This week, we highlight the latest novel from Jenny Offill; a shimmering collection from Major Jackson; and more.

13th Balloon

Mark Bibbins. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-577-6

The achingly beautiful fourth collection from Bibbins (They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full) is a book-length elegy to a lover who died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. “Not lovers/ though we loved,” Bibbins writes. “Not boyfriends though we were/ friends and still/ boys in most ways when you died.” The collection’s title references a memorial to this beloved, the release of 12 balloons, crossing time to position the book as the 13th component. It’s a move emblematic of the book’s powerful ability to stitch the past to the present: “There are days when everything feels like a metaphor/ for your having died// There are days/ when nothing does.” Bibbins is attentive to time’s passing, not easily captured in traditional notions of fading: though the speaker doesn’t “have that many/ memories of you left,” the gift of The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara that he keeps at his bedside testifies to the persistence of the beloved’s presence. The scope of this darkly humorous and always tender book paints a portrait of grief as a fellow traveler that morphs but loses none of its power over time—a power readers will be lucky to experience. (Feb.)

The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever

Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-328-87997-4

Former NBC News producer Garrett reflects on his 1959 arrival at Harvard University as one of “the largest group of Negroes admitted to a freshman class to date” and interviews 14 of his 17 fellow African-American classmates about their experiences in this vivid and perceptive debut. A Brooklyn native, Garrett spent his childhood summers in South Carolina, where his relatives conveyed “a visceral sense of fear” around local whites. At Harvard, Garrett’s classmates included Wesley Williams, a member of the “elite Negro world” of Washington, D.C., and George Jones from segregated Muskogee, Okla. “Almost from the first day,” Garrett writes, “we Negroes started noticing each other, making mental note of who and where the brothers were.” He describes eating at the “Black Table” in the freshman dining hall and attending house parties in nearby Roxbury, as well as Malcolm X’s 1961 campus visit to debate the merits of integration. Reconnecting with his classmates 50 years later, Garrett notes many educational and professional achievements, including the founding of the African and Afro American Association of Students at Harvard, but laments that their lives have been “bracketed” by Jim Crow and Trumpism. He and coauthor Ellsworth eloquently describe the pressures these students were under, drawing an insightful portrait of the limits of racial progress in America. Expertly blending memoir and cultural history, this outstanding retrospective deserves to be widely read. (Feb.)

Stranger by Night

Edward Hirsch. Knopf, $27.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-525-65778-1

With this tender and unflinching 10th collection, Hirsch (Gabriel) balances heartfelt elegy with a celebration of the everyday. In these 48 poems of sensory remembrance, any door might open on the past: “Yesterday I climbed the stairs/ and took the ‘L’/ to 1965 /where I was stuck/ in the heart/ of downtown Chicago.” While offering tributes to Mark Strand, William Meredith, and Phillip Levine, Hirsch’s speakers are ready to “let someone else/ stumble past the mausoleum/ and grieve/ under the calm shade.” Hirsch is interested in capturing ephemeral flashes of human vitality with a lyricism that rises from unadorned eyewitness. Yet his reportage is often framed in ironic negation: “Don’t hitchhike/ the Mediterranean coast/ of Algeria/ in the summer of 1971/ with only a worn copy/ of The Plague to guide you.” In another poem, he remembers a chance encounter with a skyscraper window washer (“I felt oddly gleeful/ when I saw him later/ coming off the job safely/ in street clothes, walking on ground”). While later poems address Hirsch’s loss of eyesight, giving resonance to the collection’s title, readers will be grateful the poet’s inner eye remains as observant and compassionate as ever. (Feb.)

The Absurd Man

Major Jackson. Norton, $26.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-324-00455-4

In the shimmering fifth collection from Whiting Award–winner Jackson (Roll Deep), Albert Camus’s concept of the “absurd creator,” who creates “for nothing,” inspires a vivid travelogue from Xichang to North Philadelphia to Paris as Jackson’s speaker searches for meaning. Depicting urban scenes, Jackson recalls a “white-gloved/ doorman who opening a glass door gets a whiff/ of a dowager’s thick perfume and recalls baling timothy/ hay as a boy in Albania.” Elsewhere, Jackson’s eye is laser-sharp and wry, observing as “a drug-riddled couple/ shares the smoldering remains of an American Spirit... this city’s updated version of American Gothic.” Throughout the book, Jackson’s weaving of mythology and literary references serve as context for confrontations with personal ghosts, be they “his dead mother reappear[ing] in a storefront glass” or the grandfather who would “look askance at my treasured collection of stemless wineglasses// and fashionable ascots.” Jackson’s speakers affectingly embrace self-interrogations that reckon with “our affair/ far away from my wife and their husbands” or “my children whom I scarred.” In this accomplished work, readers will find that absurdity is only a stop along the road to larger meaning. (Feb.)

The Unspoken Name

A.K. Larkwood. Tor, $25.99 (464p) ISBN 978-1-250-23890-0

Larkwood spins an imaginative story of love, sacrifice, and betrayal that traverses worlds in this phenomenal debut. Csorwe, a 14-year-old orc princess, is betrothed to the Unspoken One, her world’s god, and is slated to be sacrificed to him on behalf of her people. Before the ceremony can be completed, a stranger, Belthandros Sethennai, finds her and offers her the chance to avoid her fate by leaving with him and helping him to regain control of his world. To return to power, Sethennai must find a holy relic, the Reliquary of Pentravesse. He trains Csorwe to be his “blunt instrument,” transforming her into an assassin and sending her on quests across alternate worlds to seek out the Reliquary. On one such journey, Csorwe meets a young mage named Shuthmili and falls in love, testing her loyalties once more. Larkwood’s intricately woven plot is jam-packed with intrigue and excitement. Lyrical, immersive prose masterfully conveys complex worldbuilding. Epic fantasy fans are sure to be impressed by this expertly crafted adventure. Agent: Kurestin Armada, P.S. Literary Agency. (Feb.)


Jenny Offill. Knopf, $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-385-35110-2

A librarian becomes increasingly obsessed with doomsday preparations in Offill’s excellently sardonic third novel (following Dept. of Speculation). Lizzie, a university librarian working in Brooklyn, already feels overwhelmed with guiding her son, Eli, through New York City’s crowded elementary school system without the extra strain of dealing with her addict brother’s constant crises. Mostly happily married to a computer game designer, Lizzie introduces anxiety into her marriage when she takes a second job answering emails for a former mentor who is now the host of a popular podcast about futurism. Fielding questions from both apocalypse truthers and preppers for the coming climate-induced “scarcity,” Lizzies becomes convinced that doomsday is approaching. Her scattered, frenzied voice is studded with arresting flourishes, as when she describes releasing a fly: “Quiet in the cup. Hard to believe that isn’t joy, the way it flies away when I fling it out the window.” Set against the backdrop of Lizzie’s trips to meditation classes, debates with a taxi driver, the 2016 presidential election, and constant attempts to avoid a haughty parent at Eli’s school, Lizzie’s apocalyptic worries are bittersweet, but also always wry and wise. Offill offers an acerbic observer with a wide-ranging mind in this marvelous novel. (Feb.)

Thunder Bay

Douglas Skelton. Arcade CrimeWise, $25.99 (312p) ISBN 978-1-950691-34-0

Ambitious Scottish journalist Rebecca Connolly, the sympathetic heroine of this exceptional thriller from Skelton (The Janus Run), has a nose for a good story and a talent for getting people to talk. Disobeying her budget-conscious editor at the Highland Chronicle, she travels to the Hebridean island of Stoirm, seeking an exclusive story on Roddie Drummond. Stoirm also happens to be the home Rebecca’s father left years ago and never talks about. Roddie, who was acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend, Mhairi Sinclair, 15 years earlier, has returned to Stoirm to attend his mother’s funeral. Tension in the community is high following Roddie’s arrival, with many keen to unleash their anger on him, believing he got away with murder. As Rebecca pries into the islanders’ private lives, she brings to light ugly, hidden secrets, as well as revelations about her family history best left undisturbed—intensifying the hostile atmosphere. Powerful flashbacks help build to the spectacular conclusion. Exquisite language, credible characters, and unrelenting suspense—this crime novel has it all. (Feb.)

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

Gretchen Sorin. Liveright, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-63149-569-4

Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies at SUNY Oneonta, depicts the historical relationship between African-Americans and the automobile as one of promise as well as peril in this insightful debut. Drawing upon archival research, interviews, and her own family’s history, Sorin emphasizes the strict limitations on mobility experienced by African-Americans from slavery’s Middle Passage through the Jim Crow era, and the extent to which access to a car meant freedom, at least temporarily. Though black motorists in the Jim Crow South had to rely on The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate gas stations, eateries, and motels that would serve them and to avoid “sundown towns” where they were at risk after dark, African-Americans viewed the car as an escape from the humiliation and dangers of segregated public transportation systems, Sorin writes. Car ownership, she contends, facilitated opportunities for travel and employment and provided African-Americans with a “rolling living room” to transport themselves from one “safe zone” to another. She illustrates how the increased confidence and broader horizons of black drivers fuelled the civil rights movement, while noting that the end of segregation doomed black-owned businesses that served the market. Lucidly written and generously illustrated with photos and artifacts, this rigorous and entertaining history deserves a wide readership. (Feb.)

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges

Amber Sparks. Liveright, $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-63149-620-2

Sparks (The Unfinished World) impresses with her exceptional collection of wry, feminist stories. “A Place for Hiding Precious Things” is an incendiary retelling of the fairy tale “Donkeyskin” that features a young princess’s escape into contemporary Manhattan from her father’s incestuous desires. A high school girl with a pitch-perfect teen voice lives with her dysfunctional family in a trailer park in “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park” and is bored with the “weird pioneer girl” that haunts her until the ghost proves herself useful with homework and warding off sexual advances. Climate change and societal collapse set the stage for a woman’s ex-husband’s transformation into a religious despot who builds a giant tower in “We Destroy the Moon.” Some stories smuggle incredible emotional impact into surprisingly few pages, including the haunting, unexplained severing of a friendship in “Mildly Unhappy with Moments of Joy” and a queen who attempts to outrace a rapidly approaching future through a strange form of time-travel in “Is the Future a Nice Place for Girls.” The time management–obsessed father in “The Eyes of Saint Lucy” foists his mistress’s baby on his wife and daughter, leading to a chilling, macabre twist. Sparks’s sardonic wit never distracts from her polished dismantling of everyday and extraordinary abuses. Readers will love this remarkable, deliciously caustic collection. (Feb.)

The Man Without Talent

Yoshiharu Tsuge, trans. from the Japanese by Ryan Holmberg. New York Review Comics, $22.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-68137-443-7

Tsuge’s quasi-autobiographical series of vignettes are a masterpiece of mundane struggle. This, his first full-length book to appear in English, was the last major work by Tsuge (b. 1937), who was influential in establishing a literary, alternative Manga scene before he retired from comics in 1986. The story is set in early-1980s Japan, as Tsuge’s stand-in, Sukezo Sukegawa, attempts to make a living selling stones, used cameras, and other detritus instead of drawing comics (which is the only thing he’s good at, at least according to his beleaguered wife). Sukegawa longs to disappear and is frustrated by a society obsessed with Western vulgarity and competitiveness. He can’t escape the feeling of being a loser, and his wife berates him for losing more money on his business ventures than he brings in. Despite Sukegawa’s frequently callous behavior toward his wife and his young son, it’s his son who regularly brings Sukegawa back from the abyss, imploring him to come home when he strays. Tsuge’s realistic manga carefully balances the beauty of the countryside with the family’s shabby and desperate poverty. The book’s tone is darkly satirical, and Tsuge makes Sukegawa the frequent butt of jokes. Every page feels lived and desperate, yet shot through with poetry, becoming a meditation on finding meaning in life despite trying circumstance. (Feb.)

Senseless Women

Sarah Harris Wallman. University of Massachusetts, $19.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-62534-518-9


In Wallman’s bewitching and macabre debut collection, women intent on changing their realities contend with violence and manipulation. In “The Dead Girls Show,” overweight Carly attends a showcase of undead girls and hopes to one day look like the Arabella, “a starved mermaid” in the “greeny spotlight” who died from anorexia. After a reckless driver outside the theater kills Carly, she is added to the show, forever unable to escape her body. In “One Car Hooks into the Next and Pulls,” a woman meets a married man on a sentient commuter train, which appreciates her initial resistance to the man’s charms (“The train realized she had only pretended sleep. This delighted the train”). After the woman agrees to begin an affair, the disapproving train causes a deadly accident. In wry, spare prose, the title story follows an unnamed woman living in a long-term care hospital after surviving a poisoning. Miriam, her nurse, becomes enraptured by the woman’s story of an ill-fated love affair with her brother-in-law, believing that the woman was poisoned by her family. After Miriam catches a doctor molesting the defenseless patient, she takes on the role of her protector. Wallman’s incisive writing and bold choices make this memorable and worthwhile. (Mar.)