Recommended May Releases

May and June are HUGE months for new releases. I’ve been doing enough early reading via NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’ve found plenty to recommend to you for next month. From a novel voiced by one of Hemingway’s wives to a physicist’s encouragement to waste more time, I hope there will be something here for everyone.

 

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

[Coming from Hogarth Press (USA) on the 1st and Bloomsbury (UK) on the 3rd]

At first I thought this was one of those funny, quirky but somewhat insubstantial novels about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants – something along the lines of Goodbye, Vitamin, The Portable Veblen, or All Grown Up. Then I thought it was just a crass sex comedy. But the further I read the deeper it all seemed to become: tropes from Greek myth and the fluidity of gender roles made me think of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another debut novel that surprised me for its profundity. Lucy, a thirty-eight-year-old PhD student, agrees to spend a summer dog-sitting for her yoga entrepreneur sister in Venice Beach, California while she undertakes therapy for the twin problems of low self-esteem and love addiction. If you know one thing about this book, it’s that there’s sex with a merman. Ultimately, though, I’d say it’s about “the prison of the body” and choosing which of the different siren voices calling us to listen to. I found it outrageous but rewarding.

My rating:

 

How to Be a Perfect Christian by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann

[Coming from Multnomah (USA) on the 1st]

The Babylon Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, so you know what you’re getting here: a very clever, pitch-perfect satire of evangelical Christianity today. If, like me, you grew up in a nondenominational church and bought into the subculture hook, line and sinker (Awana club, youth group, courtship, dc Talk albums, the whole shebang), you will find that so much of this rings true. The book is set up as a course for achieving superficial perfection through absolute “conformity to the status quo of the modern church.” Sample advice: find an enormous church that meets your needs, has a great coffee bar and puts on a laser-lit worship performance to rival “an amusement park for cats or a Def Leppard concert”; master the language of Christianese (“Keeping it in prayer” pretty much covers your bases); and bring as little as you can to the church potluck (a 25-pack of napkins) but consume as much as is anatomically possible. So, a lot of fun, just a little overlong because you get the joke early on.

My rating:

 

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

[Coming from Riverhead (USA) on the 15th]

In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. An alternating close third-person perspective gives glimpses into the main characters’ inner lives, and there are evocative descriptions of classical music. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art with the rest of life.

My rating:

 

Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr

[Coming from Harper (USA) on the 8th]

Mary Karr is mostly known as a memoirist, but this is actually her fifth poetry collection. Death is a major theme, with David Foster Wallace’s suicide and 9/11 getting multiple mentions. Karr also writes self-deprecatingly about her Texas childhood. Best of all is the multi-part “The Less Holy Bible”: a sort of Devil’s Dictionary based loosely around the books of the Bible, it bounces between Texas and New York City and twists biblical concepts into commonsense advice. Not one for those who are quick to cry heresy, perhaps, but I enjoyed it very much, especially “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath, / says God through the manhole covers, but you want magic, to win / the lottery you never bought a ticket for. … Don’t look for initials in the geese honking / overhead or to see through the glass even darkly. It says the most obvious shit, / i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”

My rating:

 

In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

[Coming from Simon & Schuster / TED (USA and UK) on the 15th]

Lightman, a physicist and MIT professor, argues that only in unstructured time can we rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes against the modern idea that time is money and every minute must be devoted to a project. “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. … I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when doing research in a village in Cambodia. He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them. This sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. (In short, he blames the Internet, but specifically smartphones.) Lightman insists on the spiritual benefits of free time and solitude. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.

My rating:

 

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

[Coming from Ballantine Books (USA) and Fleet (UK) on the 1st]

This is the weakest of the three McLain novels I’ve read, but when we’re talking about a writer of this caliber that isn’t much of a criticism. It’s strange to me that, having written a novel from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, McLain would choose to tell the story of another Hemingway wife – this time Martha Gellhorn, a war reporter and author in her own right. If I set aside this misgiving, though, and just assess the quality of the writing, there are definitely things to praise, such as the vivid scenes set during the Spanish Civil War, the dialogues between Martha and Hem, the way he perhaps fills in for her dead father, her fondness for his sons, and her jealousy over his growing success while her books sink like stones. I especially liked their first meeting in a bar in Key West, and the languid pace of their life in Cuba. I read such books because I’m intrigued about the appeal of a great man, but here I got a little bogged down with the many settings and events.

My rating:

 

 

What May books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?

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20 thoughts on “Recommended May Releases

  1. How to Be a Perfect Christian. Well, you know how I’d feel about that. In the first place, I realize the satire — everyone knows, even us true Christians, that there’s no such creature. It hurts to read you think you were duped. I ever wish you’d review a book that shows the sincere truth about living as a Christian. To me, that’s the only way to truly live.

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    1. I never said I was duped. My upbringing was what it was. I’ve taken from it what I can. Some things were helpful; some weren’t. It’s good to be able to laugh at absurdities, wherever they appear. The whole point of the book was to satirize the idea that there is some perfect Christian who achieves it all on their own steam. I have read many wonderful works of theology in subsequent years, by the likes of Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Kathleen Norris, and Richard Rohr.

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  2. I’m excited for Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s historical novel The Illumination of Ursula Flight; Adam Weymouth’s account of his canoe voyage through Alaska, Kings of the Yukon; Kevin Powers’s second novel, A Shout In the Ruins, set during the US Civil War; and The Hunters by Kat Gordon, which is set amongst Kenya’s Happy Valley set in the 1920s.

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    1. I’ve heard of the Crowhurst and Powers books (but have heard mixed reviews of the latter; I’ve read both his previous books and was kind of ‘meh’ about them). I’ll look out for your reading diary responses!

      The Pisces and The Ensemble would be great ones for you, I think.

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    1. “Mrs Hemingway” is wonderful, and that little bit better than both of McLain’s Hemingway-themed novels. But I imagine you’ll still enjoy this. And yes, they stand alone. Narrated by different Hemingway wives.

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  3. As the daughter of an evangelical pastor, who controversially ‘left the fold’, and is still being ‘prayed for’ 30 years later, I’m not sure whether I’d love ‘How to be a Perfect Christian’ or whether it would send me over the edge!

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    1. It has a very contemporary American perspective, so I’m not sure how much would ring true for you. Have you read Rebecca Stott’s In the Days of Rain? It’s a stunning book about leaving a close-knit Christian sect.

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  4. Oh The Ensemble looks great. I have just read Yusra Mardini’s “Butterfly”, out on 3 May, which is a memoir by the Syrian woman who escaped via land and sea to Germany and wanted to continue her swimming career, and was very good. “Oh, My God, What a Complete Aisling” by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen is an Irish comic novel I clicked for at the time and am now slightly dreading in case it’s just silly. Then I have Paul Theroux’ essays and pieces, “Figures in a Landscape” which I’m looking forward to taking on a trip, and Dan Hancox’ “Inner City Pressure” which is a useful-looking history of grime music and seems to have come up fast. Eeps! They’re all on NetGalley, then I have a book on 30 figures of early Islam to read for Shiny, coming out in pb this month I think.

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  5. The one here that really appeals to me is The Ensemble! Although, “merman sex” has me intrigued, I have to admit. 😉
    I’m a big fan of “free time”, especially for kids, and I don’t think we get enough of it. What I’m curious about is does he talk about his idea of what “wasting time” might be? Day-dreaming? Walking? Listening to music? Playing a game? Turning off the internet? In the days of instant gratification, free time could mean something different than it used to.

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    1. The Pisces is fairly filthy in places; I’m not sure it’s one I’d recommend to you specifically!

      Lightman’s book is very practical. He gives specific suggestions for different groups of people, like he thinks schools could have a daily period of silence and families could institute a device-free hour. He remembers hours of his childhood lost to playing in the woods and building things or experimenting. Basically it’s about letting your mind wander and your creativity flow rather than feeling like every minute has to be ‘productive’. This was co-issued by TED books, so I feel like there must have been a TED talk associated with it, but I haven’t been able to locate it yet.

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  6. Could I get through my day without a watch? Hm interesting thought. I’m not one of those people who are constantly checking the time but still, if you have appointments to keep, it’s hard to just rely on sixth sense of the time

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