Twenty-twenty may be in the rearview, but our mostly stay-at-home reality is still with most of us into 2021, and if you’re like us at the magazine, you’re probably reading more. The literary deluge, one thing that has been unimpeded by the pandemic, continues; here are four of the hottest titles this month at Books and Books, chosen by owner Mitch Kaplan.
It’s only January, but based on the effusive praise it has already received—the term Great American Novel has been tossed around by critics like so many horseshoes—expect The Prophets to wind up on everybody’s Best of the Year list in 11 months. One of Oprah’s “32 LGBTQ Books That Will Change the Literary Landscape in 2021,” The Prophets is a Biblically inspired saga of racial reckoning about the love between two enslaved men—Samuel and Isaiah—on a Deep South plantation, whose life-affirming bond is threatened after an older, fellow-slave’s sycophantic parroting of their master’s gospel upends the status quo. The Prophets is, remarkably, the debut novel of its wunderkind author, Robert Jones Jr.; the historical novel hit shelves last week, but I imagine that movie rights are already in negotiation.
George Saunders has written many novels, but he’s also an undisputed—and often unorthodox—master of the short-story form, as readers of the New Yorker, among other publications, have come to appreciate. In A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, he trains his acute and probing writer’s eye on 19th century Russian short stories by the likes of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol, exploring not only the tales’ timeless themes but our mental role in the equation—how the gears in our minds whir while we’re imbibing the art. The book, which includes the original short stories followed by Saunders’ comments, germinated from Saunders’ MFA course on Russian short fiction at Syracuse University. To use a gauche term that Saunders himself would never employ, he essentially shows us how the literary sausage is made—a profound privilege that won’t burden you with decades of student loans.
This conceptually heady collection from the Italian-American author of Call Me By Your Name was, in his own words, inspired by four sentences he wrote years ago that continue to haunt him. Here’s one of them, from the introduction to Homo Irrealis: “I was toying with a might-have-been that hadn’t happened yet but wasn’t unreal for not happening and might still happen, though I feared it never would and sometimes wished it wouldn’t happen just yet.” This liminal space, untethered from past, present and future, is what Aciman means by “homo irrealis,” and it ripples through the themes of the recent essays in this book, which range from reconsiderations of figures like Sigmund Freud, W. G. Sebald, Éric Rohmer, Marcel Proust and others; city portraits of Alexandria and St. Petersburg; and reflections on subway poetry and the eeriness of the empty Italian streets during that country’s initial coronavirus lockdown.
This YA novel from the Moulite Sisters endeavors for an adult readership, too, thanks in part to its ripped-from-the-headlines themes. It’s set in the aftermath of the tragic death of a Black teen activist at a social justice rally—another state-sanctioned murder, it seems, at the hands of police—in which teen sisters Happi and Genny attempt to honor their slain compatriot in a novel way. The book’s title derives from the backhanded insult of the way the late activist is lauded in the media as “one of the good ones;” the story also incorporates the Negro Motorist Green Book, and is flush with narrative surprises.