Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books
of 2020, Part 2

A Reading List for Our Cursed Timeline

Though it may feel like 2020 has been going on for a year already, or five years, or a century, I regret to inform you that we’re only halfway through it. On the other hand: we’re halfway through 2020. In fact, by the time this goes live, we will be slightly more than halfway through 2020. Which is something, I suppose.

It feels pretty bleak to be alive right now, but hopefully, in December, we’ll be able to look back on this year as one in which we ousted a vile, corrupt leader, took personal responsibility and worked together to beat back contagion in our communities, and made meaningful progress toward racial and social justice. It’s also possible, of course, that we won’t. But either way, some good books are going to come out in the next six months. Here are the ones we’re most excited about.

JULY

Jo Walton, Or What You WillJo Walton, Or What You Will
Tor Books, July 7

I love Jo Walton; her Among Others is brilliantly referential, rewards re-reading, and won both the Hugo and the Nebula, naturally—a book that engages with the genre even as it becomes a part of it. Her latest, Or What You Will, sounds like it’s cut out of the same cloth: it centers on a character who . . . is a character in the books of award-winning author Sylvia Harrison. Just the kind of meta-narrative playfulness I love to get into. –Emily Temple, Managing Editor

 

Lee Connell, The Party Upstairs

Lee Conell, The Party Upstairs
Penguin Press, July 7

As previously described: Lee Conell’s debut novel, The Party Upstairs, is singularly suited to the specific times we’re in. The novel takes place solely in the course of a single day in a luxury apartment building, told from the point of view of the live-in super’s daughter, a 24-year-old who has a foot in both worlds: her father’s world, as well as the more-privileged world she wishes to inhabit. The novel’s portrayal of class, the real and lasting effects that wealth, or lack thereof, can have on your mentality and outlook, is unparalleled. Most impressively done was the depiction of performative wokeness that pervades our current society, and manages to get to the crux of why that culture can often feel wrong: namely, when privilege can blind those to the power structures they inhabit, as those same privileged people simultaneously “call out” those who don’t have the privilege of such a voice. It has, as my coworker Molly Odintz said, “Marxist, Big Little Lie vibes”, a compliment I don’t think one can top. –Julia Hass, Editorial Fellow

 

Virginie Despentes, tr. Frank Wynne, Vernon Subutex 2

Virginie Despentes, tr. Frank Wynne, Vernon Subutex 2
FSG, July 7

Move over André Gide, the gritty cult read of modern France is back in its second installment. The eponymous hero of Despentes’ trilogy is still on the lam, sleeping rough in the Parc des Buttes-Chamont. When the first volume ended, the former record shop proprietor had plummeted a long way down—losing most of his friends, love itself, everything but a precious tape of the final video interview rocker Alex Bleach gave, one in which sinister film producer Laurent Dopalet might be implicated.

The possession of said tape powered Despentes’ madcap plot in book one. Here the movement eddies to a different mood altogether—something briefly like, oddly, contentment. Homeless, Vernon ironically winds up finding a place of his own: each day friends and park denizens bring him food and other forms of sustenance. A small community of sorts emerges in the park, not out of misery, but of having survived it.

What do the aged out and drugged out do when a society built on endless greed and consumption wrecks itself? What do they stand for? Lacking any hold on pretense, Vernon and his crew have nowhere to hide from such questions. As a hilarious assortment of mercenary searchers bears down on Vernon and his tape, he emerges as a new kind of messiah of the dispossessed, who know from experience what it means to have no one to stand up for you. –John Freeman, Executive Editor

 

Andrew Martin, Cool for America

Andrew Martin, Cool for America
FSG, July 7

As previously described: If you read Martin’s excellent debut novel Early Work, you will recognize the themes (millennial ennui, underemployment, oveducation, a tendency to think too hard and do too little) of his winning first collection—and perhaps some characters (Leslie, Kenny, even Kiki and Scruggs). Mostly published in The Paris Review, these stories are perceptive slices-of-anxiety that will be uncomfortably, ecstatically recognizable to anyone who has ever considered themselves an intellectual—especially if it was sometime in the 2010s. –Emily Temple, Managing Editor

 

David Hill, The Vapors

David Hill, The Vapors
FSG, July 7

Before Vegas was even a twinkle in Bugsy Siegel’s eye, Hot Springs, Arkansas, spent the roaring 20s playing host to the biggest gangsters in the nation, with prominent casinos that put equal emphasis on entertainment and gambling. David Hill takes us into the metamorphosis of a sleepy resort town into a vacation hub guaranteed to play host to stage darlings, their mafioso fans, and the fur drenched extramarital companions of both. Of course, the party’s bound to come to an end some time, but in what a spectacular fashion! –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Benjamin Nugent, Fraternity

Benjamin Nugent, Fraternity
FSG, July 7

A short story collection that orbits a fraternity doesn’t sound that appealing, as a setup, but Nugent is a great writer, and the stories within are very funny, if darkly so, nostalgic, and sharply satirical. Also, if you knew any boys in college, or maybe even were one, some of it will be very uncomfortable for you. In a good way. –Emily Temple, Managing Editor

 

Robin Wasserman, Mother Daughter Widow Wife

Robin Wasserman, Mother Daughter Widow Wife
Scribner, July 7

In this novel, Robin Wasserman takes the major themes of selfhood and existence, and maps them onto an entirely new premise. An amnesiac woman, Wendy Doe, is found on a bus, with no memory of how she got there, who she is, or where she was headed. She is entered into a research study, where two scientists, Dr. Strauss and Lizzie Epstein, project their own wills and desires upon her. Meanwhile, her daughter Alice is still out there, wondering where her mother went, and why. By the end we are fully caught up in the propulsive story of Doe as she tries to form a self again, and left wondering, what is it that makes us who we are, and does it have anything to do with us at all? –Julia Hass, Lit Hub Editorial Fellow

 

David Berry, On Nostalgia

David Berry, On Nostalgia
Coach House Books, July 7

As previously described: What does it mean to live in a world where nostalgia is so omnipresent it might as well be tactile? That’s the conundrum David Berry explores in his book On Nostalgia, which touches upon everything from the political and historical uses of nostalgia—from ancient Rome to contemporary America—to the way narratives like Ready Player One and The Last Jedi utilize it in disparate ways. Berry’s subject is a wide-ranging one, but he pulls off the impressive feat of covering plenty of ground in a concise and compelling manner.  –Tobias Carroll, Lit Hub contributor

 

Charlie Kaufman, Antkind

Charlie Kaufman, Antkind
Random House, July 7

As previously described: Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind has been referred to as Kafkaesque, and that’s not wrong, but the only thing it can really be compared to is Kaufman’s own cinematic oeuvre, which includes the mind-warping films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich. B. Rosenberger Rosenberg is a failed film critic (and a failure at a host of side jobs that exist to support his failing career of film criticism) who believes that his career, and the whole cinematic world, will be completely rocked when he introduces a rediscovered film made by an unknown genius. He is the only one who has seen this film, and so when the film is destroyed, leaving him only with a single frame, he embarks on an insane journey to recreate it, somehow. The best part about Antkind is its take on the so-called permanence of cinema, and how he turns film into the most ephemeral art form of all: theater. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Staff Writer

 

Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves: Poems

Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves: Poems
FSG, July 7

As previously described: The competing instincts, in terrible times, of retreating from the world, or entering it ever more deeply, animate Karen Solie’s exquisite fifth collection. On one plane, these new poems tumble back to the 7th century, when an Irish missionary, Ethernan, withdrew to caves near Fife to contemplate war, the wreck of civilization, and the mendacity and greed of humankind. He quickly finds, in Solie’s rewriting here, a kind of vanity in this exclusion. “I can’t be sure now there ever was humility in it,” she writes in his voice, “burning the self as though it were a city / believing the past might be destroyed / and remade.”

On another plane, The Caiplie Caves chronicles the poet’s own meandering in and out of seclusion, togetherness, misanthropy, rage. At times she sounds like a naturalist, gently clutching at flowers in appreciation; at other times like every curmudgeon who ever turned up in Scotland to kick a rock or two. “I like it at sea level,” Solie writes in “An Enthusiast,” “It’s the right amount of exposition for me.” This is companionable work for how it finds a rough, wet music in the see-saw of sensibility between expansiveness and rejection. The inner metronome much older and more reliable if it can be heard.  –John Freeman, Executive Editor

 

Sarah Gerard, True Love

Sarah Gerard, True Love
Harper Books, July 7

From the author of Binary Star and Sunshine State comes a novel about a twenty-something aspiring writer with an eating disorder, a pill addiction, and a rogue’s gallery of ex-boyfriends, who hustles back and forth from the poisoned Floridian suburbs of her youth, to the chaotic squalor of transient life in NYC, all in search of love and creative fulfilment. Sunshine State—Gerard’s 2017 memoir/essay collection hybrid—was a magnificent psycho-geographical exploration of America’s oddest state, and the author’s relationship to it, so I’m excited to check this one out. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

 

Ravi Somaiya, The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammerskjold

Ravi Somaiya, The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammerskjold
Twelve, July 7

Ravi Soumaiya’s summing up of the investigation into the mysterious death of United Nations general secretary Dag Hammerskjold is as epic and sweeping as one would expect. The Americans, the Brits, the Rhodesians, and the Soviets (and a slippery and terrifying white supremacist organization out of South Africa) all want their hands on the Republic of Congo’s vast mineral wealth, and only the new nation and the UN forces stand between freedom and exploitation. This book is both fascinating and horrifying, both a thrilling tale and a cry for justice; the case has continued to develop to this day. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Kuniko Tsurita tr. Ryan Holmberg, The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud

Kuniko Tsurita tr. Ryan Holmberg, The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud
Drawn & Quarterly, July 7

As previously described: Until the 1980s, alternative manga was largely run by and created by men. Kuniko Tsurita was a vital exception and was the first woman to regularly draw comics for the legendary alt-manga magazine Garo. Throughout her life, Tsurita surrounded herself with material from writers like Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Beckett, Sartre, and Nietzsche. Tsurita unnervingly did away with traditional narrative structure and coherence and anchored her comics with feverish sensory experience. Her comics are miniature existential nightmares that twist through the mind after reading. –Nate McNamara, Lit Hub contributor

 

Paul Tremblay, Survivor Song
William Morrow, July 7

Here’s a good one for the pandemic—in Paul Tremblay’s latest novel, which has a very Tremblay take on the zombie/vampire mashup genre, a rabies-like virus has overrun Massachusetts. Bites turn regular people into ferocious attackers of their friends and family in less than an hour, and the hospital system, although in possession of an effective vaccine, is inundated by the diseased. When a pregnant woman is bitten, it’s up to her resourceful friend to get her to the hospital and vaccinated before the new virus can devour both her and her unborn child. Harrowing and fast-paced, this one is guaranteed to keep you up late reading (although we wouldn’t advise reading it at night). –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Lynn Steger Strong, Want

Lynn Steger Strong, Want
Henry Holt, July 7

As previously described: Want is the kind of book that is so engrossing and hard to put down, it feels less like reading a book and more like inhaling a universe, one that you were waiting for and didn’t know it. Our protagonist, Elizabeth, and her unnamed husband, are in the midst of declaring bankruptcy, even though Elizabeth came from wealth, even though she has a PhD from an Ivy League, even though they never saw this coming. As Elizabeth grapples to feel in control of her life, she gets back in touch with her ex-best friend, Sasha. Want is funny and irreverent and is laced with that peculiar mix of desire and apathy that comes from wanting more while simultaneously believing you’ll never get it. It’s a story of friendship, of trying to pinpoint the moment it all went wrong, of career, and searching for what is right. A story of marriage, sacrifice, and longing. It’s the story of want: that is, the unending desire to live a good, true life.  –Julia Hass, Editorial Fellow

 

Jennifer Mercieca, Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump

Jennifer Mercieca, Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump
Texas A&M University Press, July 7

As previously described: “Warning! This book is going to make you angry,” Texas A&M professor Jennifer Mercieca begins her upcoming Demagogue For President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. Maybe. But I don’t think it could make me any angrier than our chief demagogue himself—especially all the lies and insults that spew, like you-know-what, out of all his orifices. So I’m thankful to Mercieca—a much published historian of American political rhetoric—to explain how the hell Donald J. Trump is able to say opposite things on a daily basis and yet still retain the support of 40 percent of American voters. Rather than compounding our irritation with Trump, however, Mercieca’s new book will make you angry with an American electorate that, as President Demagogue himself boasts, would still vote for him even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and openly shot somebody.  –Andrew Keen, host of Lit Hub Radio’s Keen On

 

utopia avenue david mitchell

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue
Random House, July 14

The word I kept thinking of as I read Mitchell’s latest was . . . chummy. That is, it’s big and pleasant and entertaining, and you won’t be sorry if you hang out with it for a little while. It concerns four young musicians in 1960s London who come together in search of rock stardom—one of them, Mitchell fans will be interested to know, is named Jasper de Zoet (and his story is the most interesting of the group). And that’s not this novel’s only connection to the Mitchell-verse. While some of the elements are a little ham-handed (Mitchell has apparently invented the literary version of a fade-out), and I could have done with a few fewer cameos from faux-wisdom-dropping dead rock stars, Utopia Avenue is certainly a pleasurable way to while away the hours.  –Emily Temple, Managing Editor

 

S.A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland

S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland
Flatiron, July 14

As previously described: Blacktop Wasteland concerns a stand-up family guy named Beauregard, aka Bug, who used to drive getaway for robberies, and gets sucked back into the life when bills come due that he can’t pay any other way. Featuring a compelling protagonist and awesome car chase sequences, plus a heist gone south which is always fun to read about, this rural noir set in Virginia with a black protagonist who kicks a lot of ass is the highlight of the summer. Bonus points: it also doubles as a helpful read for quitting smoking!  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Stephen Graham Jones, The Only Good Indians

Stephen Graham Jones, The Only Good Indians
Gallery/Saga Press, July 14

Something is killing a group of friends, and that something wants revenge. In Stephen Graham Jones’ ghostly thriller, four buddies and their families are brought together by the news that a ghostly entity is picking them off. Could it be the spirit of an elk they once killed that they had no right to hunt? Jones grounds his work both in the noir tradition and in Native American spiritual lore, for a hard-boiled take on nature’s well-deserved revenge. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Leah Franqui, Mother Land

Leah Franqui, Mother Land
William Morrow, July 14

Mother Land is the riveting story of a woman from New York agreeing to move to Mumbai with her Indian-born husband; once there, the inevitable culture shock takes place, exacerbated by the fact of her husband’s mother announcing she will be living with the couple. The husband leaves to travel for a long period of time, leaving the two women together to understand their relationships to each other and to the man that binds them together. This is a stunning tale of mothers and place and ownership and the concept of fitting in, and most importantly, about that elusive thing, going home. –Julia Hass, Lit Hub Editorial Fellow

 

 

Camila Russo, The Infinite Machine: How an Army of Crypto-hackers is building the Next Internet with Ethereum

Camila Russo, The Infinite Machine: How an Army of Crypto-hackers is building the Next Internet with Ethereum
Harper Business, July 14

As previously described: I’m particularly excited by Camila Russo’s new book, The Infinite Machine: How an Army of Crypto-hackers is building the Next Internet with Ethereum, which tells the crazy story of the blockchain revolution from the perspective of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. Don’t let the techno-verbosity of her title mislead you, however. Russo—the ex-Bloomberg tech journalist who describes herself on Twitter as “Chieftess at the Defiant”—has written a fast-paced, Michael Lewis-style history of crypto-currency which help us sort out our Bitcoins from our Ethereums. So if you want a sneak preview of the new new thing, read The Infinite Machine. It’s kind of like the old internet. Only madder and scarier.  –Andrew Keen, host of Lit Hub Radio’s Keen On

 

Carlos Fonseca, tr. Megan McDowell, Natural History

Carlos Fonseca, tr. Megan McDowell, Natural History
FSG, July 14

As previously described: For readers interested in climate change and the natural world—but who prefer books a little less on the nose—Carlo Fonseca’s Natural History (translated by Megan McDowell) offers a layered and at times wonderfully beguiling story about art, history, and mystery that hops generations. Animal lovers will delight at the protagonist’s obsession with creaturely furtiveness and wild animals’ natural ability to self-camouflage. And fans of ambitious structure-benders like Italo Calvino will appreciate the novel’s planet-and decade-spanning mystery that connects 1970s New York to the jungles of Latin America. As the protagonist, a curator at a natural history museum, pieces the clues together, he discovers links between art, science, and religion that change forever how he sees the world. –Amy Brady, Lit Hub contributor

 

age of consent amanda brainerd

Amanda Brainerd, Age of Consent
Viking, July 14

What a perfect summer book about all the things I love reading about: namely, young women coming to terms with themselves, their friendships, and their desire. And set in the 80s no less! I love being placed so firmly in this time of New York: Bowie, and grittiness, and a kind of freedom that is rarely allotted to teenagers these days, but was once taken for granted. Of course, there is another side to the coin of this kind of freedom, which could take the shape of abuse and predation, in a time when these things were rarely considered. But even if things have changed since the 80s, much still remains the same: the reliance on deep friendships, the joy of a city at night, and the deep urge for experience, and more life. –Julia Hass, Lit Hub Editorial Fellow

 

Miles Harvey, The King of Confidence

Miles Harvey, The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch
Little, Brown, July 14

Immediately after finishing this one, I texted a friend who, like me, had spent years living in housing cooperatives and had an interest in utopian communities, squeeing about my new favorite ne’er-do-well of history: James Strang, a con artist for the centuries. Strang failed at many an antebellum profession before finding his calling; after a plan to lure Mormons to Michigan to pay inflated land prices was threatened by the sudden demise of Joseph Smith, James Strang had a sudden revelation that he was Smith’s intended successor.

Enjoy this wild tale of Strang’s breakaway Mormon cult, who bought into the land deal but eventually ended up a little more skeptical of their new lord and master, who even insisted on being crowned king. Among his henchman was a failed Shakespearean actor whose ability to deliver tragic monologues was often interfered with by his alcoholism, sexually predatory behavior, terrible selections in plays, and inconceivably dirty shirts. When the community moved to a remote island in Lake Michigan, they immediately began to enthusiastically engage in piracy, bringing the attention of the US government down on them but providing many opportunities for their silver-tongued leader to talk his way out of seemingly inescapable predicaments.

One of the many sins of Strang’s utopian settlement? His second wife (after Strang’s long-delayed embrace of polygamy) got used to wearing pants while disguised as his male secretary on a lecture tour. She then brought the appetite for bloomers into the community long before they took the nation by storm, and family loyalty to the king was measured by, among other things, whether or not the women wore pants. Those defiant of his regime wore skirts in rebellion. I’ll stop here but please read this book. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have reading about the 1840s.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Yiyun Li, Must I Go

Yiyun Li, Must I Go
Random House, July 21

If I told you that you could read the diary of a man you once had an affair with, what would you do with it? Lilia (mother, grandmother, widower) has an idea. She annotates it! Must I Go is a novel about a woman marking her side of the story. If you’ve read Yiyun Li before (perhaps her seminal Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life or her PEN Award-winning Where Reasons End), you know that she always manages to reach right into the tender heart of things. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Associate Editor

 

Rachel Cohen, Austen Years

Rachel Cohen, Austen Years
FSG, July 21

This style of memoir is my favorite: with a premise and backdrop of an entirely different subject, in this case, the entire oeuvre of Jane Austen, and yet is actually a moving and introspective look at the internal state of the author. This memoir tracks Rachel Cohen as she reckons with both her father’s death and prepares for the birth of her first child, turning to Austen as an anchor and an answer. In parts criticism, literary history, memoir, and philosophical questioning, Austen Years tackles the subjects of writing, reading, grief, and ourselves with lyrical mastery. –Julia Hass, Lit Hub Editorial Fellow

 

Catherine Lacey, Pew

Catherine Lacey, Pew
FSG, July 21

As previously described: Catherine Lacey’s creepy, clever novel Pew is the closest thing (I’ve read) to an actual Twilight Zone episode. About a completely ambiguous, identity-less, homeless outsider who arrives in a small Southern town (found sleeping inside a church), and who seems to maintain this strange black-hole of existence despite that many people feel drawn to it (to the point of confessing things to it), this book is about the canvasses onto which we paint our own xenophobia, who we trust, and why we shun. It is a terrifying, heartbreaking take of morality, and judgement.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Staff Writer

 

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The Big Book of Modern Fantasy

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The Big Book of Modern Fantasy
Vintage, July 21

I grew up on fantasy and science fiction, and though my tastes have changed as an adult, I still get a delicious thrill when I encounter a portal or dragon or a magic chalice. It’s a pretty fair bet I’ll find some in this volume, which collects ninety-one modern fantasy stories collected from twenty-two different countries, including Russia, Argentina, Nigeria, Columbia, Pakistan, Turkey, Finland, Sweden, China, the Philippines, and the Czech Republic, and including five that are translated into English for the first time here. It’s like discovering a chest full of riches, with no dragon in sight. –Emily Temple, Managing Editor

 

Nicholson Baker, Baseless:

Nicholson Baker, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act
Penguin Press, July 21

As previously described: From the very beginning of his writing life, in the brief, brilliant novel, The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker has approached the process of describing the present as an ever-expanding archive of moments. Thoughts and movements so tiny they can expand infinitely all the way down to the quark. In time, Baker moved from such imaginary archives to real ones, such as the stacks of old newspapers he described rescuing in Double Fold, which won a NBCC award 20 years ago, to Human Smoke, which dug into the margins of recorded history and found a burgeoning pacifist movement right up until and through World War II.

Now Baker has gone to the archive tool on everyone’s mind in our bizarro times, the Freedom of Information Act. Here’s Baker’s account of its history and his own attempt to use it to find out if the US tried to use chemical weapons in the Korean War. He files a Freedom of Information Act request, and begins to wait: and wait. And wait some more. Gradually, through determination and keen archival work, Baker begins to piece together the story of Project Baseless, an air force wide program “an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.” What he learns is shocking, strange, and not at all surprising the US government would want to keep such information out of the hands of citizens. This book ought to make for important context as a blizzard of FOIA requests bear down on the administration of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor

 

Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist
Drawn & Quarterly, July 21

As previously described: So many memoirs are about overcoming adversity. We cringe, cry, and clap for the author, knowing eventually something will resolve. Tomine, who is perhaps the John Cheever of comics (in the way they both excavate the human heart), shows how our lives are less tidy than that common memoir arc.

Since he was four, Tomine was singularly focused: he wanted to be a famous cartoonist. On its surface, this memoir recounts the details of a life: Tomine gets married, has a child, draws covers for the New Yorker, advances his career. He is famous. But the book’s deeper story is one of vulnerability, humiliation, self-doubt, and the loneliness that fame or success doesn’t exempt. Tomine draws himself in almost every frame, in his established understated tones, yet each section is a story of not being seen. His desire to be accepted into and seen (not just looked at) in the world he loves and where he is beloved, is palpable in its desolation, which inconceivably and wonderfully, moves from profound sadness into laughter with the advance of each frame. We are not laughing at him, as the people in the book do. We are laughing with him and at the travesty of how so many people he encountered could be so obtuse.  –Kerri Arsenault, Lit Hub contributing editor

 

Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy

Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism
Doubleday, July 21

As previously described: Anne Applebaum’s bracing new book kicks off at a glamorous millennial eve party at a country estate in rural Poland. The author and her husband, a Polish politician, had recently renovated a crumbling stately home which they’d bought “for the price of its bricks”; friends had arrowed in from across the political spectrum and all over Europe to toast the new millennium. Wine was drunk, vats of beet stew eaten, cheap and dangerous Chinese fireworks set off. A new era was to begin.

And now, 20 years later, the idea of a center, of any kind of collective shared territory, has retreated so far in Poland that many people who’d packed into Applebaum’s country house for this memorable occasion wouldn’t even speak to each other, she writes now. Most would cross the street to avoid one another. Today Poland has one of the most divided societies in all of Europe.

What happened? Part memoir, part recent political history, Twilight of Democracy tells that zigzagging story, asking big, often unanswerable questions along the way of governments and friends. Why, for instance, if so many of the architects of Europe’s rightward shift are not underemployed or marginalized or uneducated, as the stereotypes go—as to what turns people bitter and vengeful—then what is it in for them beside power: were they always secretly xenophobic?

Applebaum doesn’t have an answer to this, but she has done a brilliant job of illuminating some of the darkening forces across the globe. As a journalist, columnist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Soviet Union, she has spent time living and working in Europe since 1988, and is extremely knowledgeable on continental European politics, describing trends with a center-right stance: pro-democracy, pro-market. If what you are looking for in a book on the decline of democracy is a stinging rebuke of capitalism’s excess, this is not it.

If Twilight of Democracy loses something in its unwillingness to question who the previous order had served, it ripples still with fascinating insight on how a state escalates out of rhetoric and into autocracy without the so-called ruptures that are thought, say, to have enabled Hitler’s renovated nostalgia or Milosevic’s lethal historical fantasies. Applebaum’s writing on Poland here is among the most interesting, because it is something she has previously avoided. As a political “wife,” and well-known columnist and historian, her goal was to stay out of Polish politics.

But eventually Polish politics wouldn’t stay out of her life. Twilight of Democracy describes the creeping and insidious ways trolling and bullying rears its head in Poland, among journalists, and how fear replaced any kind of debate in public space. In a country that had made an industry out of its Holocaust memorials, too, how did a national debate of Holocaust denying get kicked off?

It began, Applebaum writes, with some familiar technocratic events: the gradual hollowing out of the federal government. Month by month, even when they’d lost power, the Law and Justice party determinedly replaced experts with cronies and flunkies, they packed courts. “There was very little pretense about any of this,” Applebaum writes. “The point of all of these changes was not to make government run better. The point was to make the government more partisan, the courts more pliable, more beholden to the party.”

Elected with a slim margin, the party didn’t have a mandate to change government: so they excelled at identifying existential enemies. Just as Britain locked itself up out of the EU, and the popular vote loser Trump shut America’s borders to Muslims and Mexicans, who came marching in caravans to “invade.” Weaving back and forth across Europe and America, Applebaum makes a strong case that what we are witnessing is yes, not popular, but it might indeed still be the end of democracy in our time. This is not a book leavened with hope, or the brisk notion that there is yet time. Indeed, the picture it paints of how power is used, how it tends to be used when weaknesses in the checks are discovered, is not a rosy one, nor should it be.  –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor

 

Robert J. Mrazek, The Indomitable Florence Finch: Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs

Robert J. Mrazek, The Indomitable Florence Finch: Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs
Hachette Books, July 21

As previously described: There are some people you are meant to discover. Florence Finch is one of those people for me. From the first page of this biography I was transfixed by her story and by the way it was being told. Mrazek’s writing is intelligent. The historical aspects of the Japanese Forces in the Philippines during WWII are presented without sentiment allowing the narrative to flow at an appropriate pace.

But to call this a biography mitigates the importance of Major Carl Englehart, boss, friend, and champion of Finch’s heroic role in the resistance against the Japanese for which she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. His story, woven with hers, in alternating short chapters, makes for a complete picture of Finch’s courage and selflessness. It is a beautiful story of love between friends and of two people who together and apart saved the lives of many POWs. I attribute my crying at the finish to both the joy of discovery and the certainty that it was a book written from the heart.  –Lucy Kogler, Lit Hub contributor

 

Trouble the Saints

Alaya Dawn Johnson, Trouble the Saints
Tor Books, July 21

As previously described: I am psyched for Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints, out from Tor on July 21, which has both an intricate crime plot and one of the original magical systems I’ve ever come across in fiction. Set in an alternate version of the 1940s, Trouble the Saints follows a mid-career assassin getting tired of using her special knife skills to kill for a brutal hitman. She and the bartender at the gangster’s cabaret hidey-hole share a forbidden love as she tries to make up her mind about leaving her violent boss and making her own way in the world. Meanwhile, someone’s been killing those with special talents—people like her. The magic of Trouble the Saints is reserved for those who have society stacked against them, and their talents can be curse and blessing. As glamorous, smoke-filled, and noir as anyone could hope for, Trouble the Saints is the perfect lush summer fantasy read, with an ending that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Peter L’Official, Urban Legends

Peter L’Official, Urban Legends
Harvard University Press, July 21

As previously described: The Bronx is burning and crumbling; the Bronx is the Boogie Down—the distance between these popular representations and life in the Bronx is wide enough to swallow the borough whole. Yet for far too many, the Bronx sits in the imagination among ruins, descending into decay or ready to emerge into renewal. When not overlooked, it’s held up as a symbol of urban neglect, a caricature for our consumption. Thankfully, along comes the intellectually capacious son of the Bronx, Peter L’Official, to peer into the archives, survey the streets, and dip into varied fascinating crevices to present a vibrant cultural history of the South Bronx. In Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin, L’Official summons photography, film, fiction, and music to bear witness to the multifaceted creativity and vitality of the South Bronx, and deftly reveals a place overflowing with with myths, dreams, images, and visions that make us see it afresh. This delightfully innovative narrative is the perceptive look that the Bronx and New York City has long deserved.  –Garnette Cadogan, Lit Hub contributing editor

 

Seyward Darby, Sisters In Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism

Seyward Darby, Sisters In Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism
Little Brown and Co., July 21

As previously described: No, I don’t want to hang out in the minds of white nationalists, either, but Darby does that on the reader’s behalf, promising a book that probes the architecture of “the war embedded in the landscape” of the US. American identity, and the oft-overlooked role of women therein. “Women are the hate movement’s dulcet voices and its standard bearers,” Darby writes, and that has long been so, and it’s time to talk about it. “The least Americans can ask of one another is to have frank conversations about whiteness, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable,” writes Darby. Indeed.  –Lauren Markham, Lit Hub contributor

 

Stan Parish, Love and Theft

Stan Parish, Love and Theft
Doubleday, July 21

Parish has crafted one of the strongest contributions in recent memory to a genre much-beloved here at CrimeReads: the heist novel. In Parish’s version of this classic story, a successful thief just off a big Vegas score meets an impressive single mother at a party in Princeton. The two quickly escalate their relationship and end up in Tulum for a weekend, when the thief’s past begins to catch up with him and he realizes he needs to orchestrate the legendary “one last score” in order to get out of the game for good. Parish manages to weave together genuinely compelling arcs of crime and complicated human entanglements. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

 

Sarah Weinman, Unspeakable Acts

Sarah Weinman, Patrick Radden Keefe, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession
Ecco, July 28

This anthology of contemporary true-crime writing, edited by the incomparable Sarah Weinman, contains thirteen short pieces of high-caliber journalism that shook the culture and helped inspire today’s true-crime phenomenon. With pieces by Michelle Dean, Pamela Colloff, and with an introduction by Patrick Radden Keefe, this book will be sure to keep you riveted. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Staff Writer

 

Laura van den Berg, I Hold a Wolf By the Ears

Laura van den Berg, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
FSG, July 28

As previously described: If you enjoyed Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, I have good news for you: her new short story collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, occupies a very similar world. The stories here echo with the same uncanny call. The characters (mostly women, some unravelling) find themselves in delightfully specific, bizarre circumstances: one woman is so anxious her husband secretly drugs her with seltzer, one woman is confronted by her ex-sister-in-law after an earthquake, one woman impersonates the dead wives of her customers. Something that makes this collection so addicting is the way Laura van den Berg throws her characters into moments of vulnerability, moments where we expect connection, but the hooks don’t catch. (It feels very fitting for quarantined times.) It’s unsettling. It’s bewitching. The first story begins: “I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is—it never happened.” Laura van den Berg is the master at this kind of intimacy, luring you in and letting the floor drop beneath you.  –Katie Yee, Book Marks Associate Editor

 

Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive

Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
Ecco, July 28

As previously described: In the mid 1980s, when she was a teenager, the poet Natasha Trethewey’s ex-step-father came to a football game where she was cheerleading. Her reaction, she writes in her astonishing, gripping memoir was two-fold: fear, for her ex step-father had been abusive for years, and even the sight of him could turn her skin cold. And sadness. She waved, a small wave, mouthed a hello, and later, after he was arrested, he told the police he did not kill Natasha that night because she had been nice to him.

Memorial Drive is an anguishing story, it tells the true crime tale of how Trethewey’s ex step-father had gone and shot and killed her mother, and the catastrophic damage this had on Trethewey’s family. It also tells of Trethewey’s relationship with her mother, the woman who raised her and in essence—it sometimes felt—gave her life so her daughter could have her own, something Trethewey has wrestled with mightily and gracefully with in her award winning poetry.

Finally, Memorial Drive is the story of how a mind can be made by love and rupture in equal measure, and how—growing up—poetry, composing herself, became the way for Trethewey to restore the former by building a bridge over the latter. As a biracial girl in the south from the mid 1960s onward, Trethewey learned early how much even the very sight of her challenged people around her. This is work of immense dignity and sorrow, a psalm to a past forever gone, and a vivid glimpse of a writer tangling with her demons in plain sight in hopes others like her might feel less alone with theirs.  –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor

 

lauren beukes afterland

Lauren Beukes, Afterland
Mulholland, July 28

As previously described: It’s a little hard to read this novel right now—but like everything Beukes writes, it’s worth it. When the novel opens, an “unprecedented global pandemic” (see what I mean) has killed all but 1% of the world’s male population. Cole’s twelve-year-old son Miles is one of the mysteriously immune—which means that everyone wants a piece of him, and so they hit the road in disguise as mother and daughter, Cole’s sister Billie, who has her own schemes, hot on their heels. I can say for sure that Beukes nails the speed of the unraveling, and the strangeness of living in a suddenly altered world. I hope none of the rest of it comes true.  –Emily Temple, Managing Editor

 

Jax Miller, Hell in the Heartland

Jax Miller, Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth and the Case of Two Missing Girls
Berkley, July 28

As previously described: Jax Miller first got on my radar for Freedom’s Child, a furious and breakneck journey across an apocalyptic American landscape, based on Miller’s own experiences with hitchhiking and addiction in her 20s, and her new true crime book is just as beautiful and devastating. Hell in the Heartland digs deep into a case involving a trailer fire, two missing best friends, and an interconnected web of drug trafficking, murder, and cops looking the other way.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

 

Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms

Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms
Simon & Schsuter, July 28

As previously described: “In the whale, the world,” writes Rebecca Giggs early in this masterpiece of environmental writing. “In a book about whales, the world,” one could say after reading here about subjects as disparate as solar flares and mass strandings; the relationship between charisma and consumption; whale baths at health spas; and so many other interconnected pieces that not only the creatures at the heart of this book come alive on these pages, but a whole ecology. Fathoms immediately earns its place in the pantheon of classics of the new golden age of environmental writing.  –Stephen Sparks, Contributing Editor

 

Michelle Bowdler, Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto

Michelle Bowdler, Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto
Flatiron, July 28

Michelle Bowdler’s Is Rape a Crime? is a damning testimony to the many ways in which our institutions fail survivors of sexual assault. Bowdler turns an investigative eye to her own life, recounting the story of her assault and the reactions by police and the legal system that fell short of what she needed in the aftermath. This account stands alongside her historical analysis of these systems, a criticism of their structure, and her ideas on how our society can better serve survivors. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

 

Matthew Van Meter, Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South

Matthew Van Meter, Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South
Little, Brown, July 28

I’ve been expecting this book for the better part of a decade because Matty Van Meter has been writing about criminal justice issues at least since I was in high school—where he was one of my brilliant teachers. The story of Deep Delta Justice begins in 1966, when a Black teenager in Louisiana named Gary Duncan attempts to break up a fight. His trouble begins when he puts his hand on a white child. Van Meter traces how this incident and the trial that followed, Duncan v. Louisiana, eventually led to a major Supreme Court decision about one’s right to a jury trial.  –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

 

Zadie Smith, Intimations

Zadie Smith, Intimations
Penguin Press, July 28

However productive you think you’ve been in the COVID lockdown period, please know that your paltry efforts pale in comparison to those of Zadie Smith, who somehow completed and edited an entire essay collection in just three months. Intimations, which shares its title with a recent Alexandra Kleeman short story collection (why does Smith keep stealing titles??), explores ideas and questions relating to the unprecedented situation in which we all find ourselves living: “What does it mean to submit to a new reality–or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work?” Pretty much everything Smith writes is worth reading, and this latest collection will, I am sure, be no exception. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Emily Temple
Emily Temple
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.





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