After the Afterlife explores the zone between language and spirit. It is a book of inner and outer boundaries: of blockades, of tunnels, of wormholes. Where does our consciousness come from, and where is it going, if anywhere? With a nimble blend of wit, whimsy, and erudition, Hummer’s poems assay the border that the shaman is forced to cross to wrestle with the gods, which is the same border the mystic yearns to broach, and the ordinary human stumbles over while doing laundry or making lunch—where questions of identity melt in the white heat of Being:
which is like trying to teach
The cat to waltz, so much awkwardness, so many tender
advances, and I’m shocked when it actually learns,
When it minces toward me in a tiny cocktail gown, offering a martini,
asking for this dance, insisting on hearing me refuse
To reply, debating all along, in the chorus of its interior mewing, who
are you really, peculiar animal, who taught you to call you you.
A strange museum, an even stranger curator, the deceased artist who haunts him, and the mystery surrounding the museum founders’ daughter, lost at sea as a child . . . The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art is by turns a dark comedy, a ghost story, a romance, a whodunit, a family saga, and an exhibition catalog.
Through museum exhibit labels, as well as the interior musings of an elderly visitor wandering through its galleries, the novel’s numerous dramas gradually unfold. We learn of the powerful Seagrave family’s tragic loss of their daughter, the suspicious circumstances surrounding her disappearance during a violent storm, and of the motley conclave of artists (some accomplished, some atrocious) who frequented the Seagrave estate, producing eclectic bodies of work that betray the artists’ own obsessions, losses, and peculiarities. We learn about the curator’s rise to power, his love affair with a deeply troubled ghost—and when a first-time visitor to the museum discovers unexpected connections between the works on exhibit and her painful past, we are plunged into a meditation on the nature of perception, fabrication, memory, and time.
Big Familia follows Juan Gutiérrez, a self-employed single father, as he navigates a tumultuous year of inescapable change. His daughter, Stella, is on the verge of moving away to college; his lover, Jared, is pressing him for commitment; and his favorite watering hole—a ramshackle dive presided over by Bob the Bartender—is transforming into a karaoke hotspot. The story is set in a neighborhood that is also changing, gentrification inciting the ire of the established community.
Upon the unexpected death of one of the bar’s regulars, Juan is sent reeling, and a series of upheavals follow as he both seeks and spurns intimacy, pondering the legacy of distant parents and a failed marriage and grappling with his sexuality—all the while cycling and dating, drinking at Nicks Lounge, and parenting a determined and defiant child-become-woman.
When his incarcerated father dies and Stella reveals she’s pregnant, Juan is forced to examine the emotional bonds that both hold and hinder him, to reassess his ideas of commitment, of friendship, of love. His encounters with various characters—his mother, his ex-wife, a middle-aged punker, an aspiring acupuncturist, a dapper veteran—lead Juan to the realization that he himself must change to thrive.
This is a story of making family and making mistakes, of rending and of mending. As a Latinx queer father with a mixed-race daughter, Juan exemplifies the ways identity connects and divides us. With wit, insight, and tenderness, Big Familia explores the complexities of desire, devotion, and the mysteries of the heart.
While treating Robert Percy, a burly factory worker, psychologist David Malden unlocks not only his patient’s memories of childhood abuse but also an upwelling violence. When Percy abruptly departs Buffalo for rural Michigan, where he grew up in a series of foster homes, Malden fears that his patient seeks revenge. Concerned with his liability under Duty to Warn laws, Malden sets out after the troubled young man using the only guide he has, his treatment notes—a list of people and places that may or may not exist, especially after twenty years.
To aid him in the chase, Malden calls on his colleague, the awkward, remote, intimidatingly tall Sonja Nielsen. She reluctantly agrees to help, either because of or despite her previous entanglements with Malden.
Told from the perspectives of these three characters, the story swerves and jolts and switches back, much like Percy’s recollections of his upbringing. Kersting presents the interior struggles of her characters in a searingly spare style, all the while drawing the reader through an escalating series of events as Percy hitches rides and takes buses, searching the small towns of central Michigan, alternately helped and hindered by both old and new acquaintances.
While following disparate leads toward Percy’s final, surprising destination, all three conflicted souls are compelled to examine their loyalties, test their convictions, admit their frailties, and confront the ghosts lurking in their pasts, resulting in a revelatory climax.
The fourteen stories in Every Human Love redefine our sense of reality. Set seemingly in the quotidian, these tales veer into the unexpected, the uncomfortable, occasionally the eerie, thrusting characters in crisis into still greater quandaries, where the world of weddings and work, of frustrated hopes and mundane dissatisfactions, collides with a realm of legend, of fairy tale, of nightmare.
The characters who populate Jenn Scott’s debut collection are both trapped and adrift. Stuck in dead-end jobs or stagnant relationships or simply caught in the grip of their own inertia, they opt out, act out, and strike out, searching for emotional sustenance in a landscape of pointless patterns and dwindling hopes. Cuttingly clever remarks and excoriating observations act as shields—thrown up to protect an aching vulnerability, a bewildering sense of loss . . . of being lost in a world rife with expectations, where responsibility is ritualistic and meaning elusive.
“The beauty of being young was, in fact, the ability to project all that might happen. She recognizes, suddenly, how less grandiose the projection of her plans has become. It’s like she was once standing looking an expanse of field, but now she’s trapped in a hallway hung with too many pastel prints of landscapes that refuse to interest her. It’s as if she’s moved her entire life inside a dental office, minus the gas that sings a person to sleep while their cavities are filled, their roots fixed.”
Assumed identities, Russian mail-order brides, pie theft, lost (and found) cleavers, coworkers who commit murder, the sudden ballooning of breasts, conversations with the (surprisingly opinionated) vegetables in a restaurant’s walk-in cooler: in stories sharply funny and deeply poignant, situations that delight and discomfit, Scott explores “the complicated, or simple, ways in which we settle.”
This riveting debut from poet Faylita Hicks is a reclamation of power for black women and nonbinary people whose bodies have become the very weapons used against them. HoodWitch tells the story of a young person who discovers that they are “something that can & will survive / a whole century of hunt.” Through a series of poems based on childhood photographs, Hicks invokes the spirits of mothers and daughters, sex workers and widows, to conjure an alternative to their own early deaths and the deaths of those whom they have already lost.
In this collection about resilience, Hicks speaks about giving her child up for adoption, mourning the death of her fiancé, and embracing the nonbinary femme body—persevering in the face of medical malpractice, domestic abuse, and police violence. The poems find people transformed, “remade out of smoke & iron” into cyborgs and wolves, machines and witches—beings capable of seeking justice in a world that refuses them the option.
Exploring the intersections of Christianity, modern mysticism, and Afrofuturism in a sometimes urban, sometimes natural setting, Hicks finds a place where “everyone everywhere is hands in the air,” where “you know they gonna push & pull it together. / Just like they learned to.” It is a place of natural magick—where someone like Hicks can have more than one name: where they can be both dead and alive, both a mortal and a god.
Hannah Dow’s debut poetry collection, Rosarium, is a series of beautiful interrogations. In precise, luminous language, Dow engages the mysteries of faith as a catalyst for meditations on the contradictory human condition—our knot of body and spirit. These poems engage the inexplicable, attempting to articulate the tension between doubt and a longing for certainty, between belief in the potency of language and acceptance of its failures. Yet these lyrics never evaporate into abstraction. They pulse with the particular. Postcards that read as prayers (spoken without hope of response) lead us around the corporeal world through vastly different landscapes—from Mississippi, to California, to Europe, to the Middle East—showing how place shapes us, how the mind cannot escape the body.
Nancy Au’s debut collection is rich with scents, sounds, imaginative leaps, and unexpected angles of vision. These seventeen stories present the challenges facing characters whose inner and outer lives often do not align, whose spirits attempt flight despite dashed hopes and lean circumstances. Marginalized by race, age, and sexuality, they endeavor to create new worlds that honor their identities and their Chinese heritage.
Au excels at inhabiting the minds and hearts of children and the elderly. In the title story, Sophie Chu dresses daily in her increasingly shabby elephant costume to ensure her missing parents recognize her upon their return. In “The Unfed,” a village elder seeks to revive, with her dimming magic, a mountain community struck by tragedy. “Louise” follows, with deceptive hilarity (involving a one-eyed duck), the nuanced give and take between May Zhou and Lai, dissimilar yet passionate partners considering parenthood. The volume also offers sparkling speculative work that taps into the strength of nature—fox spirits and fire beetles, swollen rivers and rippling clouds—to showcase the sometimes surreal transformations of Au’s protagonists.
Spider Love Song and Other Stories treads the fault line that forms between lovers, families, friends, cultures—exposing injuries and vulnerabilities, but also the strength and courage necessary to recast resentment and anger into wonder and power. Au’s lyrical style, humor, and tender attention to her characters’ fancies and failings make this powerful debut a delight to read.
In 1844, Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, encountered nitrous oxide, or laughing gas—then an entertainment for performers in carnival-like theatrical acts—and began administering the gas as the first true anesthetic. His discovery would change the world, reshaping medicine and humanity’s relationship with pain.
But that discovery would also thrust Wells into scandals that threatened his reputation, his family, and his sanity—hardships and triumphs that resonate in today’s struggles with what hurts us and what we take to stop the hurt.
In this novel, Michael Downs mines the gaps in the historical record and imagines the motivations and mysteries behind Wells’s morbid fascination with pain, as well as the price he and his wife, Elizabeth, paid—first through his obsession, then his addiction.
The book is a love story, but also a story of what love can’t redeem; of narcotic dreams and waking insanity; of humbug and miracle; of pain’s destruction and what pains can never be eased. Following Wells throughout New England and across the ocean to Paris, the novel immerses the reader in the nineteenth century, conveying through rich physical description and telling dialogue the tragic life of a dentist who gave everything to rid the world of suffering.
Synonyms for Silence
A. Molotkov Acre Books, 2019 Library of Congress PS3613.O49 | Dewey Decimal 811.6
A. Molotkov’s third poetry collection, Synonyms for Silence, traverses a terrain of terror and wonder. These sharp, brief lyrics and prose poems subject the world to ethical and metaphysical scrutiny, examining the familiar as well as the unknowable aspects of human existence and contrasting our transient chemical reality with our ability to manifest meaning.
In ten provocative stories, Ethan Chatagnier presents us with characters in crisis, people grappling with their own and others’ darkness as they search for glimmers to carry them through difficult times, untenable tasks, uncertain futures. The collection explores with unflinching eloquence the quandaries of conscience posed by the present, but also plunges us into a startlingly prescient “what if?” world, exploring in both realms questions concerning the value of perseverance, art, hope, and heart.