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WHAT WE'RE READING

Hunter’s Deep Cuts

Hunter tries to read a little bit of everything. He favors literary fiction with a smattering of narrative nonfiction, true crime, essays, and poetry. He tries to discover overlooked books especially those published by small presses, and works in translation.

Till the Wheels Fall Off

Brad Zellar
Paperback/July 12, 2022
Coffee House Press

Hunter Says: Till the Wheels Fall Off is a love letter to roller rinks, music, and growing up. I loved all of the small-town dynamics. The most amazing thing was how Zellar wrote about music and nostalgia. Not only the way a particular song makes you feel, but how it can connect you to a particular point in the past. Russ is one of my favorite characters that I have read recently, absolutely original.

 

From roller rinks and record players to coin-operated condom dispensers and small-town mobsters, Till the Wheels Fall Off is a novel about an unconventional childhood among the pleasures and privations of the pre-digital era.

It’s the late 1980s, and Matthew Carnap is awake most nights, afflicted by a potent combination of insomnia and undiagnosed ADHD. Sometimes he gazes out his bedroom window into the dark; sometimes he wanders the streets of his small southern Minnesota town. But more often than not, he crosses the hall into his stepfather Russ’s roller rink to spend the sleepless hours lost in music. Russ’s record collection is as eclectic as it is extensive, and he and Matthew bond over discovering new tunes and spinning perfect skate mixes. Then Matthew’s mother divorces Russ; they move; the roller rink closes; the twenty-first century arrives. Years later, an isolated, restless Matthew moves back to his hometown. From an unusual apartment in the pressbox of the high school football stadium, he searches his memories, looking for something that might reconnect him with Russ.

With humor and empathy, Brad Zellar (House of Coates) returns with a discursive, lo-fi novel about rural Midwestern life, nostalgia, neurodiversity, masculinity, and family–with a built-in soundtrack.

Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay

Lars Horn
Paperback/June 7, 2022
Graywolf Press

Lars Horn’s Voice of the Fish, the latest Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize winner, is an interwoven essay collection that explores the trans experience through themes of water, fish, and mythology, set against the backdrop of travels in Russia and a debilitating back injury that left Horn temporarily unable to speak. In Horn’s adept hands, the collection takes shape as a unified book: short vignettes about fish, reliquaries, and antiquities serve as interludes between longer essays, knitting together a sinuous, wave-like form that flows across the book.

Horn swims through a range of subjects, roving across marine history, theology, questions of the body and gender, sexuality, transmasculinity, and illness. From Horn’s upbringing with a mother who used them as a model in photos and art installations—memorably in a photography session in an ice bath with dead squid—to Horn’s travels before they were out as trans, these essays are linked by a desire to interrogate liminal physicalities. Horn reexamines the oft-presumed uniformity of bodily experience, breaking down the implied singularity of “the body” as cultural and scientific object. The essays instead privilege ways of seeing and being that resist binaries, ways that falter, fracture, mutate. A sui generis work of nonfiction, Voice of the Fish blends the aquatic, mystical, and physical to reach a place beyond them all.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English

Noor Naga
Paperback/April 12, 2022
Graywolf Press

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman and a man from the village of Shobrakheit meet at a café in Cairo. He was a photographer of the revolution, but now finds himself unemployed and addicted to cocaine, living in a rooftop shack. She is a nostalgic daughter of immigrants “returning” to a country she’s never been to before, teaching English and living in a light-filled flat with balconies on all sides. They fall in love and he moves in. But soon their desire—for one another, for the selves they want to become through the other—takes a violent turn that neither of them expected.

A dark romance exposing the gaps in American identity politics, especially when exported overseas, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is at once ravishing and wry, scathing and tender. Told in alternating perspectives, Noor Naga’s experimental debut examines the ethics of fetishizing the homeland and punishing the beloved . . . and vice versa. In our globalized twenty-first-century world, what are the new faces (and races) of empire? When the revolution fails, how long can someone survive the disappointment? Who suffers and, more crucially, who gets to tell about it?

Lapvona

Ottessa Moshfegh
Hardcover/June 21, 2022
Penguin Books

In a village in a medieval fiefdom buffeted by natural disasters, a motherless shepherd boy finds himself the unlikely pivot in a power struggle that puts all manner of faith to a savage test, in a spellbinding novel that represents Ottessa Moshfegh’s most exciting leap yet.

Little Marek, the abused and delusional son of the village shepherd, never knew his mother; his father told him she died in childbirth. One of life’s few consolations for Marek is his enduring bond with the blind village midwife, Ina, who suckled him when he was a baby, as she did for many of the village’s children.

Ina’s gifts extend beyond childcare: she possesses a unique ability to communicate with the natural world. Her gift often brings her the transmission of sacred knowledge on levels far beyond those available to other villagers, however religious they might be. For some people, Ina’s home in the woods outside the village is a place to fear and to avoid, a godless place.

Among their number is Father Barnabas, the town priest and lackey for the depraved lord and governor, Villiam, whose hilltop manor contains a secret embarrassment of riches. The people’s desperate need to believe that there are powers that be who have their best interests at heart is put to a cruel test by Villiam and the priest, especially in this year of record drought and famine.

But when fate brings Marek into violent proximity to the lord’s family, new and occult forces upset the old order. By year’s end, the veil between blindness and sight, life and death, the natural world and the spirit world will prove to be very thin indeed.

The Unwritten Book: An Investigation

Samantha Hunt
Hardcover/April 5, 2022
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I carry each book I’ve ever read with me, just as I carry my dead–those things that aren’t really there, those things that shape everything I am.

A genre-bending work of nonfiction, Samantha Hunt’s The Unwritten Book explores ghosts, ghost stories, and haunting, in the broadest sense of each. What is it to be haunted, to be a ghost, to die, to live, to read? Books are ghosts; reading is communion with the dead. Alcohol is a way of communing, too, as well as a way of dying.

Each chapter gathers subjects that haunt: dead people, the forest, the towering library of all those books we’ll never have time to read or write. Hunt, like a mad crossword puzzler, looks for patterns and clues. Through literary criticism, history, family history, and memoir, inspired by W. G. Sebald, James Joyce, Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and many others, Hunt explores motherhood, hoarding, legacies of addiction, grief, how we insulate ourselves from the past, how we misinterpret the world. Nestled within her inquiry is a very special ghost book, an incomplete manuscript about people who can fly without wings, written by her father and found in his desk just days after he died. What secret messages might his work reveal? What wisdom might she distill from its unfinished pages?

Hunt conveys a vivid and grateful life, one that comes from living closer to the dead and shedding fear for wonder. The Unwritten Book revels in the randomness, connectivity, and magic of everyday existence. And at its heart is the immense weight of love.

Time is a Mother

Ocean Vuong
Hardcover/April 5, 2022
Random House

How else do we return to ourselves but to fold
The page so it points to the good part

In this deeply intimate second poetry collection, Ocean Vuong searches for life among the aftershocks of his mother’s death, embodying the paradox of sitting within grief while being determined to survive beyond it. Shifting through memory, and in concert with the themes of his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong contends with personal loss, the meaning of family, and the cost of being the product of an American war in America. At once vivid, brave, and propulsive, Vuong’s poems circle fragmented lives to find both restoration as well as the epicenter of the break.

The author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, winner of the 2016 Whiting Award, the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize, and a 2019 MacArthur fellow, Vuong writes directly to our humanity without losing sight of the current moment. These poems represent a more innovative and daring experimentation with language and form, illuminating how the themes we perennially live in and question are truly inexhaustible. Bold and prescient, and a testament to tenderness in the face of violence, Time Is a Mother is a return and a forging forth all at once.

Smile: A Memoir

Sarah Ruhl
Hardcover/September 27, 2022
Scribner

Hunter says: In this memoir Sarah Ruhl develops Bels Palsy after the birth of her twins. This makes it so she can’t smile, but is otherwise unnoticeable. Ruhl talks about what it is like to live in a world where you can’t smile. This is made especially hard when you work on Broadway. Ruhl also writes beautifully about motherhood and family. 

With a play opening on Broadway, and every reason to smile, Sarah Ruhl has just survived a high-risk pregnancy when she discovers the left side of her face is completely paralyzed. She is assured that 90 percent of Bell’s palsy patients experience a full recovery—like Ruhl’s own mother. But Sarah is in the unlucky ten percent. And for a woman, wife, mother, and artist working in theater, the paralysis and the disconnect between the interior and exterior brings significant and specific challenges. So Ruhl begins an intense decade-long search for a cure while simultaneously grappling with the reality of her new face—one that, while recognizably her own—is incapable of accurately communicating feelings or intentions.

In a series of piercing, profound, and lucid meditations, Ruhl chronicles her journey as a patient, wife, mother, and artist. She explores the struggle of a body yearning to match its inner landscape, the pain of postpartum depression, the story of a marriage, being a playwright and working mom to three small children, and the desire for a resilient spiritual life in the face of illness.

An intimate and “stunning” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) examination of loss and reconciliation, “Ruhl reminds us that a smile is not just a smile but a vital form of communication, of bonding, of what makes us human” (The Washington Post). Brimming with insight, humility, and levity, Smile is a triumph by one of America’s leading playwrights.

Lost & Found: A Memoir

Kathryn Schulz
Hardcover/January 11, 2022
Random House

Hunter says: In the ‘Lost’ section, Kathryn talks about the loss of her father. In the ‘Found’ section,  she talks about her finding her wife. The ‘&’ section discusses the connection between the two. A lyrically written memoir for fans of Educated

Eighteen months before Kathryn Schulz’s father died, she met the woman she would marry. In Lost & Found, she weaves the story of those relationships into a brilliant exploration of the role that loss and discovery play in all of our lives. The resulting book is part memoir, part guidebook to living in a world that is simultaneously full of wonder and joy and wretchedness and suffering–a world that always demands both our gratitude and our grief. A staff writer at The New Yorker and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Schulz writes with curiosity, tenderness, erudition, and wit about our finite yet infinitely complicated lives. Lost & Found is an enduring account of love in all its many forms from one of the great writers of our time.

The Family Chao

Lan Samantha Chang
Hardcover/February 1, 2022
W. W. Norton Company

Hunter says: A family drama with a murder in the middle. Read what it is like to be an immigrant or the children of immigrants in Wisconsin. After the murder the Chao brothers uncover more family secrets. The descriptions of the food in this book are an added bonus.

The residents of Haven, Wisconsin, have dined on the Fine Chao restaurant’s delicious Americanized Chinese food for thirty-five years, content to ignore any unsavory whispers about the family owners. Whether or not Big Leo Chao is honest, or his wife, Winnie, is happy, their food tastes good and their three sons earned scholarships to respectable colleges. But when the brothers reunite in Haven, the Chao family’s secrets and simmering resentments erupt at last.

Before long, brash, charismatic, and tyrannical patriarch Leo is found dead—presumed murdered—and his sons find they’ve drawn the exacting gaze of the entire town. The ensuing trial brings to light potential motives for all three brothers: Dagou, the restaurant’s reckless head chef; Ming, financially successful but personally tortured; and the youngest, gentle but lost college student James. As the spotlight on the brothers tightens—and the family dog meets an unexpected fate—Dagou, Ming, and James must reckon with the legacy of their father’s outsized appetites and their own future survival.

Brimming with heartbreak, comedy, and suspense, The Family Chao offers a kaleidoscopic, highly entertaining portrait of a Chinese American family grappling with the dark undercurrents of a seemingly pleasant small town.

The Trees

Percival Everett
Paperback/September 14, 2021
Graywolf Press

Percival Everett’s The Trees is a page-turner that opens with a series of brutal murders in the rural town of Money, Mississippi. When a pair of detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they meet expected resistance from the local sheriff, his deputy, the coroner, and a string of racist White townsfolk. The murders present a puzzle, for at each crime scene there is a second dead body: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till.

The detectives suspect that these are killings of retribution, but soon discover that eerily similar murders are taking place all over the country. Something truly strange is afoot. As the bodies pile up, the MBI detectives seek answers from a local root doctor who has been documenting every lynching in the country for years, uncovering a history that refuses to be buried. In this bold, provocative book, Everett takes direct aim at racism and police violence, and does so in fast-paced style that ensures the reader can’t look away. The Trees is an enormously powerful novel of lasting importance from an author with his finger on America’s pulse.