The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Elvia Wilk, Victoria Shepherd, and Maurizio de Giovanni.

Death by Landscape: Essays

Elvia Wilk. Soft Skull, $16.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-59376-715-0

Novelist Wilk (Oval) brings together memoir and her literary criticism and reportage in this superb collection. The essays “have been decomposed again and again, recycled and used as soil for new seeds, new ideas,” she writes, and her fiery intellect touches on ecology, dystopia, the female experience, virtual reality, and fiction writing. The title piece uses Margaret Atwood’s short story of the same name to explore a genre of “ecosystems fiction” that aims to remove the distinction between “human and nonhuman,” while in “Funhole,” Wilk juxtaposes two novels—As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem and The Cipher by Kathe Koja, both of which have plots about a “woman fall[ing] in love with a black hole”— with Anne Carson’s telling of the story of Joan of Arc and the writings of Susan Sontag to investigate the limits of interpretation and what’s knowable. In “Ask Before You Bite,” Wilk does some gonzo journalism in the vampire larp scene, and things complicate as she goes “from larping a larper to larping” and finding “an experience of being yourself and not-yourself, in which you and your character coexist but remain distinct from each other.” Taken together, the essays are elegant and powerful. This one packs a punch.

A History of Delusions: The Glass King, a Substitute Husband and a Walking Corpse

Victoria Shepherd. Oneworld, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-86154-091-4

In this bewitching debut, Shepherd adapts her BBC Radio 4 series of the same name, providing a delightfully strange account of delusions. Through a series of case studies spanning the Middle Ages to the present day, Shepherd contends that “cases of delusion often have the quality of a parable or fairy tale.... They are peculiar, cryptic, their meanings encoded.” She discusses the French “Madame M,” who in 1918 requested a divorce because she thought her husband had been replaced by imposters, and Shepherd points to the stigma around divorce as a possible subliminal motive. An exquisite chapter tells the story of the 17th-century psychological theorist Robert Burton, who so trusted a horoscope he had personally calculated that he allegedly committed suicide to accord with its prophecy of his death. Other cases include King Charles VI of France, who believed that his body had been transformed into glass, and a French Revolution–era clockmaker who claimed his head had been severed by a guillotine. Reminiscent of Oliver Sachs, Shepherd opts for empathy over prurience, highlighting the humanity of her subjects and lucidly drawing out the dream logic by which their delusions operate. This is a wondrous reminder of the intricacy and paradox of the human mind.

Bread for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone

Maurizio de Giovanni, trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar. Europa, $18 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-60945-689-4

Early in de Giovanni’s witty, elegantly plotted sixth police procedural set in Naples, Italy (after 2020’s Puppies for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone), Lt. Giuseppe Lojacono is called to the scene of a shooting. He finds Pasquale Granato sprawled face down in the narrow alley behind the bakery his family has owned for generations. Based on the stray bullets lodged in the wall behind the body, Lojacono concludes that the shooter was an amateur. Meanwhile, imperious Diego Buffardi, “the most media-ready magistrate in the whole city, the living breathing symbol of the crusade against the Mafia,” arrives with a small platoon of police officers. He immediately declares the baker’s death to be an organized crime hit and orders Lojacono to leave. Lojacono, convinced that Buffardi’s assumptions are wrong, goes to another magistrate, who arranges for simultaneous investigations. De Giovanni once again showcases his characters’ humanity as he delicately balances humor and pathos, following the subtle changes in the lives of the ragtag collection of misfits who comprise the officers of the Pizzofalcone precinct while never losing sight of the mysteries to solve. This is a treat for fans and newcomers alike. 

Dark Earth

Rebecca Stott. Random House, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8911-3

Stott follows up the memoir In the Days of Rain with an impressive narrative set in the aftermath of the Roman Empire. By 500 CE, the Romans have abandoned Britain, their city of Londinium lies abandoned, and Seax leader Osric is consolidating his power among the diverse peoples south of the Thames. Sisters Isla and Blue live with their father, “The Great Smith,” who forges Osric’s ceremonial swords. The Great Smith’s seemingly magical metalworking skills, Isla’s differently colored eyes, and Blue’s psychic gifts signal an occult power to Osric, who fears this will bring his people bad luck. As such, the family remains under Osric’s protection, but he exiles them to a tiny island on the Thames. When The Great Smith dies unexpectedly, Blue and Isla travel to Osric’s camp hoping to find safety. Instead, they encounter Osric’s violent son Vort, who is enraged to discover Isla has defied the sacred law against women entering a forge, possibly cursing the swords she has helped make. While fleeing retribution, the sisters discover a hidden community and new possibilities for the future. Stott concretely captures the brutality of the women’s world, their deep resourcefulness, and the power of the stories that sustain and endanger them. This is a memorable achievement. 

Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions

Batja Mesquita. Norton, $28.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-324-00244-4

“Many of the answers about emotions are not to be found in our insides, but importantly, in our social contexts,” contends Mesquita, a psychology professor at the University of Leuven, Belgium, in her dazzling debut. Arguing that “we primarily have emotions in order to adjust to changes in our relationship with the (social) world,” the author uses social psychology and eye-opening case studies to examine the cultural, political, and economic factors that influence what people feel. Mesquita lays out two ways of thinking about emotions: MINE (“Mental, INside the person, and Essentialist”) and OURS (“OUtside the person, Relational, and Situated”). She suggests that Western cultures tend to take the MINE approach while OURS predominates everywhere else, and she cites a study that found Japanese Olympic athletes emphasized the relational aspect of emotions more than their American counterparts in interviews. Exploring how parents instruct children in emotional norms, Mesquita describes how Minangkabau people in West Sumatra shame kids when they break a norm and how Bara people in Madagascar teach the young to fear displeasing ancestral spirits so that the children comply with authority. The bounty of case studies captivates and makes a strong argument that social conditions have the power to dictate how one expresses and experiences emotions. The result is a bracing and bold appraisal of how feelings develop.

A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing

Amanda Held Opelt. Worthy, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5460-0189-8

Blending history with memoir, social worker Opelt examines death rituals and reflects on her season of grief in this devastating debut. To process the deaths of her grandmother and her sister Rachel Held Evans, and a series of miscarriages in the span of a few years, Opelt digs into the origins and purposes of 12 bereavement customs that range from the unusual (telling a hive of bees when a loved one dies) to the jovial (playing practical jokes at a wake). In the Middle Ages, for example, church bells would ring as a person neared death because the sound was thought to scare off demons from preying on the souls of the sick. Opelt urges Christians to heed this ritual’s insight that death can imperil souls by shaking one’s faith. The author also reports she “hardly recognized” herself after her sister died, and she muses that the practice of covering mirrors after a death serves the covert purpose of hiding the toll that grieving takes on the living. The fastidious research and acute analyses of grief traditions fascinate, and her insights are shattering: “Grief is like water.... It finds the lowest part of you and hollows it out even more.” Poignant and erudite, this is not to be missed.

Vicious Creatures

Ashton Noone. Scarlet, $25.95 (312p) ISBN 978-1-61316-338-2

Thirty-three-year-old Ava Montgomery, the narrator of Noone’s splendid debut, a novel of gothic suspense, is nearly broke and in the middle of a contested divorce from her abusive husband when she reluctantly retreats to Reachwood, Ore., her childhood home, with her 14-year-old daughter. Nothing much has changed in the small town surrounded by a dark and dangerous forest. The same wealthy families—the Albrights, Harts, and Gallaghers—still reign supreme, and “one child vanishes into the forest every decade or so. Just long enough for the neighborhood to start to forget.” Ava left Reachwood as a teen to escape accusations she played a role in the death of Adam Albright, a high school classmate. When she starts receiving threats, it’s clear that there are those who still hold her responsible for Adam’s death. What has her return set in motion? Shifts between present-day chapters and those set 15 years earlier build and maintain tension. All the while, the brooding forest plays its part in this disturbing drama distinguished by vivid prose, credible characters, and assured pacing. Noone is off to a terrific start.

The Things We Love: How Our Passions Connect Us and Make Us Who We Are

Aaron Ahuvia. Little, Brown Spark, $29 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-49822-7

Ahuvia, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, debuts with an excellent exploration of the “psychology of loving things.” Drawing on scientific studies and the wisdom of marketing experts, the author examines what leads people to “love” objects and hobbies: “Our love of things is really about creating our identities and connecting to the people we care about.” He suggests that affection for loved ones can rub off on items associated with their memory, and notes that when natural disasters destroy homes, people are often most upset about the ruined photographs and heirlooms that connected them to deceased relatives. Brand allegiance can offer community, Ahuvia posits, theorizing that “Bronies” (mostly adult male fans of the children’s show My Little Pony) derive a transgressive sense of belonging through their fandom of a show aimed at a much younger audience. Citing a study in which participants overestimated the value and quality of their origami creations, the author argues that people “value things a lot more when they have helped design or build them.” Ahuvia’s conversational tone makes the bounty of research findings entertaining and easily digestible. This stimulating volume is easy to love.