Part of being a book critic is having an ever-growing stack of material that you need or want to read. Admittedly, some of these books you will never get to, mostly because there is only so much reading any one human can do in a day, even if reading is what you love. Not to mention that staying current with what books are coming out is always going to be a losing battle, for every book you finish, five more come out the next week. Meaning, you have to take a look at that stack of books by your desk or that list you have saved in your computer and find those that speak to you. With all that said, here are four books, either already released in 2020 or will be later in the year that I have designated must-reads.
Catherine Lacey: “Pew”
Catherine Lacey is on a steady path towards greatness, and in her wake is a collection of soon to be classics. First, there was “Nobody Is Ever Missing” in 2014, a book about a woman jetting off to New Zealand, leaving behind her husband, family and a deep sense of dissatisfaction in search of something to soothe her haunted past. The best way I could describe it is a millennial’s answer to “On the Road”, the seminal novel by Jack Kerouac, only “Nobody Is Ever Missing” feels more urgent and tragic. In 2017, Lacey followed up with “The Answers”, about a woman taking on a strange job as a man’s “emotional support girlfriend”. Then, in 2018, she published the criminally underrated short story collection “Certain American States”. Not too shabby for a 35-year-old.
Lacey’s latest novel, “Pew”, was released in January by publisher Macmillan. Chinelo Okparanta, a former writing teacher of mine, once said that there are only two types of stories, a stranger comes to town and a stranger goes on an adventure. From descriptions, “Pew” seems to be the former. Set in a rural, southern town in the U.S., “Pew” follows a titular character. One day, a family discovers a stranger sleeping in their church. They (the stranger) are genderless and raceless, they have no name, their age is unknown and there is no clear idea where in the world they came from. The family, believing themselves good Christians, take the stranger, who they later name Pew, into their home, and from there, the novel centers on Pew’s interactions with the small town.
If it’s not obvious by my introduction for Lacey, I am a huge fan of her work. Her prose are lush, and they stick to the reader like tar. She, more than any other contemporary author I have read, seems to get the plight of an aimless adult in a post-recession America. I cannot wait to get my copy of “Pew”.
Ottessa Moshfegh: “Death in Her Hands”
Like Catherine Lacey, Moshfegh has done a lot in a short amount of time. Her novella “McGlue” was released in 2014. “Eileen”, her 2015 debut centered on an unhappy woman working in a prison in the 1960s. After that, Moshfegh published “Homesick for Another World”, a short story collection in 2017, and quickly followed up with “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” in 2018. “Death in her hands”, her third novel, is set for release on June 23.
According to Penguin Random House, the book’s publisher, the novel plays out as a murder mystery in conjunction with Moshfegh’s traditional black humor. The plot centers on a woman trying to solve the murder of somebody named Magda after she finds a note while she is on a walk in the woods. The note says, “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her body.” But the narrator finds no corpse nearby. She is quite shaken by the note, and eventually becomes obsessed with the mystery woman, even going so far as to make up her own personality for her.
I would categorize Moshfegh’s writing by her vivid descriptions that often do not shy away from the disgusting. In “Eileen”, the titular character describes her bodily functions in vivid detail. But, do not be mistaking, Moshfegh is not in it merely for the shock value. With her razor-sharp prose, Moshfegh is a cultural critic, often taking aim at the absurdities of everyday life.
Andrew Martin: “Cool for America: Stories”
I have a deep affinity for short fiction. Sure, I might be biased because short fiction is what I write in my free time, but on a more critical level, I feel like, ironically, the shorter format lends to more freedom in storytelling. With that said, I am eagerly anticipating “Cool for America: Stories” by Andrew Martin, set for publication on July 7. Kirkus Reviews says of the collection and Martin, “Martin has emerged as a leading chronicler of millennial ennui in contemporary America…The 11 stories all feature young people struggling to find authentic connections to friends, family, work, and culture in a modern America not particularly interested in them or their opinions.”
I’m not familiar with Martin’s work, but often, finding your next favorite author or book is a shot in the dark. However, a short fiction collection about “millennial ennui” is right up my alley, and I will definitely add “Cool for America: Stories” to my Amazon cart as July 7 approaches.
Zora Neale Hurston: “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick”
Zora Neale Hurston is undoubtedly an American literary icon and on the Mount Rushmore of African-American writers. A figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston is perhaps most known for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. Her writing is known for its highly stylistic African-American Vernacular English dialogue, use of traditional African mysticism and folklore tinged with racial and gender politics.
“Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick” contains 21 of Hurston’s stories, eight of them never before seen by readers as they were previously lost in various archives. In his review for The Guardian, Colin Grant describes the collection as containing “…feisty women who deploy whatever strategies are available to escape their bullish men.” Which is a subject Hurston returned to over and over during her career.
Really, I am most excited for this collection, which was released in January, because other than “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, I have not read Hurston enough to say I know her well. And seeing as how I am always trying to keep up with contemporary fiction, “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick” seems like the best opportunity to familiarize myself with an icon. So, whether you remember reading Hurston in high school or college, are ashamed you have never heard of her or just want to re-read stories you already know, go pick up “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.”