Sisters by Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books 2020)
Reviewed by Nora Poole
Sisters, the chilling second novel from British writer Daisy Johnson, is about, well, sisters: a pair of them, named September and July, who leave their home in Oxford with their mother Sheela after a terrible incident occurs at their school. The three retreat to a ramshackle family home near the seaside, where the girls go about their days listless and inseparable, seemingly waiting out the depression that has settled on their mother. We enter the story in what feels like the aftermath, a climax already nestled in the past. The entirety of the novel feels like it’s both building toward the moment we find out what happened at the girls’ school, and like it’s fleeing that same moment. The book is an unsettling portrait of the teenage sisters’ troubled- and troubling- relationship, asking how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice for love, groping for the line between protecting your loved ones and consuming them.
What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forche (Penguin Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
History is written as much by the victors as it is by its witnesses. Witnesses are often responsible for giving voice to the unrecorded events and marginalized factions that history textbooks tend to gloss over. Poet Carolyn Forche served as one such witness to the beginnings of the Civil War in El Salvador, bearing witness to both atrocities and small glimmers of hope.
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams (Doubleday Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Clare Beams’ new novel, The Illness Lesson is a gripping historical fiction that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The novel is set in Ashwell, Massachusetts in 1871, where Samuel Hood, a retired transcendental essayist, is establishing The School for the Trilling Heart. This private school for young women is the first of its kind. Its courses are taught by Samuel, young Civil War veteran David, and Samuel’s daughter Caroline. Throughout the novel, we follow Caroline as she struggles with her identity as an educated, unwed twenty-eight year old woman.
My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei, trans. by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press 2020)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Kudlacz
Who was Yi Lei?
For many in the Western world, this leading figure in contemporary Chinese poetry is probably unknown. Thanks to the efforts of Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, English-speaking readers can appreciate the richness of Yi Lei’s bilingual collection of poems My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree.
The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan (Dutton Books 2016)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
Daily expressions of gratitude can change your life. Even during this global pandemic. Even now, as our country roils with outrage and sorrow over the ceaseless violence perpetrated on black Americans and people of color. Learning to practice gratitude elevates all of us. Even now. Especially now.
handiwork by Sara Baume (Tramp Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
There is an artist inside all of us. The art we create can be subjective, but that does not diminish the time, care, and functionality someone puts into the act of creating. That is just one of the lessons gleamed from Irish author Sara Baume’s nonfiction debut, handiwork. In this short narrative, Baume combines her mediums of sculpting, carving, writing, and photography to illustrate the trials and joys of being an artist. handiwork chronicles her thoughts on the universality of art and its struggles while working on a woodworking series about her fascination with birds. She even treats her readers with the fruits of her carving labors with interspersed photographs of her avian subjects.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, trans. by Jen Calleja (Coach House Books 2020)
Reviewed by Aramis Grant
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja from German, follows middle-aged German professor Gilbert Silvester. Silvester is a researcher on beard styles in film, who, after dreaming of his wife cheating on him, reacts in his waking life as if his dream reveals an unquestionable truth. He allows his anger and disappointment to carry him overseas to Japan, where he meets a suicidal young man named Yosa Tamagotchi.
Obviously, it’s a weird time to be alive. I won’t say much more about COVID-19 here, other than the fact that I am grateful to find solace in books while home-bound.
In that vein, I asked our editors and frequent contributors to send over a book or two that has made their quarantine more manageable. Some of these are old favorites, some are new finds, but all are solid picks to stave off your quarantine-fueled boredom, and maybe even provide a little hope or inspiration in moments of chaos and confusion.
No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder
Reviewed by LaVonne Roberts
Sometimes a book comes along and, long after it is absorbed, nothing is the same. Rachel Louise Snyder’s No Visible Bruises demands that we have a conversation about an insidious national epidemic—domestic violence. Ms. Snyder reports, domestic violence, or “intimate partner terrorism,” as she prefers, is “among the most difficult of subjects to report on” because it’s “vast and unwieldy, but it’s also utterly hidden.” It’s like no other crime because it’s intimate— committed by someone who’s supposed to love you in the one place you’re supposed to be safe— your home.