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Your Favorite Books This Week

Katie Yee

May 24, 2019, 2:39pm

Hello from Book Marks, Lit Hub’s “rotten tomatoes for books!”

How It Works: Every day, our staff scours the most important and active outlets of literary journalism—from established national broadsheets to regional weeklies and alternative litblogs—and logs their book reviews. Each of those reviews is assigned an individual rating (Rave, Positive, Mixed or Pan) and then averaged. In this way, we hope to offer a glimpse at the conversation happening around a new title and give our readers an accessible doorway to the world of literary criticism.

In case you’re curious, here are the books people clicked on most this week!

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About ed. by Michele Filgate

Fifteen writers—including Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, Kiese Laymon, Brandon Taylor, Leslie Jamison, and more—explore what we don’t talk to our mothers about, and how it affects us, for better or for worse.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.

Tara Westover, Educated, cover illustration by Patrik Svensson

Educated by Tara Westover

A memoir about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her Mormon anti-government survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.

The Guest Book_Sarah Blake

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

After a tragedy befalls the Milton family, Ogden Milton tries to console his wife by purchasing an island in Maine. That island, and its house, come to define and burnish the Milton family for three generations.

the pioneers_david mccullough

The Pioneers by David McCullough

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough rediscovers a chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community.

Richard Powers, The Overstory

The Overstory by Richard Powers

National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Powers offers an ode to trees, which in this novel can communicate not only with one another but with humans, nine of whom have special arboreal ties that lead to their campaign to save North America’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.

Furious Hours_Casey Cep

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

The untold story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Farm_Joanne Ramos

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Nestled in New York’s Hudson Valley is a luxury retreat boasting every amenity—and all of it for free. The catch? For nine months, you cannot leave the grounds, your movements are monitored, and you are cut off from your former life while you dedicate yourself to the task of producing the perfect baby. For someone else.

exhalation_ted chiang

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

A portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and second chances, an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications that are literally universal, and more in Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories.

dutch girl_robert matzen

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

A Hollywood biographer delves into the little-known World War II experiences of the star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday, whose early adolescence was spent as part of the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Happy reading!

The most recent “crisis in the humanities” is really just a case of crossed wires.

Aaron Robertson

May 24, 2019, 1:56pm

Every now and then, a particular conversation flares up online (as it does in the old fabled halls of the academy). This would be the “crisis in the humanities,” a phrase which, though clichéd, refers to real issues typically associated with post-recession austerity measures in academia (e.g. the contraction of academic job markets, the potentially hellish ramifications this has on adjunct professors, the overall decline in the number of humanities majors, etc.).

It’s easy to lose track of the various crises. This month alone, Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times about white ethno-nationalists co-opting medieval studies in an effort to elevate bigotry with books; conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat presented his blueprint to “save” the humanities at the same institution, Stanford, that threatened to gut its university press; historians Daniel Bessner and Michael Brenes boiled blood when they called for the American Historical Association to rethink the premise of its organization in light of grim prospects for tenure-track hopefuls.

And in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a war raged in response to Andrew Kay’s divisive essay (“Academe’s Extinction Event: Failure, Whiskey, and Professional Collapse at the MLA”) on the absurd end-times of “Peak” English departments, which thrived during a period of ideological combat in the 1960s and 70s, and the aimlessness of the current Modern Language Association. Kay says it plainly here:

Academe, as anyone knows who’s tried to leave it, is like a partner who is wrenchingly hard to quit. When it was good, it was amazing. God, the highs! The horizon of your happiness seemed unbounded. But the partner turned out to be a nut job who demanded nothing less than all of you. Move to a different city every year, they stipulated. Subsist on bread crumbs. Completely debase yourself. They constantly evaluated your “performance.” On a whim, they dressed you up in a sailor suit and beat you.

It isn’t so much that the fruits academia dangled—relatively stable, stimulating careers—were thoroughly rotten; the problem is that these enticements no longer exist for the majority of professorship-seeking humanists working today. As Kay writes, the stories we often hear about the humanities, “of their pointlessness, of the hollowness of anything lacking entrepreneurial value … have won out over the stories the humanists themselves have told, or not told.”

What Anastasia Berg, The Point editor who wrote a piece in defense of Kay, identifies as the “structuring image” of Kay’s thesis—this one, where golfers play as a fire burns in a not-so-distant distance—stands for something more than idle dithering or cynical resignation.

The crisis that Kay sees, in the MLA and elsewhere, is one of obliqueness. Something has been measured incorrectly—the pecuniary and intellectual value of an English PhD, the appropriateness of playing golf while 31,000 acres burn or, in the case of Stanford University Press, the often intangible accomplishments of an academic publisher.

Academia today, particularly for those whose emotional and mental energies are invested in the humanities, can be something of a tease. Often it succeeds at stirring creative and intellectual desire. The path to consummation—which guides the actions of teachers, students, and administrators alike—is ill-defined because it is aspirational. It appears no one can see the end goal or the roof, though many have brushed their heads against the glass ceiling. Kay’s detractors—those who’ve accused him, fairly or not, of sexism if not outright misogyny, of nostalgia for white chauvinist cadres, of not giving scholars of color due attention—demonstrate the breadth of academia’s current predicaments.

It is a case of crossed wires. The four authors of the major Kay rebuttal, all of whom are women and assistant English professors, have been criticized for their response in part because it can sound like one given in bad faith. I don’t believe that’s what the authors intended, but it’s clear that Kay and the professors are operating on different planes, bemoaning distinct tragedies. There are those who believe that Kay did not say enough and would not think to do soa failure to be inclusive, to take the long view—and those who are convinced he said exactly what he meant to say, in just the right number of words: the structuralists versus the formalists, in the true “lit crit” mold.

Perhaps another iteration of the humanities crisis is the well-meaning critique that misses the mark, or the critique that hits it without meaning well enough.

Hulu has ordered a series based North American Lake Monsters from Kelly Link’s press.

Emily Temple

May 24, 2019, 12:45pm

Today, Hulu announced in a press release that it has ordered a new horror anthology series from writer and producer Mary Laws based on Nathan Ballingrud’s Shirley Jackson award-winning debut collection North American Lake Monsters, which came out from Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press in 2013. (So if you haven’t read North American Lake Monsters, know that it comes recommended by a certified genius whom we all love and admire.) Plus, it’s always extra exciting when books from small presses get the fancy TV adaptation treatment!

Deadline describes the currently untitled project as “a contemporary horror anthology in which, through encounters with Gothic beasts, including fallen angels and werewolves, broken people are driven to desperate acts in an attempt to repair their lives, ultimately showing there is a thin line between man and beast.” It will be produced by Annapurna Pictures.

Your weekly book deal memo: Marie Kondo, Ottessa Moshfegh, Trixie & Katya

Emily Temple

May 24, 2019, 11:15am

My personal form of astrology is to anxiously trawl Publishers Marketplace every week. No, wait, hear me out: it’s how I can tell the only future that matters: which books I will be reading a year and a half from now. Also, it’s a nice reminder that publishing isn’t dead. After all, there are so many deals to choose from—but here are the book sales announced this week that we here at Literary Hub are most excited about, from intriguing debuts to new books from established faves.

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Everyone’s favorite writer of brilliant stories about disgusting humans Ottessa Moshfegh has sold her next book to Penguin Press: Death In Her Hands, in which, as Publishers Marketplace describes it, “the discovery of a sinister note upends the life of an elderly widow who lives in an isolated lakeside cabin and lures her into a fevered, abyssal murder mystery involving a basement-dwelling Belarusian lodger-in-distress, an over-familiar policeman, and a nightmarishly burned man, forcing her to exhume secrets from her own disconcerting past.” Damn. In the meantime, read Moshfegh on insanity, mistaken identity, and Shirley Jackson, or whet your appetite with one of the excellent short stories from Homesick For Another World.

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Perhaps, like me, you very much enjoyed Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer‘s Dreyer’s English (with its many invaluable lessons) and have been hoping for more. Perhaps, like me, you are in luck, because Dreyer has sold another manual to good expression, entitled Dreyer’s Fiction, which will analyze “how the art and craftsmanship of fiction works (when it works) and what practicing and aspiring writers—and all lovers of good writing—can learn (and unlearn) from the great prose stylists, from Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson to Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and George Saunders.”

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Noted advocate for throwing away your books (if they don’t spark joy, that is) Marie Kondo has written a children’s book, entitled Kiki & Jax: The Life-Changing Magic of Friendship, which is “about how tidying up creates space for joy in all parts of your life,” and will be co-written and illustrated by Salina Yoon. Mark your calendar for November 5, 2019.

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You guys, you guys: beloved RuPaul’s Drag Race alums and hosts of UNHhhh Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel have sold a book! According to Publishers Marketplace, it will be “a satirical advice book styled as a mid-century homemaking and etiquette guide.” According to me, it will be gross and hilarious and irreverent and everything else good that Trixie and Katya have come to represent in this terrible, horrible world of ours. I mean, I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure. I will be squirming in my seat in antici . . . pation for this book from my very favorite Drag Race all star—and Trixie, too.

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Kathleen Rooney, author of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, has sold “a tale of hope, duty, love, endurance, as well as the claustrophobia of fame, pitched as inspired by events of WWI and its aftermath, featuring two long forgotten real life figures: one, a soldier and Medal of Honor recipient who led the so-called ‘Lost Battalion,’ and the other a messenger pigeon deployed by the U.S. armed forces carrying the message intended to save the battalion from a friendly fire incident, whose lives intersect during a chaotic battle in the forests of France,” entitled Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey

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National Security Advisor and US representative to the United Nations in the Obama Administration, Susan Rice has sold a memoir called Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, pitched as “an inspiring account of a life in service to family and country, providing an insider’s account of some of the most complex issues confronting the United States over three decades,” and slated for this fall.

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Jonathan Lee, Editor-in-chief of Catapult and author of High Dive, has sold a second novel called The Great Mistake, which explores “the life and mysterious murder of a now-overlooked historical figure who, in the 19th century, helped create Central Park, the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” In the meantime, read him on the deep disquiet of finishing a novel.

This week on Lit Hub Radio: Bob Caro, Bad Mothers, and BDSM.

Kevin Chau

May 24, 2019, 10:30am

Lisa Lucas talks Robert Caro and the injustices of NYC urban planning: “I was just absolutely shaken by the clear interest in justice that Bob Caro had, and the loving, tender, thoughtful regard in which he described the people that Robert Moses had been rolling over.”

–On But That’s Another Story with Will Schwalbe

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Angie Kim on the myth of the Good Mother: “We have such unrealistic expectations for mothers, and that makes it impossible for mothers to talk about the difficulties. Because you don’t want to be that Bad Mom who’s complaining, who isn’t grateful to have a child, to have that be the center of your life.”

–On Reading Women with Autumn Privett and Kendra Winchester

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Saskia Vogel on the BDSM dungeons in Los Angeles suburbs: “It is legal, sort of. I think you can fall into the category of life coach or something, but you have to be quite careful how you do your taxes.”

–On Otherppl with Brad Listi

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Ryan Chapman on stolen ideas and how dark your comedy can go: “One of the great things about fiction and the first-person voice is that, unlike a film or a painting or music, people will go with you to incredibly transgressive and dark paces and laugh at things that would never laugh at if they were told that same story at a dinner table.”

–On The Maris Review

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Hilary Plum on blurring the self/other line: “So much of the coverage of terrorism in the way that the media and political leaders have mobilized it as a concept has relied a lot on us/them thinking, a lot of self/other distinctions, so using that idea of autoimmune disease is a way of getting at that us/them distinction in a basic way.”

–On New Books in Literature with Eric LeMay

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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah on Friday Black and the booksellers responsible for its success: “I’m not anti—any of the labels that have been attached to this book. I embrace them all. I think it’s cool to be sci-fi or dystopian, but for me it’s a lot about family and trying to figure out ways to make it.”

–On The Literary Life with Mitchell Kaplan

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Andrew Keen tries to convince Jeff Jarvis that the internet is, in fact, not good for democracy: “It’s important to have the conversation about the impact of the internet on democracy now. While we are still alive.”

–On Keen On with Andrew Keen