10 great new books to read in March
Most of the time, authenticity in art is kind of a nebulous thing, better settled by a smell test than a Google search. Of course, some things will be made up – it’s fiction. The story just needs to feel real.
But then there are those boring elements: the details that don’t ring true because you know better. Because the author just didn’t do his homework.
Have you ever read a book about Philadelphia that mentions a family liquor store? Or a 14th street? Exasperating. I saw a movie five years ago that called Broad Street Broadway and I’m still crazy about it. Part of that comes from that little brother chip on our shoulder that we’re all born here with. How dare CNN not tag us on their hurricane maps? How dare Independence Day destroy us offscreen?
But when an author succeeds, when his Philadelphia feels like the real Philly, all is well in the world. Fortunately, I’ve read a few local novels that pass this test, both written by authors who have spent time here.
One is the powerful Temple teacher Liz Moore long luminous river from 2020, about a cop searching for his opioid-using sister on the darker stretches of Kensington Avenue. We see the old club police station, the frightened citizens, the lost souls wandering the streets in amazement, and we recognize our city and its shortcomings. It doesn’t surprise me that a film adaptation is in the works; I’m thrilled to hear that Moore herself will be writing the screenplay. long luminous river doesn’t need a Hollywood ending.
The other book that satisfied my philly sense is January’s The school of good mothers by Jessamine Chan (who lived here when she wrote the book). In this utterly heartbreaking dystopia, Philadelphia is the testing ground for a new CPS program that sends “bad” moms to a year-long boot camp where they must learn to care for lifelike dolls. disturbing if they ever want to see their real children again. Even as I panicked over the psychological torture the mothers were going through, I couldn’t help but notice the familiar descriptions of the neighborhood and their corresponding attitudes.
Jessica Chastain won the bidding war to shoot The school of good mothers in a TV series, and, as long as she’s not aiming to get in the lead, I have high hopes. (The protagonist Frida Liu is of Chinese descent, and they have to honor that.)
And now here’s a bunch of great new books, albeit set in lesser cities, countries, and realities.
It takes a minute for this deranged little novel to come together, and we imagine some Squaresville readers won’t like what they’re looking at: a world ravaged by climate catastrophe and a people forced to survive by ugly means. which it is better not to state here. But stay with The Doloriade and you might appreciate the tricky phrases that detail its indelicate ideas and dark, comedic vibe. This is Missouri Williams’ first novel and I’ll follow her anywhere, reading between my fingers, smiling through clenched teeth. (MCD x FSG Originals, $17, available now)
In her quietly gripping new novel, Julie Otsuka (When the emperor was divine, The Buddha in the Attic) describes the women who make daily trips to an underground community swimming pool: “We suffer from back pain, fallen arches, broken dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholy, anhedonia, usual surface afflictions. Corn swimmers is often direct and clinical in its descriptions of lives destroyed by history, disappointment and disease, the storytelling is never cold or isolating. Instead, we get to know these women, detail by detail, until we feel what they feel. A good book for crying. (Knopf, $23, available now)
There’s a lot to like about Willa Marks, the self-proclaimed environmentalist who, at the start of Allegra Hyde’s debut novel, buys a one-way ticket to the Bahamas to join an ecocommune, uninvited. She is impulsive, she is proactive, she is a believer. But his brand of Ted Lasso can hurt idealism, well, that’s a lot. Come to think of it, just about everyone in this fast-paced, slippery romance is a bit suspicious: Willa’s budding cousins, the aloof environmentalists whose party she crashes, their secret guru boss who – eh well, nobody trusts a guru. But there’s an infectious strain of hope inside our heroine and throughout this book that delights even when things get dire. (Vintage, $17, March 8)
In the foreword to her moving new historical novel, Karen Joy Fowler explains that she had the families of mass shooters in mind when she first sat down to write about the infamous Booths. “What happens to love when the person you love is a monster?” So while John Wilkes is the reason for Booth, it is not the star. Instead, we follow the patriarch Junius, a hugely talented and often drunken actor who builds a life and career full of glory, tragedy and scandal. All the while, the tension mounts as we get closer to war, assassination, and the downfall of the family. Fowler, whose magnificent and intimate We are all completely beside ourselves was a surprise hit in 2014, here returns with an ambitious and consequential saga about a family with a monster among them. (The Sons of GP Putnam, $28, March 8)
Set in modern-day Nigeria, where homosexuality is prohibited by law, Eloghosa Osunde’s magico-realistic debut novel is populated by queer characters whose very existence is an act of defiance. Worried, we watch them dance and love on the fringes as reality, history and mythology weave and unravel around them in wondrous and terrifying ways. Osunde is also a visual artist, and her prose resembles her photo manipulations in which everyday earth tones are sent shimmering by outside forces, like an undulating puddle of mud reflecting a stormy sky. Wanderers! will break your heart even if it restores your spirit. (Riverhead Books, $28, March 15)
Although this collection of essays is too likely episodic and pointed to qualify as memoir, Run towards danger offers insight into the author’s transition from child actor on Canadian television to Oscar-nominated director, and a myriad of weird and difficult detours in between. If you’ve only known Polley for Splice Where dawn of the dead, You should read this book. So go look Yesterday evening. (Penguin Press, $27, available now)
Fans of Jon Ronson’s thoughtful style of journalism will enjoy this collection of interviews with interesting people who believe in interesting things. There is a ghost hunter and a ufologist, of course, but also a death doula, a creationist-slash-geologist, etc. (Tin House, $27.95, available now)
Billed as a “joyful dystopia” (as opposed to a “dark utopia”, perhaps), Japanese author Yoko Tawada’s new novel kicks off a trilogy of adventures set in a world fantastical post-japan full of robots, ruins and climatic upheavals. (New Directions, $16.95, available now)
This light-hearted memoir follows the veteran actor and writer through several decades of comic success and failure – Mr. Show, SNL, The Dana Carvey Show, Run Ronnie Run!, etc – before arriving at his dramatic “breakthrough” role as Saul Goodman. There’s not much soul here, just a tour of recent comedy history led by one of its most interesting minds. (Random House, $28, available now)
The author of The Book of M. returns with a thriller about a woman who loses her father but finds a strange and valuable road map in his office…and it leads to the treasure of One-Eyed Willy. JK. I’m not going to tell you what’s going on with the card. Read the book. (William Morrow, $27.99, March 15)
Other books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly summary of good reads on Inquirer.com and in the Inquirer on the first Sunday of the month.