While it’s always pleasurable to read a new work from a top literary talent, exploring the deep tracks of their early work can provide some delicate insights. Such is the case “The April 3rd Incident,” a collection of short stories published between 1987 and 1991 by Chinese author Yu Hua (“To Live,” etc.), now available in the United States for the first time.
Written in the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution, these seven stories avoid the topic of politics directly, but showcase the violence, loneliness, and fear Yu Hua experienced and witnessed as a young man — themes that would come to dominate his later work.
Soaked in inspiration from experimental writers like Kafka and Borges, the stories in “The April 3rd Incident” provide a welcome insight into a country — and an author — in transition. Read full review
This Halloween, many of us are looking for a good scare. But that bone-chilling, up-all-night fear comes not from corn mazes and haunted houses but from stories: well-worn fables about jilted lovers or murdered children grounded in just enough reality to be convincing. Author Alyson Hagy, who was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains, understands the power of folklore, and her latest novel, “Scribe,” takes inspiration from regional myths, family legends and narratives rooted in indigenous cultures. The result is a decidedly American horror story about greed, identity and unabashed optimism — a story just scary enough to be true.
In the aftermath of a brutal civil war and plague, “the world ... had become a gospel of disturbances,” says the narrator, a woman who scrapes out a meager living writing letters in exchange for rations. She lives alone in her family’s decaying farmhouse and shares her land with the Uninvited, a migrant group who believe the narrator’s dead sister to be a prophetic healer. But the narrator does not share her sister’s sympathies for the blighted and maintains a suspicious peace with the group and with local enforcer Billy Kingery, an arrangement that fails spectacularly when she agrees to write a letter for a mysterious stranger. Read full review
As author and journalist Sarah Smarsh explains in her powerful nonfiction debut “Heartland,” she grew up a “poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality,” moving in and around Wichita more than 20 times during her childhood in the 1980s and ’90s. A fifth-generation farm kid, Smarsh’s life was steeped in poverty and uncertainty, despite all the adults in her life working full time. In her world, it was all hands-on deck, and Smash learned early on the value of being useful, helping with everything from farmwork and construction projects to firework sales and mortgage paperwork. But in addition to her tenacious work ethic, Smash learned something else standing alongside her family: that the work done by the people she loved so much was often undervalued, as were the people themselves. Read full review
While Apartheid gripped South Africa, Sisonke Msimang, author of the memoir “Always Another Country” (out Sept. 4th from World Editions) was born in Zambia. Her’s was a life in exile: her father was a famous freedom fighter with the African National Congress, and her mother steadily supported the family as an accountant. “My sister and I are freedom’s children, born into the ANC and nurtured within a revolutionary community whose sole purpose is to fight apartheid,” she explains in the prologue.
Life in exile, where “home is always another country,” is filled with highs and lows, as Msimang and her family move from Zambia to Kenya to Canada before finally returning to South Africa in the 1990s. In sharp, fast-paced chapters Msimang details new communities and new adventures, as well as racist remarks and cultural misunderstandings. But throughout it all there is the steadfast love of her family, as seen in a myriad of heartwarming examples, such as when young Sisonke and her family, in an attempt to fit into their new Canadian community, set off for an ill-fated camping trip. The girls help their mother, “in her smart jeans and inappropriate shoes” try in vain to set up a tent. “Mummy had no idea what she was doing, but, fortified by African pride and the immigrant’s commitment to blending in, she wasn’t going to ask for help.” Read full review
The latest novel by Bernice L. McFadden, “Praise Song for the Butterflies,” takes place in the fictitious West African country of Ukemby but explores a subject that is unfortunately very real: ritual servitude.
Abeo is a precocious 9-year-old girl living an idyllic life in the affluent section of Port Masi with her Catholic parents: Wasik, a high-ranking government employee, and her mother Ismae, a former model. But all at once her world begins to fall apart as Wasik is suspended from work and the family’s savings dwindle to nothing. Wasik tries to shield his wife, two children, and his mother from their financial situation, but soon it all becomes too much: “Wasik looked around and swore that he could hear his life collapsing.”
At his wit’s end, Wasik listens to his mother, a believer in ancient traditions, who implores him to leave Abeo at a distant village shrine to the gods. “Then and only then,” she says, “will things get better for you.” Read full review
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Author May-Lee Chai’s charming collection “Useful Phrases for Immigrants” centers around the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States and migrants in China as they navigate a series of new experiences – from the seemingly mundane, such as purchasing a first training bra, to the more complex. Written in an accessible style and filled with poignant moments and memorable characters, Chai’s collection is a marvelous account of small, shifting moments of consciousness.
In “Fish Boy” a young man from the country, Xiao Yu, works gutting fish at an upscale restaurant in Zhengzhou and discovers that his formal education won’t help him navigate the gangs the populate the back alleys behind the restaurant. In “The Lucky Day” the narrator, Rose, drives all night from Colorado to Iowa to visit her dying mother, who simply wants a shower and to go bet her life’s savings at Prairie Meadows. In the title story Guili and her husband moved to California from China for a better life, only to discover their timing was off. “Chinese who’d come earlier, bought real estate when it was cheaper, started mindless businesses, and made a fortune….she felt she’d arrived at the state only to find the train departed five minutes early, leaving her stranded on the border of her dreams, unable to make the cross.” Read full review
Author Nichole Chung never really felt she fit in. Born to two Korean parents in 1981, Chung was adopted by a white couple and raised in a small Oregon town where she was the only Korean person she knew. Chung did well in school and was doted on by her family, but continually faced prejudice and barriers her adoptive parents didn’t see. “I struggled to feel I belonged in my own life,” Chung explained.
In her debut memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” out Oct. 2nd from Catapult, Chung writes eloquently about her experience growing up adopted, and her journey to connect with her birth family as an adult. Since her adoption was closed, Chung knew very little about her birth family other than the well-worn positive story told to her by her adoptive parents. Her birth family struggled financially, she knew. They were unable to pay the medical bills that amassed when she was born severely premature. But they had two other daughters. Did her sisters know about her? Chung wondered. Did they ever think about her? Read full review
“Craving,” a recently translated novel by Dutch novelist Esther Gerritsen, is the story of Elizabeth and her adult daughter, Coco, two women who were never particularly close – existing more like ornery cats that begrudgingly tolerated one another. Still, when Elizabeth confesses she’s dying of cancer, Coco moves back home to care for her, a dedication that “collapses and tumbles” when Elizabeth learns Coco actually had nowhere else to live. Together now for the first time in years, the women navigate their complicated history and Elizabeth’s failing health with graceful dark humor and candor. Funny, transparent, and complicated, “Craving” is a refreshingly honest portrayal of what can happen when a dysfunctional family faces sudden death. Humans are not always kind, not always rational, Gerritsen seems to say. So why not tell it like it is? Read full review
“The Occasional Virgin” by Hanan al-Shaykh is a fine literary novel wrapped inside a summer read. Poignant reflections about family, religion and memory are juxtaposed with raucous sexual antics and clever displays of friendship, making this novel about upending stereotypes a genre-bending romp.
At the center of it all are Huda, a theater director from Canada, and Yvonne, an advertising executive from London. Both women grew up in Lebanon, and despite their different traditions (Huda is from a Muslim family, and Yvonne grew up Christian), both have similar memories of not fitting in with their families and feeling ostracized and misunderstood.
While confidently pursuing vacation paramours in Italy, the seaside brings old memories to the surface, as Yvonne explains: “The sea brought me face to face with my family and Lebanon and everything again, and made me realize for the first time how these memories ruin my life.” Read full review
‘This Mournable Body” by Zimbabwe author Tsitsi Dangarembga is a gripping, personal story of one woman’s drive to succeed despite mounting obstacles in her path, a narrative meant to mirror the journey of Zimbabwe itself.
Despite her education and training, Tambudzai finds herself middle-aged and living in a youth hostel in downtown Harare, with no job and dwindling savings.
Her previous position at an advertising agency was lucrative, but she tired of “the white men who put their names to your taglines and rhyming couplets,” and quit. Now she spends “much time regretting digging your own grave over a matter of mere principle.”
Yes, the novel is written in second person, to startling effect, as readers are implicated in all of Tambudzai’s actions and decisions, from turning on a housemate to secure her own survival, to refusing to support her rural family, represented as a bag of mealie meal that follows her from residence to residence until, in a moment of both independence and deception, she buries it in the backyard. Read full review