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The Book of Eve

Carmen Boullosa, trans. from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee. Deep Vellum, $16.95 trade paper (292p) ISBN 978-1-64605-224-0

Mexican writer Boullosa follows up The Book of Anna with another mischievous and winning revision of a classic story, this time drawing on the creation stories of Genesis. Eve awakes to a flat version of the paradisial Eden, which Boullosa describes as “silent and unashamed, fleshless.” From Eve’s perspective, there is no time, language, or understanding, though Boullosa puts her primordial impressions into words (the being she names “Thunder,” which Adam calls “God,” produces “sounds like those made by shovels and hatchets”). Eve, “with her fiery disobedience,” is no shameful sinner. Rather, she leads her fellows down the Divine Mountain to Earth, where she finds fire, sex, words, and becomes the mother of all people. Adam doesn’t like these developments; he transforms from Eve’s “puppy-dog” to a violent and spiteful man, distorting the truth of creation and twisting his version into a patriarchal religion: “Abel and Adam spoke to a ‘He.’ They made up prayers that allowed them to repeat their monologue ad nauseam.” What makes this so delightful is Boullosa’s chronicle of Eve’s discovery of pleasure, and of the misogyny of Christianity, in a tone as straightforward as Genesis itself. It’s a stirring challenge to an age-old narrative. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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The Butter House

Sarah Gerard. Conium, $12 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-942387-19-0

A couple retreats from gloomy Brooklyn to a sunny house down south in the playful and thoughtful latest from Gerard (True Love). It’s spring, and the unnamed girlfriend is on a break from her graduate studies in psychology, while the boyfriend has a fellowship to study bird migration patterns. She spends her time gardening, taking care of stray cats, and getting the couple’s own two cats to acclimate to each other. A moment of inspiration occurs while the couple is watching Moonstruck and the cats are fighting, and the boyfriend comments on how an Italian American family can argue but still get along, prompting the girlfriend to apply a psychology lesson on food-sharing, thus uniting the cats with an abundance of treats. Gerard drops hints of the girlfriend’s desire to rejuvenate her life after a difficult period (the pests and noise of New York City wore her down), and of a downhearted disposition. Nothing is spelled out, but Gerard hints at the girlfriend’s low-grade pessimism in the new environment, where hurricane season is not far off but the porches are “decked in plumeria” and her gardening efforts begin to take root. With precise and lush details, Gerard captures a sense of life’s fragility amid new possibilities. The author’s fans are in for a treat. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Chrysalis

Anna Metcalfe. Random House, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-44695-9

Metcalfe’s perceptive if opaque debut follows a young woman’s rise to becoming a wellness influencer after she leaves an abusive relationship. The unnamed influencer’s mother, Bella, recounts her daughter’s solitary childhood, and the uncontrollable and unexplainable shakes that made her the target of bullies. Another section is narrated by the influencer’s friend Susie, who takes her in after her breakup with Paul, who she claims kept her locked in a room. A third comes from Elliot, who met the influencer at the gym and briefly became her lover before she disappeared from his life, after which he followed her videos of extreme workouts and long bouts of stillness and took up her mandated isolation from everyone in his life. As the influencer’s “Still Life” routine gains prominence, she becomes a cultlike figure and the center of controversy after despairing family members can’t reach their loved ones who joined the movement. Bella and Paul, meanwhile, provide conflicting accounts of Paul and the influencer’s relationship compared to what she told Susie. The competing versions make for an intriguing exercise in narrative, but they also leave the reader baffled. Still, there are plenty of well-placed barbs on influencer culture (another influencer, one who gave the protagonist an early boost, posts videos of herself “wiping gem stones over her cheekbones”). Despite an uneven first outing, Metcalfe clearly has her finger on the pulse of internet culture and its habitués. Agent: Nicola Chang, David Higham Assoc. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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I Am My Country: And Other Stories

Kenan Orhan. Random House, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-0-593-44946-2

Orhan considers gender roles and political conflict in Turkey in his rich debut collection. In “The Beyoglu Municipality Waste Management Orchestra,” a highlight among several magical realist stories, an authoritarian government decrees that all music be performed with “uniquely Turkish instruments,” after which a garbagewoman rescues the discarded instruments of a composer, then the composer himself as well as the members of an orchestra, and keeps them in her attic. In the offbeat and affecting “The Stray of Ankara,” a middle-aged florist chafes against president Recep Erdoğ an’s contention that “childish women are deficient and incomplete,” and devises a plan to assassinate him with the help of a stray dog. Less captivating is “Festival of Bulls,” in which Orhan uses the narrator to decry toxic masculinity and imperialism; her older brother is a “domineering... brute behind a mask of Western ideas.” In the most assured entry, a boy trains for a swimming race and hopes to win a scholarship and escape from his mining town, with its “coal-stained children like feral dogs through the streets.” Orhan wonderfully describes the young man’s range of emotions—confusion, resolve, selfishness, grief, self-disgust—after he faces an impossible dilemma. This is an impressive take on the wonders, terrors, and mundanities faced by those living under repression or political instability. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Black Dove

Colin McAdam. Soho, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-64129-422-5

McAdam (A Beautiful Truth) chronicles a boy’s magical transformation in this brooding, memorable outing. Oliver is regularly hunted by school bully Murdoch in the rundown neighborhood where he lives with his widower father. While escaping the bullies, Oliver hides out in a junk shop where Geppetto-like owner Allele Princeps offers protection. After Oliver shares details of his life with Allele, including torments from Murdoch and his late mother’s alcoholism, the shopkeeper reveals a dog he bred with a forked tongue and asks Oliver if he’d like to be bigger and stronger. Oliver regularly visits the shop, and soon Allele begins performing genetic experiments on him. In chapters from Allele’s point of view, the shopkeeper recounts his previous work as a genetic researcher, which inspired him to create the “perfect boy” and “give strength to the weak.” Once Oliver is equipped with newfound strength and, among other attributes, fangs, he gains the confidence to court the girl next door before a bloody showdown with Murdoch. Some of the allegorical aspects are a bit murky, but there are plenty of rewarding details of Oliver’s hardscrabble survival and transformation. Readers will be enchanted by this dark adventure. Douglas Stewart, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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The Caterpillar Dogs: And Other Early Stories

Tennessee Williams. New Directions, $16.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3232-6

Williams, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and author of the collection Hard Candy, shows glimmers of his mature style in these modest sketches. Each story begins as a character portrait that may or may not develop into a plot. In “Every Friday Nite Is Kiddies Nite” the newly retired Reverend Houston finds his new idle existence idyllic and free of guilt. The title story is a snapshot of an elderly spinster’s violent final day. “Season of Grapes,” by contrast, tracks a sensuous summer affair and all its attendant turbulence. Its narrator, on the verge of college, wants simultaneously to be free from and comforted by the presence of the community he’s leaving behind. Other entries depict the enthusiasm of first love, a young woman branded by the wagging tongues of a provincial community, and a backwoods love triangle. The closer, “Stair to the Roof,” is both the most autobiographical and the most accomplished: Edward Schiller feels trapped in his dull job at the Continental Shoe Company and dreams of escape while his mother tells everyone he’s a “terrible disappointment.” They might be Tom and Amanda Wingfield from Williams’s breakout play, The Glass Menagerie. This is a fine addition to Williams’s broad oeuvre. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Games and Rituals

Katherine Heiny. Knopf, $28 (240p) ISBN 978-0-525-65951-8

Heiny’s funny and touching collection (after Early Morning Riser) finds drama and disruption in the everyday. “Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented” follows a DMV driving examiner who crushes on a coworker, then makes a shocking choice after she’s rejected. In “Turn Back, Turn Back,” a woman’s delicate balancing of her career, motherhood, and her marriage is undone by a strange charge on her credit card. The clever title story, broken down into vignettes, centers on a young woman who makes up games to play with her friends and boyfriend. One, “The Relationship Game,” involves people-watching on the subway and speculating about the lives of strangers. “CobRa,” an unsettling riff on the Marie Kondo craze, portrays a man’s growing anxiety during his wife’s enthusiastic decluttering, which prompts him to fear he no longer makes her happy and “she would give him to Goodwill.” The sharp “Bridesmaid, Revisited” examines the reasons behind a woman’s choice to wear an outrageous bridesmaid dress to work. There are a few misses, such as “Sky Bar,” which runs on contrivances involving two women whose flights are delayed during a snowstorm and the men who pick them up. For the most part, Heiny’s keen observations put a shine on these everyday comedies. Agent: Kimberly Witherspoon, InkWell Management. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Natural Beauty

Ling Ling Huang. Dutton, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-47292-7

A young Chinese American woman learns the secrets of a sinister wellness company in Huang’s incisive and disquieting debut. After the unnamed narrator’s parents are involved in a severe car accident, she abandons her classical music career to focus on their care. She receives an auspicious invitation to work at a Goop-esque Holistik outlet, where she becomes one of a bevy of salesgirls, hocking everything from face creams to emotional support ducklings, and her employer pressures her into taking the workplace name Anna for the ease of customers who struggled with her given name. As the narrator tries the treatments, she notices surreal changes to her appearance, including lighter skin, longer legs, and bigger breasts. She also forms a close friendship with Helen, the owner’s niece, and develops an attraction to Helen while giving her piano lessons. Eventually, Helen reveals clues about Holistik’s nefarious machinations. Insidious Western standards, fears about bodily autonomy, and queer desire intersect as Huang’s precise and subtle portrayal of the beauty industry builds to an explosive climax. Alternatingly poignant and deeply unsettling, this is an outstanding first outing for an immensely talented author. Agent: Kirby Kim, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Blue Hour

Tiffany Clarke Harrison. Soft Skull, $16.95 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-59376-749-5

Harrison’s debut chronicles a mixed race woman’s harrowing journey through contemporary American motherhood. The unnamed narrator, who is Black and Japanese, deals with a litany of tragedies. When she’s 22, most of her family is killed in a car accident. She pursues a career in photography, and at 28 she marries Asher, a Jewish man who runs a clothing boutique. Though Asher wants to start a family, two miscarriages sour the narrator on the idea of having children. Her grief is exacerbated when Noah, a student in her photography class, is shot by the police, and she feels responsible because the shooting happened while her class was meant to be in session—she’d canceled it for a fertility appointment. As she surreptitiously visits Noah in the hospital, she discovers she’s pregnant, and her fear of having another miscarriage blends with a dueling worry of bringing a child into a world rife with police violence. In lyrical language, Harrison skillfully explores the complex tensions that gnaw at the expectant mother (“We hold our breath. All the way to the first, second, and third sonograms; all the way through sixteen weeks, we hold our breath”) and offers an intimate view of the couple’s pain. This signals the arrival of a brave new writer. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Kidnapped: A Story in Crimes

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, trans. from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. Deep Vellum, $16.95 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-64605-204-2

Petrushevskaya (The New Adventures of Helen) offers a campy story involving babies switched at birth in 1980s Moscow. Shortly after pregnant 21-year-old Alina Rechkina is abandoned by her husband and left penniless, she goes into labor. Her roommate on the maternity ward, Masha Sertsova, is set to leave the country after her baby’s birth to join her husband in the foreign service in South Asia. Instead, Masha dies during her labor. Alina, frightened for her own child and resentful of the prosperous life awaiting Masha’s son far from a collapsing Russia, impulsively switches their infants’ identifying bracelets. Later, she’s surprised to hear from Masha’s widower, Sergei Sertsov, who asks her to assume Masha’s identity and help raise his child in Handia. She agrees and spends three years there, enduring Sergei’s verbal abuse before he abandons her. Back in Moscow, Alina moves into Masha’s old apartment, where the consequences of a previous baby switch and audacious scheming from Sergei play out to dizzying effect. Though the plot can be confusing, there’s plenty of cutting satire of corruption in late- and post-Soviet Russia. This irreverent and absurdist outing will keep readers guessing to the very end. Agent: Julia Goumen, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2023 | Details & Permalink

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