The Canon: Books to Read in February

Fresh romance, new Zadie Smith, and the book that puts other postmodern novels to shame.

By Elizabeth Callen, Daley Farr, Annie Harvieux, Celia Mattison, Ann Mayhew, Kaylen Ralph and Marit Swanson

The Wedding Date” by Jasmine Guillory


Out: 1/30/2018

Jasmine Guillory’s debut novel “The Wedding Date” lands like a pitch-perfect pop song crossed with the single gal’s guidebook to a fulfilling feminist relationship. Within the first few pages, a stalled elevator meet-cute sparks a long-distance relationship between Alexa, chief of staff for the mayor of Berkley, and Drew, a doctor based in Los Angeles.

The details of Guillory’s epic love story feel as fresh as they do identifiable. Most of us know someone who has at least attempted an LDR. Drew and Alexa meet while he is in town for his ex’s wedding, which is taking place at the same hotel where Alexa’s sister is staying while in town. After a short time stuck in the hotel elevator together, Drew impulsively asks Alexa to accompany him to the wedding that brought him to town for the weekend. Is it far-fetched? Probably, but aren’t all improbably aligned relationships a little bit of a stretch?

From their first encounter, the passion Drew and Alexa have for each other is palpable, and the alternating perspectives Guillory uses to structure the novel afford the reader unmasked insight into what both Drew and Alexa are thinking at any given time. Like any modern couple, the two both worry over the commitment required in any relationship, let alone one that necessitates commuting to each other’s home by plane. Arguments and doubts arise, but as Alexa allows Drew to complement and enhance her career-driven lifestyle, the power of mutual vulnerability is exposed. In a romance novel, this dynamic is not just refreshing—it’s sexy as hell.

Kaylen Ralph

Empty Set” by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, translated by Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House Press

Out: 2/6/18

In this latest unconventional work of autofiction from Coffee House Press, author Verónica Gerber Biccecci’s curious protagonist questions how much of ourselves is bound up in the places we know and the people we love (or love no longer). The result is “Empty Set,” a resonant, graceful book that attempts to trace the shape of absence.

Empty Set unfolds as young artist Verónica relates the scattered circumstances of her mentally ill mother’s disappearance, her unspoken understanding with her brother, her failed relationships, and the turmoil that drove her family from their home in Argentina. In nonlinear vignettes, Verónica searches for the best “beginning” to her story, introducing new characters and pieces of correspondence spanning decades. “Beginning the same text many times is, at the very least, an insistence on telling and understanding the same story,” Verónica explains, and like the tree rings that capture her imagination early in the novel, she expands the scope of her story with each new start. The book’s pages are punctuated by Verónica’s illustrations, spare but evocative diagrams of her relationships to others.

Gradually, Verónica’s personal narrative encompasses a darker understanding of what it means to “disappear,” as she maps the lasting traumatic influence of the Argentine dictatorship on the characters’ actions. But guided by Bicecci’s gracefully melancholic language and the notion that “love confirms the circularity of the universe,” the novel celebrates connection over disunity. Empty Set is a poignant consideration of displacement, and a haunting search for a set of conditions in which we may feel whole.

Daley Farr

An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

Algonquin Books

Out: 2/6/18

Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage” is the compelling story of two newlyweds whose lives are disrupted by an unequivocally false imprisonment. Although Celestial knows her husband Roy is innocent, her faith in him is not enough to sustain a relationship put on hold for twelve years. As she pursues her dream of operating an artisan doll shop, Roy fights to remind her of the life they were meant to have together.

At the novel’s core is the struggle to live unburdened by one’s past and by the ghosts of familial history. Roy and Celestial’s parents have sacrificed greatly to give their children better choices than the ones they had, and though Roy and Celestial are intelligent, accomplished, and self-possessed, they repeat the same mistakes they’ve made since childhood. The use of multiple perspectives in the novel strengthens these intensely empathetic portrayals of complicated and often morally dubious characters, which are the core of “An American Marriage’s” depth.

This does have its drawbacks—Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend, never gets quite the time or shows the emotional depth of the central couple. Although understandably a necessity to keep the book a reasonable length, Roy’s time in prison is compressed and told through letters, which does not have the same impact as the first person point-of-view. The narrative transitions from first person to epistolary can be clumsy. Still, Jones’s writing is elegant and her storytelling is solid, and the result is a beautiful portrait of a complicated and original yet quintessentially American couple.

Celia Mattison

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Penguin Press

Out: 2/6/2018

Zadie Smith may be best known for her fiction, but with her newest collection of essays, she reaffirms her status as not only an accomplished novelist but also a literary journalist and cultural critic. The essays in “Feel Free” cover a diverse range of subjects; whether reflecting on England post-Brexit or remembering a Beyoncé concert, Smith writes with the same candidness, precision and wit that have long defined her work.

The collection is split into five sections, all broadly exploring questions of identity and agency, both individual and collective. Smith profiles Jay-Z, dissects American racism via Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and defends public libraries against accusations of irrelevance. She seamlessly moves between lowbrow and highbrow, treating each topic with equal sincerity. Highlights include her critique of Facebook, musings on learning to love the music of Joni Mitchell and examinations of the concept of celebrity through Justin Bieber and Martin Buber.

At times, the pace of “Feel Free” is uneven, noticeably slowing midway through. The 60-plus-page collection of book reviews Smith wrote for Harper’s Magazine, for instance, seems gratuitously included. However, Smith’s keen observations and precise writing means that even amidst such duller inclusions, the book still shines.

Though Smith disavows any literary authority—“I have no real qualifications to write as I do,” she says in the introduction”—her fierce intellect, complemented by the clarity and wholeheartedness with which she writes, more than makes up for her lack of advanced degrees. “Feel Free” is a series of incisive, insightful essays from one of the most talented and prolific writers alive.

Elizabeth Callen

We Are Taking Only What We Need” by Stephanie Powell Watts


Out: 2/6/2018

Evocative and beautifully crafted, the stories in Stephanie Powell Watts’s collection “We Are Taking Only What We Need” come together to form a gritty but hopeful mosaic illustrating the experiences of Black women in the rural South. Watts’s characters are smart, self-aware, and tough, with big dreams but no illusions about the world they inhabit. While they encounter similar challenges—lack of agency, discrimination, loss, sexual trauma—each has a distinct, compelling voice.

In many of Watts’s stories, momentary choices have lasting consequences, as in “Welcome to the City of Dreams,” when a young girl has only moments to decide who to trust as she senses the emotional power switching between her parents. Sometimes, Watts turns a minor character from one story into the protagonist of another. In “If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” Dee is the only one at her brother’s celebratory out-on-bail family dinner who can’t forgive him for getting locked up in the first place. Later in the collection, “Black Power” shows us Dee’s little sister Sheila processing her goals and principles with the strangers who call the phone bank where she works. These loose connections add even more dimension to an already vibrant sense of place.

Most of the stories end without much resolution or redemption. However, Watts offers hope in the form of each woman’s resilience and the unique mixture of imagination, compassion, and courage she uses to navigate the world.

Marit Swanson

Heart Berries: A Memoir” by Terese Marie Mailhot

Counterpoint Press

Out: 2/6/2018

In this poetic memoir of remarkable lyric power, debut author Terese Marie Mailhot blends a deeply personal narrative with fierce (and often funny) political consciousness in sentences so lean that reading them smarts.

Reeling from a tumultuous relationship and its attendant gaslighting—compounded by the trauma of abuse, racism, and the removal of her first child from her care—Mailhot checks herself into a mental health clinic, where she begins to tell her story as a series of letters written to her lover. As she writes, Mailhot illuminates the dark corners of mental illness, motherhood, and grief, each weighted by the violence of colonial oppression. Her narrative-in-essays moves through elegiac passages describing her complicated activist mother, unflinching recollections of being pregnant and unstable, and tender scenes laughing with her son.

Mailhot’s account of her family and her childhood on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia also enfolds the story of how she became an artist, rising to her birthright as a storyteller. Caught between her desire for a poetic narrative and the dehumanizing effect of reducing indigenous women to symbols, Mailhot returns to the idea that language created our world, and perhaps her words have the power to remake it. She forges her own path in piercing, measured prose, writing, “Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers.” The immense hurt in this book cannot dim the steady beam of Mailhot’s brilliance. “Heart Berries” is a triumph to relish.

Daley Farr

The Endless Summer” by Madame Nielsen, translated by Gaye Kynoch

Open Letter Books

Out: 2/13/2018

“The Endless Summer” is a dreamy exploration into nostalgia, unfulfilled dreams and endings, never veering far from a single, seemingly endless summer (which is truthfully, as all nostalgic memories are, “the place that has never been and can never be revisited, only in the tale”) and the characters that experienced it. Narrated by a boy “who is perhaps a girl,” the story flits in and out of time, following tangents as they appear and circling back as desired. The family at the center of the tale, specifically the mother and daughter, are depicted at the heights of their lives’ possibilities, and it is only revealed later the ways in which their dreams collapse.

Madame Nielsen’s language is appropriately otherworldly. It mirrors the sense of escape the characters long for. Sentences are long and winding, and our narrator is a self-aware storyteller, describing the ensuring tale accurately: “…this improbable but entirely credible love story, like every story in this story, a story in itself, which must constantly be interrupted and then resumed until every story has reached its more or less tragic ending.”

“The Endless Summer” ends by breaking through its own façade; as the reader is forewarned early on, “death comes in every story like this one.” By naming a modern, too-familiar culprit—HIV/AIDS—the book reveals itself and its atmospheric world as mere ephemera, jerking the reader back into uncomfortable reality.

Ann Mayhew

Freshwater” by Akwaeke Emezi

Grove Press

Out: 2/13/2018

“Freshwater” is a young woman’s quest for wholeness within a fractured sense of self, but far surpasses your average edgy coming-of-age novel. Ada, a young woman who has moved from Nigeria to the United States for school and finds herself without a permanent community or home, has gone her whole life secretly having “separate selves” who powerfully embody opposite personality traits, and alternate total control of her body.

Ada’s story is narrated by the voices of her varying selves as if they’re watching Ada from close proximity outside her body. They claim to love and protect her but also lead her into self-harm, an eating disorder, and a suicide attempt, all as she tries to figure out who she is and where she belongs in the world. Ada’s dissection of where her “selves” come from unfolds in delicate, stunning layers of nuance: she explores the spirit realm of the Nigerian Igbo faith, tulpa personalities’ interplay with one’s “main” self, Western mental illness diagnoses, and ways that the people we interact with alter our lives. Emezi crafts Ada’s consciousness in a gripping and dark but never pulpy way: she seems to be trying on ideas and sinking deeper into theories and confusion at the same rate as Ada.

“Freshwater” is a gripping read that deftly achieves what many postmodern books strive for—a discussion and interrogation of the fractured self—in a way that puts its contemporaries to shame. It is clearer, faster, more intimate, and more inventive than many other topically comparative books, which are often arduous, male-dominated, and elitist. Though it contains triggering material and therefore may not be for everyone, it is a remarkable take on human interiority and a must-have for fans of abnormal psychology or character-driven eerie thrillers.

Annie Harvieux