“The Invention of Wings” (Viking) by Sue Monk Kidd, out January 7th.
Monk Kidd, author of the popular novel “The Secret Life of Bees,” draws on the history of Sarah Grimké, the brilliant and unconventional daughter of wealthy Charlestown plantation owners, who became an activist, joining abolition to the fight for equal rights for women. The novel alternates between the voices of Sarah, who is trying to figure out what to do with her powerful mind, and Hetty (Handful) Grimke, a slave with a sharp, rebellious spirit, whom Sarah is “given” on her eleventh birthday. (“I was a handful. That’s not how I got my name, though. Handful was my basket name…. If you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma. Master Grimke named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful.”) The two girls begin a long, complex friendship, as they both push for different forms of freedom. It’s Oprah’s newest selection for her Book Club 2.0—a ticket to the best-seller list.
“Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Wendy Lesser, out January 7th.
In the tradition of E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel” and James Wood’s “How Fiction Works,” Lesser’s “Why I Read” is an investigation of the mechanisms behind great literature, with chapter headings like “Character and Plot,” “Novelty,” “Authority,” and “Grandeur and Intimacy.” Lesser—the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel—takes a broad definition of literature that encompasses plays and poems, essays and journalism, mysteries and science fiction. Her tone is scholarly but conversational, and informed by her own obvious pleasure in reading: “I live in [the world] with, and through, literature,” she writes. “That, I suppose, is what I am hoping to transmit—that sense of connection with something other than oneself and one’s friends and one’s life in this time.” The series of loosely linked chapters concludes with an afterword that contemplates books as physical objects, and lists a hundred books to read for pleasure.
“Leaving the Sea: Stories” (Alfred A. Knopf), by Ben Marcus, out January 7th.
The protagonists in Marcus’s new collection of disturbing and excruciatingly funny short stories (several of them first published in The New Yorker) are socially inappropriate, alienated from their lovers and relatives, anxious, bitter, mortified, lonely—“you could pretty much go shopping from a list of adjectives,” as one character puts it. In “What Have You Done?” a middle-aged man returns to visit his family in Cleveland, and he finds himself unable to break old patterns of destructive behavior. In “The Dark Arts,” a young man with an autoimmune disease seeks experimental treatment in Germany while waiting for his estranged girlfriend to show up. In “Rollingwood,” a divorced father who is struggling to care for his infant son faces the hostility or the indifference of everyone around him. The collection’s later stories are more experimental in style and subject matter, but they, too, address themes of isolation and existential inquietude: the final one, about a man’s visit to the office coffee machine, features a hilarious inner monologue of social anxiety and self-loathing and concludes, like a number of the previous stories, with a wrenching moment of tenderness and solace.
“Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka” (Knopf), by Jay Cantor, out January 14th.
This fictional tribute to the life and work of Franz Kafka follows in the vein of Cantor’s previous works of fiction—“Great Neck,” “Krazy Kat,” and “The Death of Che Guevara”—all of which use familiar figures and true events as a springboard for offbeat and psychologically incisive storytelling. The four stories here center on real figures in Kafka’s life: Max Brod, his friend and literary executor; Dora Diamont, his lover, who kept many of his writings after his death; and Milena Jasenska, another lover, who was his first translator. The lives of all of people are profoundly affected by their relationship with Kafka and by their stewardship of his work. The writer himself is a distant but powerful force in the stories, a Kafkaesque presence haunting his own legacy.
“A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese war Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II” (Scribner), by Eric Jaffe, out January 14th.
Okawa Shumei, whose writings were largely responsible for shaping Japanese militarism during the Second World War, was the only civilian among the top suspects to be tried in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, often called Japan’s Nuremberg. He was also the only defendant to walk away unpunished: his erratic behavior in the hearings led to a determination that he was insane, and unfit to stand trial, a controversial ruling. Contemporary observers and historians have suspected that Okawa feigned madness, fooling the U.S. Army’s psychiatrists. Eric Jaffe is the grandson of one of the psychiatrists who examined Okawa, and he brings an explicitly personal angle—a desire to understand and vindicate his grandfather—to his reëxamination of the case. Jaffe’s extensive look at Army records and primary accounts of the case is supplemented by notes he discovered in his grandfather’s papers and interviews with his grandfather’s colleagues. He learns about the early experiences of his grandfather, a taciturn man with mental illness in his own family, and about Okawa’s path to radicalism, tracing their lives to their brief but historically weighty point of intersection.
“Perfect” (Random House), by Rachel Joyce, out January 14th.
Joyce’s acclaimed début novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” (2012), centered on a sixty-five-year-old retiree’s journey of self-discovery (the book was long-listed for the Booker prize). In her second novel, the journey belongs to an eleven-year-old boy, Byron Hemmings. His story begins in 1972, a leap year, when his friend James informs him that two seconds are being added to the clock to keep recorded time aligned with the movement of the Earth. Though his elegant mother, Diana, is unfazed by the idea of this temporal adjustment, Byron is convinced that it will have terrible consequences. (“Sometimes Byron gazed at the sky above the moor, pulsing so heavily with stars that the darkness seemed alive, and he would ache—ache for the removal of those two extra seconds.”) When an accident occurs on the way to school, his fears appear to have been well founded: his life has been irrevocably transformed. Byron’s coming-of-age story alternates and, ultimately, converges with that of Jim, a middle-aged man struggling with O.C.D. in the present day.
“The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by David Stuart MacLean, out January 14th.
In 2002, studying as a Fulbright scholar in India, David MacLean suddenly found himself on a train platform with no recollection of who he was or how he’d got there. A stranger helped him to a hospital, and he was eventually diagnosed with amnesia caused by his malaria medication. Unlike in the movies, where amnesia is cured by a hit on the head, MacLean’s recovery was an agonizing process—he pieced together his personality and memories with slow learning. He writes eloquently about the bizarre and disturbing experience of having his sense of self erased and then reconstructed from scratch.
“Orfeo” (Norton), by Richard Powers, out January 20th.
The highly anticipated new novel by Powers, winner of the National Book Award and a MacArthur grant, is a take on the Orpheus myth, the story of a man attempting to escape his daily life by delving into his own history. Peter Els is a composer who comes under investigation by Homeland Security for his experiments in a homemade microbiology lab, where he is attempting to “find music in surprising patterns.” On the run, he visits all of the major figures from his past, all the while attempting to create a major new piece of music. The critic A. O. Scott has written of Powers that no American novelist makes a stronger case “that the writing of novels is a heroic enterprise, and perhaps even a matter of life and death.” The opening pages of the book give a taste of the book’s grand-scale ambition and thrill:
The brew goes into the thermal cycler for twenty-five rounds of roller-coaster flux, swinging between near boiling and tepid. For two hours, DNA melts and anneals, snatches up free-floating nucleotides, and doubles each time through the loop…. No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement…. But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.
“Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Simon Winder, out January 21st.
In a rollicking book that is part travelogue and part history, Winder takes up the unwieldy topic of the Habsburgs. The sprawling family empire ruled much of Europe for more than centuries, owing to a combination of “cunning, dimness, luck, and brilliance.” From the Middle Ages until the end of the First World War, Winder writes, “there was hardly a twist in Europe’s history to which they did not contribute.” Winder, whose best-seller “Germania” took a similar approach to German history, explores the story of the dynasty and the lasting imprint of its reign by travelling the expanse of its former empire and giving a lively account of his research. He is thorough and funny, and the book is rich with anecdotes and enthusiastic appreciation, and it includes a broad survey of the artifacts and landscapes that tell the story of the family that laid the foundation of modern Europe.
“Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001” (Norton), edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, out January 27th.
Twenty years ago, the poet and activist Forché published “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness,” an anthology of works from around the world that were composed under conditions of oppression and strife. She contended that such works merit consideration in a special category, apart from regular confessional poetry, because of their combination of the personal and the political, as well as their illumination of conditions of “social and historical extremity.” Now, in another hefty collection, Forché and Wu, her co-editor, demonstrate that poetry of witness reaches far back into the English literary tradition. In this anthology, you’ll find works that deal explicitly with politics or atrocity (Samuel Bamford on the Peterloo Massacre, Anne Askew’s account of being persecuted for heresy), as well as writing that speaks more obliquely to the authors’ experiences of extremity (Blake’s “Prisons are built with stones of Law” is considered in light of his presence at the Gordon Riots). The editors’ extensive and varied selection amounts to a reconfiguration of English literary history and a consideration of the purposes and achievements of poetry.