March 1946. Albert Camus has just spent two weeks at sea on the SS Oregon, a cargo ship transporting passengers from Le Havre to New York City. He’s made several friends during this transatlantic passage.
In his poem “After Avery R. Young,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown writes, “The blk mind / Is a continuous mind.” These lines emerge for me as a guiding principle—as a mantra, even—when I consider the work of Black poetry in America, which insists upon the centrality of Black lives to the human story, and offers the terms of memory, music, conscience, and imagination that serve to counteract the many erasures and distortions riddling the prevailing narrative of Black life in this country.
As I was going to enter college that fall my parents felt that I should build myself up at a summer camp of some sort. They sent me down to a place in the Ozarks on a beautiful lake. It was called a camp but it was not just for boys. It was for both sexes and all ages. It was a rustic, comfortable place. But I was disappointed to find that most of the young people went to another camp several miles down the lake toward the dam. I spent a great deal of time by myself that summer, which is hardly good for a boy of seventeen.
You don’t need to have read Egan’s Pulitzer-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad” to jump feet first into this much-anticipated sequel. But for lovers of the 2010 book’s prematurely nostalgic New Yorkers, cerebral beauty and laser-sharp take on modernity, “The Candy House” is like coming home — albeit to dystopia. This time around, Egan’s characters are variously the creators and prisoners of a universe in which, through the wonders of technology, people can access their entire memory banks and use the contents as social media currency. The result is a glorious, hideous fun house that feels more familiar than sci-fi, all rendered with Egan’s signature inventive confidence and — perhaps most impressive of all — heart. “The Candy House” is of its moment, with all that implies.
Bennett, a British writer who makes her home in Ireland, first leaped onto the scene with her 2015 debut novel, “Pond.” Her second book contains all of the first’s linguistic artistry and dark wit, but it is even more exhilarating. “Checkout 19,” ostensibly the story of a young woman falling in love with language in a working-class town outside London, has an unusual setting: the human mind — a brilliant, surprising, weird and very funny one. All the words one might use to describe this book — experimental, autofictional, surrealist — fail to convey the sheer pleasure of “Checkout 19.” You’ll come away dazed, delighted, reminded of just how much fun reading can be, eager to share it with people in your lives. It’s a love letter to books, and an argument for them, too.
Kingsolver’s powerful new novel, a close retelling of Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield” set in contemporary Appalachia, gallops through issues including childhood poverty, opioid addiction and rural dispossession even as its larger focus remains squarely on the question of how an artist’s consciousness is formed. Like Dickens, Kingsolver is unblushingly political and works on a sprawling scale, animating her pages with an abundance of charm and the presence of seemingly every creeping thing that has ever crept upon the earth.
After losing her brother when she was 12, one of the narrators of Serpell’s second novel keeps coming across men who resemble him as she works through her trauma long into adulthood. She enters an intimate relationship with one of them, who’s also haunted by his past. This richly layered book explores the nature of grief, how it can stretch or compress time, reshape memories and make us dream up alternate realities. “I don’t want to tell you what happened,” the narrator says. “I want to tell you how it felt.”
Diaz uncovers the secrets of an American fortune in the early 20th century, detailing the dizzying rise of a New York financier and the enigmatic talents of his wife. Each of the novel’s four parts, which are told from different perspectives, redirects the narrative (and upends readers’ expectations) while paying tribute to literary titans from Henry James to Jorge Luis Borges. Whose version of events can we trust? Diaz’s spotlight on stories behind stories seeks out the dark workings behind capitalism, as well as the uncredited figures behind the so-called Great Men of history. It’s an exhilarating pursuit.
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong
Yong certainly gave himself a formidable task with this book — getting humans to step outside their “sensory bubble” and consider how nonhuman animals experience the world. But the enormous difficulty of making sense of senses we do not have is a reminder that each one of us has a purchase on only a sliver of reality. Yong is a terrific storyteller, and there are plenty of surprising animal facts to keep this book moving toward its profound conclusion: The breadth of this immense world should make us recognize how small we really are.
In this quietly wrenching memoir, Hsu recalls starting out at Berkeley in the mid-1990s as a watchful music snob, fastidiously curating his tastes and mercilessly judging the tastes of others. Then he met Ken, a Japanese American frat boy. Their friendship was intense, but brief. Less than three years later, Ken would be killed in a carjacking. Hsu traces the course of their relationship — one that seemed improbable at first but eventually became a fixture in his life, a trellis along which both young men could stretch and grow.
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, by Rachel Aviv
In this rich and nuanced book, Aviv writes about people in extreme mental distress, beginning with her own experience of being told she had anorexia when she was 6 years old. That personal history made her especially attuned to how stories can clarify as well as distort what a person is going through. This isn’t an anti-psychiatry book — Aviv is too aware of the specifics of any situation to succumb to anything so sweeping. What she does is hold space for empathy and uncertainty, exploring a multiplicity of stories instead of jumping at the impulse to explain them away.
Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, by Linda Villarosa
Through case histories as well as independent reporting, Villarosa’s remarkable third book elegantly traces the effects of the legacy of slavery — and the doctrine of anti-Blackness that sprang up to philosophically justify it — on Black health: reproductive, environmental, mental and more. Beginning with a long personal history of her awakening to these structural inequalities, the journalist repositions various narratives about race and medicine — the soaring Black maternal mortality rates; the rise of heart disease and hypertension; the oft-repeated dictum that Black people reject psychological therapy — as evidence not of Black inferiority, but of racism in the health care system.
O’Toole, a prolific essayist and critic, calls this inventive narrative “a personal history of modern Ireland” — an ambitious project, but one he pulls off with élan. Charting six decades of Irish history against his own life, O’Toole manages to both deftly illustrate a country in drastic flux, and include a sly, self-deprecating biography that infuses his sociology with humor and pathos. You’ll be educated, yes — about increasing secularism, the Celtic tiger, human rights — but you’ll also be wildly, uproariously entertained by a gifted raconteur at the height of his powers.
Thomas Hardy’s depictions of a fictional Wessex and his own dear Dorset are more accurate than they may at first appear, says Susan Owens.
We feel a frisson when a real place plays a key part in a novel. The Cobb at Lyme Regis will always be associated with silly Louisa Musgrove and her tumble in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Knole in Kent with Virginia Woolf’s hero-heroine Orlando. Thomas Hardy, however, took the use of known locations to another level. He may have invented the characters in his novels, but he made them walk along actual roads, look across valleys at real views and live in recognisable villages and towns — sometimes, even in identifiable buildings.
For all its operatic symbolism, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) is a novel in which practical footwear matters. Among its heart-breaking moments is when Tess’s walking boots are discovered stuffed in a hedge where she had hidden them, mistaken for a tramp’s pair and taken away, forcing her to walk many miles back home along a rough road in pretty, but thin-soled, patent-leather ones.
A map depicting Hardy’s Wessex by Emery Walker, drawn for Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Credit: BBC / Album
Those who live in the country come to know land by ear as much as by eye. Hardy’s characters are expert in this — even in the dark and when drunk, as in Desperate Remedies (1871): ‘Sometimes a soaking hiss proclaimed that they were passing by a pasture, then a patter would show that the rain fell on some large-leafed root crop, then a paddling plash announced the naked arable.’
Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor, arrives at the infamous Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after being urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. Alienated from her family except for her beloved brother, Mina has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. But with a week off work and apart from her wife of thirty years, Mina hopes to accomplish something meaningful, among the abundance of Western volunteers who pose for selfies with beached dinghies and the camp’s children. Soon, a boat crosses bringing Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer. Determined to protect her children and husband at all costs, Sumaiya refuses to alert her family to her diagnosis. Bonded together by Sumaiya’s secret, a deep connection sparks between the two women, and as Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she confronts the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement, as well as her own constraints in helping them.
AS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC SWEPT THE WORLD, WE ASKED 29 AUTHORS TO WRITE NEW SHORT STORIES INSPIRED BY THE MOMENT. WE WERE INSPIRED BY GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO’S “THE DECAMERON,” WRITTEN AS THE PLAGUE RAVAGED FLORENCE IN THE 14TH CENTURY.
“Shadowplay” opens in Dublin in the winter of 1876, with O’Connor painting that ravishing city with a soft lyricism that Stoker himself might have envied: “Smacks heading down the estuary, trailing petticoats of nets, out towards the expanse of the sea.” Stoker, a government clerk who moonlights as a theater critic, is reeling from the visceral intensity of Irving’s performance in Dublin as Hamlet. “Eyes glowing red in the gaslight,” Irving terrifies the audience, “slinking towards the lip of the stage, left hand on hip, wiping his wet mouth with the back of his sleeve. Sneering, he regarded them. Then he spat.” (NY Times Review)
Henry Irving is Victorian London’s most celebrated actor and theater impresario. He has introduced groundbreaking ideas to the theater, bringing to the stage performances that are spectacular, shocking, and always entertaining. When Irving decides to open his own London theater with the goal of making it the greatest playhouse on earth, he hires a young Dublin clerk harboring literary ambitions by the name of Bram Stoker to manage it. As Irving’s theater grows in reputation and financial solvency, he lures to his company of mummers the century’s most beloved actress, the dazzlingly talented leading lady Ellen Terry, who nightly casts a spell not only on her audiences but also on Stoker and Irving both.
Bram Stoker’s extraordinary experiences at the Lyceum Theatre, his early morning walks on the streets of a London terrorized by a serial killer, his long, tempestuous relationship with Irving, and the closeness he finds with Ellen Terry, inspire him to write DRACULA, the most iconic and best-selling supernatural tale ever published.
A magnificent portrait both of lamp-lit London and of lives and loves enacted on the stage, Shadowplay’s rich prose, incomparable storytelling, and vivid characters will linger in readers’ hearts and minds for many years.
Novelist, screenwriter, playwright and broadcaster, Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin. He is the author of nine novels including Star of the Sea, Ghost Light (Dublin One City One Book novel 2011) and Shadowplay (June 2019). Among his awards are the Prix Zepter for European Novel of the Year, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, an American Library Association Award and the Irish Pen Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature. His work has been translated into forty languages. In 2014 he was appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. Twice-Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey has written, ‘There are few living writers who can take us back in time so assuredly, through such gorgeous sentences. Joseph O’Connor is a wonder, and Shadowplay is a triumph.’