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It’s time for the monthly Bar\Heart Book List! Here are the 10 titles I’m most looking forward to in May.
This month gives us biker gangs and coming of age stories, dystopian futures, a curmudgeonly octopus, living dinosaurs, strangers disrupting the peace on an isolated island, women in country music, a mother trying to give a child a "better" life, and the story of how enslaved peoples impacted America's origin and culture. Did I mention the octopus?
As always, the list prioritizes books that address our themes of home, community, belonging and identity. I assign bonus points for debut and emerging women+ authors.
Join me on Friday (4/6) at 4:30 p.m. EST for a chat with special guest is Leigh Newman, author of the short story collection, Nobody Gets Out Alive. (From April's book list.) We'll be Live on my Instagram -- @haimerlad -- making a cocktail and chatting about her book, writing and what it’s like growing up in Alaska.
Oh and definitely leave me a comment below on which titles grab you!
Knopf; May 24, 2022
Notes: We’ve got biker gangs, buddhists and a coming-of-age story in the hands of Nell Zink. Sign me up! However, the limited reviews are thus far mixed. Still, I’m always willing to give Zink a chance. Here’s how the publisher describes it: “Exceedingly rich, ecstatically dark, and delivered with masterful humor, Avalon is a poignant portrait of a young woman who, against all odds, is determined to find her place in the world and find clarity in its remote corners.”
Review: Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, saying “Zink delves into class, art, and American culture in a characteristically witty bildungsroman . . . Even more impactful than the intellectual ballistics is the tortured romance story. The style is all Zink’s own, and she’s as brilliant as ever here.” However, Kirkus says it is “a rather flat offering from an exceptional author.”
Graywolf Press; May 3, 2022
Notes: Sometimes the publisher's description just pulls you in. I marked this book months ago in hopes that it will be a meditation on good intent and belonging. Here's what the publisher says: "Saddled with student loans, medical debt, and the sudden news of her infertility after a major car accident, Shannon, an African American woman, follows her boyfriend to Morocco in search of relief. There, in the cobblestoned medina of Marrakech, she finds a toddler in a pink jacket whose face mirrors her own. Shannon makes the fateful decision to adopt and raise the girl in Louisville, Kentucky. But the girl already has a mother: Souria, an undocumented Mauritanian woman who was trafficked as a teen, and who managed to escape to Morocco to build another life. ... Mother Country is a bone-deep and unsparing portrayal of the ethical and emotional claims we make upon one another in the name of survival, in the name of love.
Review: “An absolute marvel of a book. Jacinda Townsend is dazzling as she transports the reader to a different time and place.” —Roxane Gay
Ecco; May 3, 2022
Notes: They had me at octopus. I love these mysterious creatures and how smart they are. Videos of them escaping their tanks? I’ll watch all day.. So what could be better than a “curmudgeonly giant Pacific octopus reluctantly residing at the local aquarium” who befriends a recent widow and helps her learn the truth about her son’s disappearance three decades earlier?
Review: Kirkus Reviews says this “debut novel about a woman who befriends an octopus is a charming, warmhearted read,” and Booklist gave it a starred review saying it is “a unique and luminous book."
W.W. Norton; May 3, 2022
Notes: I appreciate a good dystopian novel, though I am picky. A few years ago, I loved The Rending and the Nest, but I haven’t come across another such novel that has captured me. I’m hoping it’s The Immortal King Rao, which is written by a former Wall Street Journal technology reporter. Already it’s on the most-anticipated lists from Vulture, The Millions and so many more. Here’s the set up from the publisher: “In an Indian village in the 1950s, a precocious child is born into a family of Dalit coconut farmers. King Rao will grow up to be the most accomplished tech CEO in the world and, eventually, the leader of a global, corporate-led government.” But in the future his daughter will have to grapple with his legacy as climate change rages. Vulture says it’s a marriage of family saga and biotech satire.
Reviews: Utterly, thrillingly brilliant. From the first unforgettable page to the last, The Immortal King Rao is a form-inventing, genre-exploding triumph. Vauhini Vara's bravura debut has reshaped my brain and expanded my heart.--R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries
Riverhead Books; May 3, 2022
Notes: There is no way to consider Hernan Diaz an emerging author: His first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and he won the Guggenheim Prize. I’m including him anyway because I’m fascinated by the premise and structure of Trust.
On its surface, the story is about the Trasks, a wealthy New York couple in the 1920s. Roaring twenties, flowing champagne and all that jazz. The first part of Diaz’s story tells their story. But then in three more sections, we get new perspectives and information – leaving the reader wondering if everything they thought they knew about the Trasks was wrong.
Here’s what the publisher says: "Hernan Diaz’s Trust elegantly puts competing narratives into conversation with one another—and in tension with the perspective of one woman bent on disentangling fact from fiction. The result is a novel that spans over a century and becomes more exhilarating with each new revelation.
Review: Esquire calls it: “[A] riveting story of class, capitalism, and greed. The result is a mesmerizing metafictional alchemy of grand scope and even grander accomplishment.” And Kirkus gave it a starred review, saying it’s “a feat of literary gamesmanship [that] brilliantly weaves its multiple perspectives to create a symphony of emotional effects . . . [T]he collection of palimpsests makes for a thrilling experience ...A clever and affecting high-concept novel of high finance.”
Pantheon; May 3, 2022
Notes: I am always eagerly anticipating a new Julia Glass novel. She, like Richard Russo, is a writer I just devour (even their lesser novels). Many people may have first found Julia with her book Three Junes, which won the National Book Award and introduced audiences to her style of braiding multiple characters and perspectives. I fell in love with her in The Whole World Over, nearly 15 years ago. And am interested in how I read her work as a middle-aged woman as opposed to one on the cusp of her 30s. Here’s how the publisher describes this book: “When two unexpected visitors arrive in an insular coastal village, they threaten the equilibrium of a community already confronting climate instability, political violence, and domestic upheavals—a cast of unforgettable characters from the rich imagination of Glass.”
Reviews: “In her new novel, Julia Glass gathers a combustible cast of characters, places them ten years from now, and strikes a match. Fast-paced, immersive, and imaginatively daring, Vigil Harbor is a brave look at our climate perils, our political moment, and our deep dependence on one another.” —Lily King, author of Writers & Lovers
Knopf; May 17, 2022
Notes: Best-selling novelist Maggie Shipstead decided to take on the short story – a completely different form than a novel – and scores the hat trick of the literary world: starred reviews from the big three review pubs.
Here’s how the publisher summarizes the collection: A love triangle plays out over decades on a Montana dude ranch. A hurdler and a gymnast spend a single night together in the Olympic village. Mistakes and mysteries weave an intangible web around an old man’s deathbed in Paris, connecting disparate destinies. On the slopes of an unfinished ski resort, a young woman searches for her vanished lover. A couple’s Romanian honeymoon goes ominously awry, and, in the mesmerizing title story, a former child actress breaks with her life in a Hollywood cult.”
Review: “The 10 stories in this daring, wide-ranging debut collection resonate as they leap across time and space . . . The masterwork is the deeply unsettling “La Moretta.” Interspersed with segments from an enigmatic inquisition, it documents a honeymoon excursion gone horribly wrong. Here and throughout, Shipstead demonstrates a remarkable ability to interlace the events of ordinary life with a mythological sense of preordained destruction. Both formally inventive and emotionally complex, this pays off with dividends.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review
Simon & Schuster; May 31, 2022
Notes: This is the latest from eminent historian David Hackett Fisher – who has won the Pulitzer and Pritzker prizes. This time he turns from Washington’s Crossing to a crossing of a different kind: That of enslaved people to this country and their impact on American ideals and sense of identity. From the publisher: “African Founders explores the little-known history of how enslaved people from different regions of Africa interacted with colonists of European origins to create new regional cultures in the colonial United States. The Africans brought with them linguistic skills, novel techniques of animal husbandry and farming, and generations-old ethical principles, among other attributes. This startling history reveals how much our country was shaped by these African influences in its early years, producing a new, distinctly American culture.”
Reviews: “Fischer shows how a gifted historian, at the peak of his powers, reframes the current debate over the role of slavery and race in American history. He does so by becoming a fully informed witness rather than a politically informed judge. Here the larger truth of our origins as a biracial society is not lost, but found, in the details." -Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents
Atria Books; May 3, 2022
Notes: The Bestie™ once threatened to disown me if I became a birder. All these years later, the jokes on her: Her husband is obsessed with birds and she’s often out photographing them with him. I’ve stayed mostly bird neutral, except for hawks and other birds of prey. So I was definitely interested when I found out the naturalist, Sy Montgomery – who wrote the bestselling Soul of an Octopus – was publishing a memoir of her time with hawks. The reviews are mixed, but the opening line convinced me to make a place for Hawk’s Way on this list: “Inches from my face, I hold a living dinosaur.”
Reviews: “Occasionally, Montgomery’s lyrical bent finds her indulging in the sort of dramatics and anthropomorphism that are more romantic than empirical…Yet the author helps us forgive these excesses, and a rather selective love of animals, with her powers of observation and total absorption.” – Kirkus Reviews
Henry Holt & Co.; May 10, 2022
Notes: If you know me, you know this is definitely on my list. I’m a feminist who grew up on country music and has a deep love for the women of this genre. From the publisher: Her Country is veteran Nashville journalist Marissa R. Moss’s story of how in the past two decades, country’s women fought back against systems designed to keep them down, armed with their art and never willing to just shut up and sing: how women like Kacey, Mickey, Maren, The Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Rissi Palmer, Brandy Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Brandi Carlile, Margo Price and many more have reinvented the rules to find their place in an industry stacked against them,
Reviews: “Moss illustrates how these artists have carved out spaces for women, including women of color and LGBTQIA+ people, who are even less represented in the country music field. Moss’s clear and accessible writing is a delight, deftly capturing the lyricism of the genre…A must for anyone interested in country music and how the genre reflects on the United States as a whole.” —Library Journal, starred review
A Note On Links: You can order books from this month's – and every month's! – Bar\Heart Book List on Bookshop.org. I use this site, rather than Amazon, because it financially supports independent bookstores. So far, they’ve given back more than $20 million to indies! (You can read more about how it works here.) I am also a Bookshop.org affiliate, so I receive a small fee from sales made from links in this newsletter. It doesn’t cost you anything extra or take from the bookstores’ cut, though! Just want to be upfront with y’all.
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What is Bar\Heart? It is Amy Haimerl’s weekly newsletter and podcast about belonging in America and the places we call home. Plus cocktails! You can read more about it here. The midweek edition includes intimate conversations from the heart; the Friday Cocktail Hour is a round up drink recipes, book recommendations and other detritus I pick up on the Internet and in life.