The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Liz Scheier, Lisa Barr, and Sarah Krasnostei.

Never Simple: A Memoir

Liz Scheier. Holt, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-82313-7

Scheier, a PW contributor, debuts with a stunning and generous account of living with her mother’s mental illness. “Telling exorbitant lies was easier in the 80s,” she recounts of her New York City childhood. “There was no internet, no way to track down the clues.” And lie her mother, Judith, did—endlessly: about the identity of Scheier’s father; her marital status; and about her daughter’s birth certificate (born at home, Scheier didn’t have one). It wasn’t until college that Scheier found out her mother was a master of deception, a revelation followed by another explosive discovery—that Judith suffered from borderline personality disorder. As Scheier writes, “People suffering from borderline personality disorder live in a world on fire.” In crisp and commanding prose, she traces how, until her mother’s death in 2019, that fire swept through her own life—her childhood enduring Judith’s “all-consuming wrath,” her own suicide attempts as a teen, later selling her eggs to keep her aging mother from becoming homeless. Yet, strikingly, compassion trumps anger: “I loved her smoky cackle and her jokes... her whole-body storytelling,” she writes. “Now that I have my own children, I see how much of her best my mother did.” Readers will find it hard to part with this one.

Woman on Fire

Lisa Barr. Harper, $16.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-304088-5

Ambitious fledgling reporter Jules Roth, the heroine of this masterly, multifaceted thriller from Barr (The Unbreakables), lands a job working for her personal hero, investigative journalist Dan Mansfield, who appreciates the young woman’s moxie. He invites her to join his small team, which is attempting to track down Woman on Fire, the last work of German Expressionist Ernst Engel, who was murdered in 1939. Dan is pursuing the painting on behalf of his good friend, famed shoe designer Ellis Baum, whose mother posed for the masterpiece. Young Ellis had seen the painting being taken from his home by a Nazi officer, and now, as he’s nearing death, longs for it to be returned to his family. Jules and the team aren’t the only ones lusting after the elusive picture, which is now worth millions. Ruthless Margaux de Laurent, considered the most important gallerist in the world, will stop at nothing to possess it. The action leaps between art capitals in the United States and Europe, intermingling the action-packed present day with thrilling episodes from the 1930s and 1940s that reveal Woman on Fire’s turbulent history. Barr’s vigorous prose complements her fully realized characters. Readers will be gripped from start to finish.

The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle

Sarah Krasnostein. Tin House, $27.95 (360p) ISBN 978-1-953534-00-2

Journalist Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner) delivers an illuminating meditation on the nature of belief and the quest for meaning. In six profiles of individuals and communities animated by a “longing for the unattainable,” Krasnostein examines how belief can both strengthen and weaken interpersonal bonds. She explores supposedly haunted locales with paranormal investigators and talks with researchers at Kentucky’s Creation Museum, who attempt to reconcile scientific principles with their belief in biblical inerrancy. Some of the most moving chapters focus on Annie, a Buddhist-trained “death doula” and trauma survivor, and Katrina, one of her patients. Elsewhere, Krasnostein profiles people who believe in extraterrestrials and UFOs; a community of Mennonites who have moved from rural Pennsylvania to the South Bronx to conduct urban mission work; and a woman who joined a lower Manhattan church after spending half her life imprisoned for the murder of her abusive husband. Throughout, Krasnostein is measured and respectful of her interviewees while being forthright about beliefs she finds unconvincing or even distasteful. The result is a compassionate and engrossing look at “how the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we’d like it to be can stunt us or save us.”

The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird

Jack E. Davis. Liveright, $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-1-631495-25-0

Pulitzer Prize winner Davis (The Gulf), an environmental history professor at the University of Florida, scores with this sweeping history of America’s unofficial symbolic bird. Combining natural, political, and cultural histories, Davis offers a wealth of surprising information and demolishes popular misconceptions, dispelling, for example, the idea that the turkey was a candidate for the U.S. national bird. He covers the use of the eagle as a symbol of fidelity, self-reliance, and courage; describes once-held beliefs that it was a scavenging pest; and explains threats to its survival, both from hunters and pollutants, that almost made it extinct in the 20th century. As Davis recounts, the story of the bald eagle is a rare example of successful conservation: twice—through the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the ban on DDT in 1972—the creature was pulled back from the brink and has since gone on to achieve a sustainable population. Well-timed humor—as when Davis notes that the fiercely loud cry of the bald eagle in the opening of The Colbert Report was actually the squawk of a red-tailed hawk—keeps things moving, and his writing is vivid: “On descent, primary flight feathers splay and twist; tail feathers pitch upward and downward.” This account soars.

North to Paradise: A Memoir

Ousman Umar, trans. from the Spanish by Kevin Gerry Dunn. Amazon Crossing, $19.95 (170p) ISBN 978-1-5420-3011-3

In this astounding tale of courage and tragedy, Umar—founder of NASCO Feeding Minds, a nonprofit committed to improving the lives of Ghanaians—recounts the harrowing journey he endured immigrating to Europe from Ghana. “When we started out, there were forty-six of us. Only six survived,” he writes at his story’s outset, laying bare the scope of misfortune he encountered over five years, after leaving his remote village at age 12 with a group of migrants for a better life in Europe. Early on in their trip, though, their smugglers abandoned them, forcing Umar and the others to find their own way through the desert without food or water: “Whenever we were lucky enough to find moist sand, we grabbed fistfuls of it and squeezed it until a single drop fell on our lips.” Even after making it out of the desert, brutal beatings and the cruelty of human traffickers became Umar’s norm as he made his way to Casablanca en route to Europe. Still, with unerring humanity, Umar brings instances of light to his sobering tale through moving recollections of the friendships that bolstered him and moments of “divine intervention” that led him to finally find a new home in Spain. This is a stunning testament to the strength of the human spirit. 


Solmaz Sharif. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-64445-079-6

Sharif (Look) movingly excavates in her powerful second collection an internal landscape haunted by psychic dissonance and fractured identity. As the title suggests, these works are preoccupied with the in-between. The speaker is sometimes in an airport, but often in a state of alienation relating to those around her: "We were tanners/ pushed to the edge of the/ city," she explains, "Then we worked/ the cafeterias/ at the// petroleum offices of the British. Then, revolution./ Simple." She visits Shiraz in a poem titled "The End of Exile," feeling both at home and foreign at once: "As the dead, so I come to the city I am of. Am without." Sharif captures the bleak shape that everyday objects can suddenly take on when one is in a dark mood: "The fridge is a thing with weak magnets, a little sweaty on the inside/ A bag of shriveled limes." Many poems are addressed as letters to a person called Aleph, the first letter in the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets, and in one particularly striking example, the poet contemplates systems of power through the lens of Ethel Rosenberg's execution. Sharif's commanding voice reverberates throughout this complex and confident collection.

The Sex Lives of African Women: Self-Discovery, Freedom, and Healing

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. Astra House, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-66265-081-9

Ghanaian activist and blogger Sekyiamah debuts with a dazzling series of soul-searching and taboo-breaking conversations with women throughout Africa and the diaspora about relationships, sex, and identity. Her profile subjects (no last names given) include Nura, a Muslim woman struggling to adjust to her polygamous marriage in Kenya; Estelle, a young British woman of “mixed African and Arab heritage” who leaves her marriage to pursue polyamory; Amina, a queer feminist activist living in Egypt; Kuchenga, a Black trans woman and sex worker who calls her attraction to cis straight men “a curse”; and Miss Deviant, a 52-year-old dominatrix in South London who makes her rich, white male clients “perform acts of service for their wives and partners.” Interweaving autobiographical details with her subjects’ complex, category-defying personal histories, Sekyiamah charts the “journey towards sexual freedom and agency” through self-discovery, defiance of cultural norms in favor of authenticity, and reckoning with the traumatic legacies of rape, abuse, and genital mutilation. Though many of the interviewees acknowledge their unhappiness, the overall tone is hopeful, resilient, and accepting. Marked by the diversity of experiences shared, the wealth of intimate details, and the total lack of sensationalism, this is an astonishing report on the quest for sexual liberation. 

Scattered All Over the Earth

Yoko Tawada, trans. from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani. New Directions, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2928-9

Vernacular noir, etymological postapocalypse, a romance in syntax—it’s hard to nail down which genre National Book Award winner Tawada’s brilliant and beguiling latest belongs to, except to say it’s deeply rooted in the power of language. At the center is Huriko, a refugee from a Japan that has vanished both from maps and cultural memory, who works as a children’s illustrator in Denmark, where she befriends the diffident Knut, a computer game programmer with a connoisseur’s interest in language and who is fascinated by Huriko’s homegrown dialect, which she calls “Panska.” Soon a group of amateur linguists forms, including Akash, a trans Indian woman, and Nanook, a Greenland Inuit sushi chef masquerading as an authority on Asian cooking. After they visit an umami festival in Trier, they continue to a culinary competition in Oslo, only to be derailed by a racist terror attack and an investigation into the killing of whales for their meat. Eventually, Huriko considers leaving the group for Arles, to meet the precocious son of a robot programmer in love with language and ships of all sizes, who may hold the secrets to Huriko’s past and country of origin. At every turn, at least two narratives coexist: the central story line and another hidden just under the surface, emerging through inflections of speech and the vagaries of translation, making the text as thrillingly complex as its characters. This pulls readers deep into the author’s polyphonic convergence of cultures. Once again, Tawada doesn’t cease to amaze.