But then there are those irksome bits: The details that don’t ring true because you know better. Because the author just didn’t do the homework.
Ever read a book about Philly that mentions a mom-and-pop liquor store? Or a 14th Street? Infuriating. I saw a movie five years ago that referred to Broad Street as Broadway and I’m still mad about it. Some of that comes from that little-brother chip on our shoulder we’re all born with around here. How dare CNN not label us on their hurricane maps? How dare Independence Day destroy us off screen?
But when an author gets it right, when their Philly feels like the real Philly, all is right with the world. Happily, I’ve read a couple locally set novels that pass this test, both by authors who have spent some time here.
One is Temple professor Liz Moore’s powerful Long Bright River from 2020, about a cop searching for her opioid-using sister on the darkest stretches of Kensington Avenue. We see the old boy’s club police precinct, the scared citizens, the lost souls wandering the streets in a stupor, and we recognize our city and its shortcomings. It doesn’t surprise me that a film adaptation is in the works; I am delighted to hear that Moore herself will be writing the screenplay. Long Bright River doesn’t need a Hollywood ending.
The other book that satisfied my Philly sense is January’s The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan (who lived here when she wrote the book). In this perfectly upsetting dystopia, Philadelphia is the proving ground for a new CPS program that sends “bad” moms to a yearlong training camp where they must learn to care for disturbingly realistic dolls if they ever want to see their real kids again. Even as I was freaking out over the psychological torture the moms were going through, I couldn’t help but notice the familiar neighborhood descriptions and their corresponding attitudes.
Jessica Chastain won the bidding war to turn The School for Good Mothers into a TV series, and, as long as she’s not aiming to cast herself in the lead, I’ve got high hopes. (Protagonist Frida Liu is of Chinese descent, and they need to honor that.)
And now here’s a bunch of great new books, even if they’re set in lesser cities, countries, and realities.
‘The Doloriad,’ Missouri Williams
It takes a minute for this deranged little novel to come into focus, and one imagines some squaresville readers won’t appreciate what they’re looking at: a world ravaged by climate disaster and a people forced to survive through ugly means best not spelled out here. But stick with The Doloriad and you may appreciate the delicate sentences that detail its indelicate ideas, and its darkly comic ambience. This is Missouri Williams’ first novel and I will follow her anywhere, reading through my fingers, grinning through gritted teeth. (MCD x FSG Originals, $17, out now)
‘The Swimmers,’ Julie Otsuka
In her quietly riveting new novel, Julie Otsuka (When the Emperor Was Divine, The Buddha in the Attic) describes the women who make daily trips to an underground community swimming pool: “We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions.” Though The Swimmers is often direct and clinical in its descriptions of lives undone by history, disappointment, and disease, the storytelling is never cold or isolating. Instead we learn about these women, detail by detail, until we feel what they feel. A great book for a good cry. (Knopf, $23, out now)
‘Eleutheria,’ by Allegra Hyde
There’s lots to love about Willa Marks, the self-styled environmentalist who, at the start of Allegra Hyde’s debut novel, buys a one-way ticket to the Bahamas to join an eco commune, uninvited. She is impulsive, she’s proactive, she’s a believer. But her brand of Ted Lasso can-do damaged idealism, well, it’s a lot. Come to think of it, just about everybody in this swift, slippery novel is kinda sus: Willa’s wannabe influencer cousins, the aloof environmentalists whose party she crashes, their secretive guru leader who — well, nobody trusts a guru. But there’s an infectious strain of hope inside our heroine and throughout this book, that delights even when things get dire. (Vintage, $17, March 8)
‘Booth,’ Karen Joy Fowler
In the forward to her stirring new historical novel, Karen Joy Fowler explains that she was thinking of the families of mass shooters when she first sat down to write about the infamous Booths. “What happens to love when the person you love is a monster?” So, while John Wilkes is the reason for Booth, he’s not the star. Instead, we follow patriarch Junius, an immensely talented and frequently drunk actor who builds a life and career full of fame, tragedy, and scandal. All the while, tension grows as we inch closer toward war, assassination, and the downfall of the family. Fowler, whose stunning and intimate We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a surprise hit in 2014, returns here with an ambitious and consequential saga about a family with a monster in their midst. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $28, March 8)
‘Vagabonds!,’ Eloghosa Osunde
Set in modern-day Nigeria, where homosexuality is against the law, Eloghosa Osunde’s magical-realist debut novel is populated by queer characters whose very existence is an act of defiance. Worriedly, we watch them dance and love on the fringes while reality, history, and mythology braid and unbraid around them in marvelous, terrifying ways. Osunde is also a visual artist, and her prose resembles her photo manipulations in which the earth tones of the everyday are sent shimmering by external forces, like a rippling mud puddle reflecting a stormy sky. Vagabonds! will break your heart even as it restores your spirit. (Riverhead Books, $28, March 15)
‘Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory,’ by Sarah Polley
Though this collection of essays is too probably episodic and pointed to qualify as a memoir, Run Towards the Danger does offer glimpses into the author’s transition from child actor on Canadian TV to Oscar-nominated director, and myriad strange and difficult detours in between. If you only know Polley from Splice or Dawn of the Dead, you should read this book. Then go watch Last Night. (Penguin Press, $27, out now)
‘The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and our Place in the Middle,’ by Sarah Krasnostein
Fans of Jon Ronson’s thoughtful, let-the-weirdo-speak style of journalism will appreciate this collection of interviews with interesting people who believe interesting things. There’s a ghost hunter and a UFOlogist, of course, but also a death doula, a creationist-slash-geologist and so on. (Tin House, $27.95, out now)
‘Scattered All Over the Earth,’ Yoko Tawada
Billed as a “cheerful dystopia” (as opposed to a “dark utopia,” perhaps), Japanese author Yoko Tawada’s new novel kicks off an adventure trilogy set in a fantastical post-Japan world full of robots, ruins, and climate upheaval. (New Directions, $16.95, out now)
‘Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama,’ Bob Odenkirk
This lighthearted memoir follows the veteran actor and writer through several decades worth of comedy successes and failures — Mr. Show, SNL, The Dana Carvey Show, Run Ronnie Run!, etc. — before arriving at his dramatic “breakthrough” role as Saul Goodman. There’s not much soul-baring here, just a tour of recent comedy history led by one of its most interesting minds. (Random House, $28, out now)
‘The Cartographers,’ Peng Shepherd
The author of The Book of M returns with a thriller about a woman who loses her estranged father but finds a weird, valuable road map in his desk … and it leads to One-Eyed Willy’s treasure. JK. I’m not going to tell you what’s up with the map. Read the book. (William Morrow, $27.99, March 15)
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.