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Book review: Travellers by Helon Habila – cool and adroit

The acclaimed Nigerian author’s ‘novel-in-stories’ about six African refugees in Europe is rich and complex

Helon Habila: ‘open-minded approach’. Photograph: Heike Steiweg
Helon Habila: ‘open-minded approach’. Photograph: Heike Steiweg

From his 2002 debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, about a reporter jailed in the 90s under the regime of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, to 2010’s Oil on Water, a hostage narrative set amid the petroleum industry’s ruin of the Niger delta, Helon Habila has tackled weighty issues without solemnity. It’s a virtue on show once again in Travellers, a nuanced, often surprising novel-in-stories about the experiences of six African refugees in Europe, and his first book set outside his native Nigeria.

Its unnamed narrator (like Habila, a Nigerian based in the US) joins his American wife, Gina, in Berlin, where she has a year’s fellowship to produce a series of portraits of “real migrants”. When he starts drinking with Mark, an anarchist squatter from Malawi who has been rejected by Gina as a prospective subject – not real enough – it’s a sign of marital tension as well as the novel’s suspicion of Gina’s authenticity fetish.

As the narrator learns why Mark – born Mary, it transpires – ran away from his pastor father, we infer that ideas of “realness” might boil down to prejudice by another name.

Mark’s is only the first story the narrator gets mixed up in; later, he meets a hunger-striking asylum seeker who flees Boko Haram only to fall foul of Theresa May’s hostile environment, and a Libyan surgeon employed as a bouncer after losing his wife and son en route from Tripoli, stubbornly bringing his 11-year-old daughter to the family’s prearranged rendezvous at Checkpoint Charlie every Sunday, in a heartbreaking denial of reality.

Habila’s acknowledgments thank “the voices whose stories animate this book… for trusting me”, which adds to a sense that he’s drawing on as-told-to testimony.

In the standout chapter, a Zambian woman travels to Switzerland to meet her brother’s wife, jailed for his manslaughter. She learns that in Europe, her brother, David, went by the name Moussa and claimed to be from Mali for reasons to do with his feelings about his father, a once-exiled poet who, drunk on fame, pandered to western liberals keen to view Africa as “one huge Gulag archipelago”.

The novel’s unassuming title is suggestive of Habila’s cool, open-minded approach to a hot-button subject. While he leaves us in little doubt of the horrors his characters have escaped, he seldom invites us to gawp. Adroitly teasing out the rich quiddity of his characters’ diverse journeys, he instead makes the simple yet valuable point that refugees’ lives are as irreducibly complex as anyone else’s.

• To order Travellers by Helon Habilago to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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14 new books to look out for in May

Welcome to May. It’s an especially big month for nonfiction titles, with George Packer’s new book, “Our Man” and Casey Cep’s highly anticipated book about Harper Lee. Fiction lovers, fear not: there’s a crop of intriguing debut novels, a new wartime story from Mohammed Hanif, and the long-awaited return of the writer Binnie Kirshenbaum.

Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, looks at the roots of American independence in his new project. In this deeply researched book, the first volume in a projected trilogy about the Revolutionary War, he gives both the American and British perspectives.

When two sisters go missing on the Kamchatka Peninsula, on the eastern fringes of Russia, the disappearance rattles the region — and particularly, the women. This debut spans a year after the girls vanish, with a focus on characters who are connected by the mystery.

The farm of the title is really a “gestational retreat,” where poor women carry the unborn children of the superrich. For months, the “hosts” are kept on healthy diets, coddled — and watched closely by the Farm and its administrators — all with the promise of a generous bonus at the end. There are strains of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in this debut, which raises questions about class, surrogacy and exploitation.

In the years after “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, Lee was enraptured by a shocking case in the 1970s: a preacher in Alabama accused of killing five people for the insurance money, the family member who eventually shot him dead and the lawyer who successfully defended them both. Lee had helped her friend Truman Capote with his seminal crime book “In Cold Blood,” and thought this case might give her a similar opportunity. But the book never came about. Cep unravels the story, offering new insight into Lee along the way.

This history examines nativist ideology in the United States starting in the 19th century until legislation that curtailed the immigration of “inferiors” was passed in the 1920s. Along the way, Okrent introduces readers to the swaths of Americans who believed in this point of view. By and large, they were wealthy and elite — and many of them were progressive.

With the question of impeachment more timely than ever, Wineapple turns to the first presidential impeachment, of Johnson in 1868. A noted biographer, Wineapple brings the era and its personalities — Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant, Thaddeus Stevens — to life.

We can’t afford not to be talking about domestic violence. Snyder argues that it has reached epidemic proportions in the country — it accounts for 15 percent of all violent crimes — with devastating effect. She combines her analysis with interviews with survivors, advocates, and occasionally, the perpetrators themselves.

The occasion of Greene’s memoir is heartbreaking: His 2-year-old daughter, Greta, was hit by a falling brick in New York, leaving her brain-dead. (A portion of the book was excerpted in New York last month.) While the book opens with the accident and the Greenes’ torment, there are flashes of hope as the family rebuilds after unimaginable loss.

In his new book, Packer, a writer for The Atlantic and the author of “The Unwinding,” delves into the history of Holbrooke, the swaggering, exasperating, larger-than-life diplomat who died in 2010. Going back to Holbrooke’s Vietnam days, Packer follows his career — including its peak, when he negotiated a peace agreement between Bosnians and Serbs during the Clinton administration — and isn’t squeamish about reporting on his affairs and relationships. But the book goes beyond a deep dive into its subject: Readers can learn a lot not only about Holbrooke himself but also about how American foreign policy has so often gone wrong.

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Linda Taylor may be best known as the “welfare queen” Reagan criticized in the 1970s, accused of ripping off the government. But fraud may have been the least of her crimes: Levin uncovers a far darker past including possible kidnappings and murders.

Fans of Kirshenbaum will be delighted to see her first new book in a decade. On New Year’s Eve, a writer has a nervous breakdown that sends her to a New York psych ward. Instead of the treatment her caregivers suggest, the writer watches her fellow patients instead, and begins work on a novel that examines how things got so bad. The book is a bitingly funny, and occasionally heartbreaking, look at mental illness, love and relationships, with Kirshenbaum’s familiar black humor.

Hanif, the author of “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” has written a war satire taking aim at the United States’ interventions abroad. After an American pilot crashes in the desert, he winds up taking refuge in the camp he was supposed to bomb. There, he meets Momo, a teenager ambitious and hungry for money-making schemes. That’s not all: His older brother has gone missing, his parents are squabbling and he’s fending off an aid worker who wants to study him for a project called the Teenage Muslim Mind.

This debut novel follows a Taiwanese immigrant family eking out a life near Anchorage, Alaska. They are no stranger to tragedy: After two of their children fall ill with meningitis, only one survives, and the family struggles to stay close in their grief. Another heartbreak offers clues into the death of their daughter.

Why are some nations better able to recover from upheavals? Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” looks at how six countries responded to recent upsets, and assesses whether the world is prepared to grapple with the crises it faces now.

There’s something missing about mental illness — overhyped, maybe

In an age of glowing brain scans and plentiful pharmaceuticals, it can be hard to remember that psychiatrists — not exactly known for their aversion to dispensing medication — were once derided for not taking medicine seriously enough.

But as Anne Harrington reminds us, it wasn’t all that long ago when psychiatrists were pilloried as a bunch of woolly Freudians in thrall to specious ideas about absent fathers and smothering mothers. (Or absent mothers — there were apparently any number of ways for mothers to impair the mental health of their children.) In her new book, “Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness,” Harrington, a historian of science at Harvard, says that psychiatry’s biological turn took place sometime around 1980, and it was so revolutionary that before the decade was up, the profession’s “transformation into a biological discipline seemed complete.”

There’s a good deal of drama contained in that little word “seemed.” What “seemed complete” actually wasn’t, Harrington argues, as such biological triumphalism began to unravel in the 1990s and the 2000s. Anticipated discoveries in the biology of mental illness, vigorously hyped before they even arrived, never panned out; all of psychiatry’s diagnostic categories are still based on observations of clinical symptoms rather than biological markers of disease. Criticism from outside the profession precipitated “a sense of internal crisis” within it. A number of psychiatry’s practitioners are beginning to concede that “it overreached, overpromised, overdiagnosed, overmedicated and compromised its principles.”

This realization won’t necessarily put an end to what Harrington calls “the century-long — if also repeatedly frustrated — effort on the part of especially American psychiatry to define a biological mission for itself.” The potential rewards are too great. Biology is supposed to offer rigor, precision, measurements — enticing possibilities when it comes to something as nebulous and complex as the mind.

The story Harrington tells is one of push-and-pull, back-and-forth. She starts by presenting the myth she wants to dismantle — the heroic tale of biology’s triumph in the 1980s over a half-century of vulgar Freudianism. The clean lines of that cartoonish tale are easy to delineate. The case Harrington makes to rebut it is more intricate and winding, though her prose remains clear and crisp. Several times she alerts the reader to narrative road bumps by slipping in an “ironically.” I was grateful for these signposts. It turns out that psychiatry’s understanding of mental illness is full of hairpin turns and unintended consequences.

To hear the vanguard of psychiatry’s biological revolution tell it, the late 19th century was a period of incredible scientific progress for the profession, interrupted only when Freud and his acolytes took over in a palace coup. But the nostalgia obscures why psychiatry became vulnerable to a Freudian incursion in the first place. The 19th-century way of “thinking biologically,” Harrington writes, was fixated not on biochemistry but on brain anatomy. When it came to the prospect of individual recovery from mental disorders, clinicians were fatalistic rather than hopeful. They were preoccupied with “degeneration” and drawn to eugenics.

In the United States, “feeblemindedness” became a catchall diagnosis deployed by advocates of forced sterilization. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing the Supreme Court’s majority opinion for Buck v. Bell in 1927, called the eugenicist program “better for all the world” because, as he put it, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Six years later, the Nazis cited the Buck v. Bell decision as an inspiration for their own sterilization program — which in turn laid the foundations for the Third Reich’s systematic murder of those deemed genetically tainted and mentally ill.

Harrington is unsparing in her depiction of what often resembled a biological fetishism. Schizophrenic patients were subjected to insulin-induced comas or had their brains scraped by lobotomies. Some therapeutically-minded psychiatrists, so impressed by the germ theory of disease, believed that psychosis could be cured by the surgical excision of “infected” organs like teeth, ovaries and colons.

Psychoanalysis and talk therapy were supposed to be antidotes to such cruelty and coarse reductionism, and by broadening psychiatry’s concerns from mental illness to the larger category of “mental hygiene,” the profession could serve a social function, too. In the postwar United States, robust mental health was seen as necessary armor for the Cold War. “The greatest prerequisite for peace,” President Truman said in statement to the American Psychiatric Association, “must be sanity.” Neo-Freudian psychiatrists warned about bad moms who coddled their sons and thereby weakened national efforts to fight the Communist menace.

One pattern you begin to notice in “Mind Fixers” is how psychiatric theories — whether biological or psychoanalytical — had a way of grafting themselves onto prevailing prejudices of the day. Another pattern has to do with how each approach prided itself on being more compassionate and less stigmatizing than whatever had come before. Psychoanalysis might have emerged in reaction to biological psychiatry, but once the postwar psychoanalytic dispensation created “a generation of scapegoated parents” who had been blamed for their children’s mental illnesses, Harrington writes, the biological revolution of the 1980s started to look like a “road to redemption.”

We know what happened after that. Psychiatrists, seeking to distinguish themselves from other mental health professionals, moved away from talk therapy and guarded their prescribing rights. Financial incentives provided by the pharmaceutical industry meant that psychiatrists helped drug companies repurpose old medications for new illnesses, like “social anxiety disorder.” Antipsychotics would no longer be limited to schizophrenic patients; as one drug company researcher said, “It’s not like we’re making any more schizophrenic brains.” It was the medical equivalent of mission creep.

Harrington doesn’t romanticize the world of mental illness before drugs — drugs that many patients credit with offering relief and even a chance at survival. What psychiatry needs to do, she says, is narrow its focus to the most severe forms of mental illness and “make a virtue of modesty” rather than hubris. She knows it’s a somewhat fanciful idea, but it’s a measure of her own cleareyed approach that she appeals to psychiatric practitioners’ self-interest by invoking that most valuable and (these days) elusive currency: trust. “The field would be freed,” she writes, “to find ways to rest its authority and status on more authentic foundations.”

Book review: We, the Survivors by Tash Aw

Prejudice and the refugee experience are examined in this taut novel set in Malaysia


After novels set in British Malaya, postcolonial Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai, Tash Aw’s new book stays in the present to tell a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia.

It’s told by Ah Hock, a villager who, after a string of precarious jobs in and around Kuala Lumpur, lands on his feet managing a fish farm. But when a cholera epidemic leaves him without workers, he unwisely accepts help from a childhood friend, Keong, a one-time drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry.

As Aw retraces Ah Hock’s steps to this fateful turning point – his sense of morality running up against his need to maintain his toehold on a decent livelihood – we come to understand that his words are being transcribed by Su-Min, a sociology postgraduate returning to Malaysia after her studies in the US.

Ah Hock has agreed to her request for an interview after serving a jail sentence for a crime we don’t fully grasp until the novel’s end; brief interludes show them discussing how she might shape his story into something she thinks of as “narrative non-fiction”.

Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so. We wonder what Su-Min seeks from Ah Hock’s story, but also why Ah Hock wants to tell it (he admits a punitive desire to give her more than she bargained for when she asks him to hold nothing back).

As a vegetarian who freaks out at the sight of a rat and tells Ah Hock “not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on traditional gender lines”, Su-Min is sent up a bit. But the novel isn’t simplistic, not least in its portrait of the complex contours of prejudice in Malaysian society. If Ah Hock suffers on account of his Chinese heritage, he knows he has it easier than many; the story turns on a group of Rohingya refugees being eyed by Keong as a solution to what Ah Hock’s wife calls his “manpower problem”.

A grim picture emerges of the Asian continent’s poor and less-poor, forced into a conflict shaped by western whims. Someone says: “Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly 10 factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking world so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month, the entire port is on its knees.”

But Aw doesn’t rely on tub-thumping; his achievement is to make a global story personal. When he finally circles back to Ah Hock’s crime, the scene is managed briskly, in keeping with a tale that, however grim, is never solemn or overwrought. It even ends on a gentle note; still, the novel’s horrors can’t easily be pushed out of mind.


• We, the Survivors is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Controversial writer Akwaeke Emez nominated for Women’s prize for fiction

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, who does not identify as male or female, among 16 books longlisted for the £30,000 award

‘Remarkable’ … Akwaeke Emezi
‘Remarkable’ … Akwaeke Emezi. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

The Women’s prize for fiction has nominated a non-binary transgender author for the first time in its 27-year history, on a 16-book longlist featuring a previous winner, seven debuts and last year’s Booker prize winner.

Thirty-one-year-old Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi is nominated for their first novel, Freshwater. Described as “remarkable” in the Guardian’s review, Freshwater is a coming-of-age story following a child, Ada, who is born filled with Igbo spirits as a challenge from a deity to Ada’s Catholic father.

mezi, who does not identify as male or female and lives in Brooklyn, is one of seven first-time authors up for the £30,000 prize, on a longlist that spans the city streets of Lagos and remote Northumberland, the US-Mexico border and ancient Greece.

“It is a historic moment,” Professor Kate Williams, chair of judges, told the Guardian. “We’re very careful not to Google the authors while judging, so we did not know. But the book found great favour among us, it is wonderful. They are an incredibly talented author and we’re keen to celebrate them.”

She said the judges were not aware of Emezi’s gender identity when they selected Freshwater, but they did check that Emezi was happy to be longlisted before the announcement.

“Fiction, right from the beginning of the novel in the 18th century, has been there to explore identity,” said Williams. “Novels are deep explorations of personality, identity and what makes a person. That is what Freshwater, and all the books on our longlist, are doing.”

Big-name nominees include Anna Burns, who is longlisted for her novel Milkman, last year’s Man Booker prize-winner about the relationship between a Northern Irish teenager and an abusive paramilitary during the Troubles. Seventy-five-year-old Pat Barker, who was nominated for the inaugural prize for her 1995 novel The Ghost Road, is longlisted for only the second time for The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women. And English writer Sarah Moss is nominated for the first time for her novella Ghost Wall, following a teenager’s terrifying experience while on a trip to Northumberland with her strict father.

American author Madeline Miller, who won the prize in 2013 for her debut The Song of Achilles, is again nominated for her follow-up, Circe, while Diana Evans, who won the now-obsolete new writers category in 2005 for her debut 26a, is chosen for her third novel Ordinary People. And Normal People, Sally Rooney’s bestselling second novel is also named – the latest prize nomination for a book that won the Costa novel of the year and is longlisted for this year’s Dylan Thomas prize.

Writers from the US have won the prize most often – nine times – and they dominate the longlist, with six authors nominated: Tayari Jones for An American Marriage, Bernice L McFadden for Praise Songs for the Butterflies; Melissa Broder for The Pisces and three debuts: Lillian Li for Number One Chinese Restaurant; Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott for Swan Song and Yvonne Battle-Felton for Remembered.

Other debuts include Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite for her darkly funny novel My Sister the Serial Killer and Romanian Sophie van Llewyn for her novella Bottled Goods. And Mexican author Valeria Luiselli is nominated for the first time for Lost Children Archive, which follows one family making a car journey south from New York to Arizona, while the news is reporting on migrant families from Mexico desperately trying to reach the US.

Williams, joined on the judging panel by journalist and critic Arifa Akbar, columnist Dolly Alderton, women’s rights campaigner Leyla Hussein and tech entrepreneur Sarah Wood, said the longlist was shaped with “passionate debate” and features “deep engagements with female and sexual identity, and real engagement with tyranny, both sexual and political. And of course, amazing storytelling and gripping plots.”

The Women’s prize for fiction was first established in 1992, the year after no female authors were shortlisted for the Booker prize. It was first awarded in 1996 to the late Helen Dunmore.

This is the first year prize has enjoyed charitable status. Previously sponsored by Orange until 2012, then Baileys until 2017, the prize now receives financial support from a group of brands, as well as appealing to individuals for donations between £1,000 to £5,000 on a new patron scheme.

The shortlist will be announced 29 April, with the winner revealed on 5 June.


Women’s prize for fiction longlist 2019

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Milkman by Anna Burns
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Praise Songs for the Butterflies by Bernice L McFadden
Circe by Madeline Miller
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Normal People by Sally Rooney

Laureate explores how and why political poetry is hot again

By Tracy K. Smith

In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing, there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems. It was too dangerous an undertaking, one likely to result in didacticism and slackened craft. No, in American poetry, politics was the domain of the few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich or Denise Levertov, whose outsize conscience justified such risky behavior. Even so, theirs weren’t the voices being discussed in workshops and craft seminars.

Maybe it was our relative political stability that kept Americans from stepping into the fray. Perhaps America’s individualism predisposed its poets toward the lyric poem, with its insistence on the primacy of a single speaker whose politics were intimate, internal, invisible. Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, and the war in Iraq, and something shifted in the nation’s psyche.

I keep coming back in my mind to some of the first poems published after 9/11, the worst among them written in the heat of righteous rage. Frank Bidart published “Curse” in the spring 2002 issue of The Threepenny Review. As the title suggests, the poem reads as a rant directed, perhaps, at the architects of the terror:

May what you have made descend upon you. 
May the listening ears of your victims their eyes their

breath

enter you, and eat like acid 
the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.

What satisfaction a poem like this offers lies in its rage, the good tongue-lashing it doles out. But the fact that it could be spoken just as plausibly by the relative of an attack victim as by someone setting out to perform an act of terror goes a long way toward highlighting the vicious cycle rage sets into motion. Bidart is a poet of such nuance and particularity that I’m tempted to believe he may have written “Curse” to highlight this very fact. Though it’s also possible he was simply indulging a basic human urge.

In the intervening years, political poetry, even here in America, has done much more than vent. It has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry. Poems willing to enter into this fraught space don’t merely stand on the bank calling out instructions on how or what to believe; they take us by the arm and walk us into the lake, wetting us with the muddied and the muddled, and sometimes even the holy.

Danez Smith’s “Don’t Call Us Dead” offers just such a baptism, and it does so through the imaginative act of dreaming up a realm where black boys remain safe, where they “go out for sweets & come back.” It is harrowing to accept a narrative of black survival as radical fantasy, though as Smith demonstrates, threats to black bodies on this earth are plentiful and real. They exist in society at large, as well as in intimate spaces; for Smith, who is H.I.V. positive, danger to the black body waits in the blood itself. Even so, these poems don’t preach or rail so much as explore vulnerability; they are not occasional curses hurled at a disembodied target, but acknowledgment of the actual ordeals life doles out to real people in fragile bodies.


Javier Jáen

As radical as empathy and imagination can be, these qualities exist in the mind. But there is also a poetic language of embodied experience, one that uses poetry to seek out the body. In “Feeld,” the trans poet Jos Charles bends language, via willful spelling, to a place where it must be parsed slowly, struggled through, read not so much with the brain as the mouth. Language becomes a felt thing, a terrain to be crossed. The title itself toys with such a transformation, the word feeld being a marriage, perhaps, of feelfelt and field. Reading lines like “i care so / much abot the whord i cant / reed / it marks mye bak / wen i pass / with / a riben in mye hayre,” I can’t help feeling that the body — itself a shifting and malleable possibility — is the target for these poems.

Through the strange labor of deciphering the text, I come to understand that Charles is transmitting an experience that I must allow to travel from her body into mine. When I do, the distance between us alters. It grows smaller and strangely charged. I’m made to realize that the very vernacular of the poems also tampers with history; it announces a continuum where Chaucer and 19th-century enslaved blacks and a 21st-century white trans woman seem quite effortlessly to share a lexicon.

Justin Phillip Reed, whose “Indecency” received the 2018 National Book Award in poetry, writes close to the flesh. His poems take up the body in desire and violence, and they do so by thrusting the reader into a stark visceral encounter with their material. The poem “Portrait With Stiff Upper Lip” is graphically rendered so that it can’t be read line by line; the page must be turned, repositioned so that text, overlapping and running every which direction, can be seen. Beyond typography, the poem asks the reader to take on the physical and emotional sense of a black man hearing himself, or someone like him, discussed via fragments. A reader staggers through a field of statements like “looks like planet of the apes” “probably has / a huge” “probably has a parent” “in / prison” “NO” “[in / the / pen]” “I’ve never had” “with a really hot BLKguy.” The reader, dragged forward yet afraid to keep reading, is made to feel caught in a hostile gaze, shoved around by heedless voices.

An even more radical use of the body as the poem’s site of operation can be found in CAConrad’s somatic poetics, which the poet describes as “a poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit.” This is poetry rooted in actual rituals involving nature, crystals, meditation and interactions with strangers. It is a response to the cruelties of the “rational” world, a world where, as CAConrad recounts it, in 1998 the poet’s boyfriend was bound, gagged, tortured, raped, doused in gasoline and set on fire. And it’s worth considering that ritual might be one means of recovering from a world of such unrelenting cruelty — that ritual, rather than reason, can foster moments of healing like the one in this passage from “Pluto.3,” from CAConrad’s collection “While Standing in Line for Death”:

even when we have
forgotten where we
are love finds us just
sticks us
sobbing […]
saying no doesn’t matter you can’t say no for long

CAConrad’s poems invite the reader to become an agent in a joint act of recovery, to step outside of passivity and propriety and to become susceptible to the illogical and the mysterious.

In his “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth writes that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” For him, the poem emerges after the heat of immediacy has cooled, when the mind calls forth old feelings anew, allowing them to bubble up and submit to honing through contemplation. But as I see it in this new strain of American poetry willing to engage with politics, it’s not exactly contemplation that is happening. Honing is no longer limited to the mind; in the work of these poets, Wordsworth’s head chakra is allowed to work in concert with energy centers throughout the body.

Take Evie Shockley’s “semiautomatic,” which grapples with the violent imprint America has made upon black bodies through the ages. The poem “supply and demand” shines a light on the absurdity of merely thinking about outrageous injustice:

the more black boys you have, the more you want.
you act like we’re swimming in black boys.
you can’t keep black boys in your pocket.
if you had a million black boys, what would you do with them?
do you think we’re made of black boys?

A reader can very clearly see the work Shockley has asked “black boys” to do in her poem. They are to stand in for a commodity, something exhaustible. This ought to ring false, wildly absurd; however, two lines from the latter half of the poem abruptly change my relationship to the work as a whole: “you don’t just find black boys lying in the street,” and “black boys don’t grow on trees.” Here, something akin to muscle memory disrupts my strategy for negotiating the poem. Call it the collective memory of Michael Brown’s body lying in the street, and of the terrible yet familiar photographs of black victims of lynch mobs hanging from trees. I can no longer
second-guess the poem. Here I thought it was only teasing, but it has caught up to me and knocked me to the ground.

Wordsworth’s description of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is sometimes cited as shorthand for what poets refer to as the lyric “I,” the poet’s vehicle for private, meditative reflection. So what becomes of the lyric “I” if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting? I suggest that lately it seems concerned with seeking revelation not in privacy, but in community. Not in the meditative mind but in bustling bodies in shared space, in the transactions our physical selves are marked and marred by. The lyric “I” at this very moment is not alone, like the speaker of Bidart’s “Curse,” who hurls invective into the ether. Rather, it is speaking to a large, shifting, contradictory, multivalent body that is not guaranteed to hear or even to agree. Still, the “I” speaks. It is speaking at once from and to something like America.

2018 Best illustrated children’s books

Since 1952, New York Times have convened a rotating annual panel of three expert judges, who consider every illustrated children’s book published that year in the United States. They select the winners purely on the basis of artistic merit. The judges this time were Leonard Marcus, a children’s literature historian and critic; Jenny Rosenoff, a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library; and Bryan Collier, the author and illustrator of many acclaimed picture books and a past winner of the award.

Below you’ll find images from each winning book, with commentary from the judges.

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Written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales

Morales’s colorful collages create a wonderful dreamlike effect in this powerful story of a mother and child leaving Mexico on an unexpected journey in search of a new life. — B.C.

Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 32 pp., $18.99.

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Written and illustrated by Anna Walker

Anna Walker’s earth-toned, claustrophobic cityscapes are overtaken by lush greenery, giving glorious visual representation to the increasing hopefulness of a little girl settling into her new urban landscape. — J.R.

Clarion Books, 32 pp., $16.99.

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Written by Pilar Lopez Avila

Illustrated by Mar Azabal

In this beautiful gem about a girl who wants to learn to read, letters burst forth from imagery done in cut-paper collage and a rainbow of color, each page telling its own story with a quiet, understated voice. — B.C.

Cuento de Luz Books, 32 pp., $16.95.

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Illustrated by Violeta Lopiz and Valerio Vidali

Like a fairy-tale walk in the woods, “The Forest” is a thrilling visual excursion into uncharted territory featuring elaborate die-cuts, gatefolds and embossed images created by two artists from Italy and Spain. — L.M.

Enchanted Lion Books, 72 pp., $24.95.

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Illustrated by Lane Smith

In this tale of children who discover an abandoned house, Lane Smith’s deftly layered and lyrical pictorial world shimmers with a whirr of woodland color and line work that caroms from wispy to razor-sharp. — L.M.

Roaring Brook Press, 48 pp., $18.99.

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Illustrated by Jan Bajtlik

Less is way more in the Polish artist Jan Bajtlik’s exhilarating, toy-bright ode to vehicles that don’t just go, they positively grip the road. — L.M.

Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 32 pp., $16.99.

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Illustrated by Felicita Sala

Felicita Sala’s archly horror-struck portraits and faux-eerie settings open a magnificent, cobwebbed window into the English novelist Mary Shelley’s wild and fiery imagination. — L.M.

Knopf, 40 pp., $17.99.

Written and illustrated by Matt James

Matt James’s colorful acrylics and playful collage lend a youthful exuberance to a normally dreary subject, giving poignant insight into a child’s understanding of the adult world. — J.R.

Groundwood Books, 40 pp., $18.95.

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Written and illustrated by David Covell

Running at top speed and with reckless abandon, Covell’s watercolors and handwritten text take us on a madcap, carefree adventure through nature’s wide-open spaces. — J.R.

Viking, 40 pp., $17.99.

Written and illustrated by Antje Damm

In Antje Damm’s remarkable “The Visitor,” a boy rushes into a lonely woman’s black-and-white 3-D collage world, bringing an explosion of color, light and life. — B.C.

Gecko Press, 32 pp., $17.99.

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‘To Siri With Love’ – New in Paperback


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By Joumana Khatib


Six new paperbacks to check out this week.

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machinesby Judith Newman. (Harper, $15.99.) In her frank, and often very funny, memoir, Newman edges into the inner life of her son Gus and explores his affectionate bond with Apple’s personal assistant, Siri. The book is courageous and poses provocative questions, and it shows that while autistic people may be different, they are far from being less.

THE RELIVE BOX: And Other Storiesby T. Coraghessan Boyle. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $16.99.) From droughts to freakish gene editing, the tales in Boyle’s collection imagine a near future where civilization is headed toward chaos. In the title story, the protagonist starves himself, torpedoes his relationship with his daughter and risks his job to “relive” his past.

HAUNTED: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worldsby Leo Braudy. (Yale, $22.) Drawing together biblical, classical, medieval and contemporary symbols, this comprehensive study sketches out a taxonomy of monsters. Braudy, an English professor at the University of Southern California, is “a veritable Linnaeus of the underworldly oversoul,” our reviewer, Gregory Maguire, wrote.

DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTHby Nathan Englander. (Vintage, $16.95.) A failed Israeli agent languishes in a prison cell deep in the Negev Desert; meanwhile, his nemesis, the General (a stand-in for Ariel Sharon), is comatose after a stroke, and suffers a similar fate. As our reviewer, Steve Stern, put it, Englander tells the complex story of modern-day Israel through “individuals in their quixotic attempts to hang onto conscience, identity and hope while history tries to pry loose their tenuous grasp.”

A BOLD AND DANGEROUS FAMILY: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascismby Caroline Moorehead. (Harper Perennial, $17.99.) The Rosellis, an upper-class Jewish family, were guided by a strong moral imperative in their fight against Mussolini and other authoritarians. The book centers on two brothers whose efforts ended only after they were murdered in 1937.

ASYMMETRYby Lisa Halliday. (Simon & Schuster, $16.) In her fiercely intelligent debut novel, Halliday considers questions of fate and free will through two story lines: the bittersweet romance between Alice, a young assistant at a publishing house, and Ezra, a celebrated writer decades her senior; and the travails of an Iraqi-American economist who has seen his family and culture decimated by war.

New and Readworthy: Darcul and Lovecraft

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DRACUL By Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker. (Putnam, $27.) Co-written by the great-grand-nephew of Bram Stoker, this is a fictional prequel to the story of Dracula. Using notes that Stoker himself left (in which he recounted a strange experience with a dark presence), the authors imagine the events that would have led Stoker to compose his tale of the vampire count from Transylvania. LOVECRAFT By H. P. Lovecraft, adapted by I. N. J. Culbard. (SelfMadeHero, $35.) Culbard, a graphic novelist, offers his take on four stories from H. P. Lovecraft, the writer Stephen King called “the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” These stories of madness and surreal worlds are rendered here with the crispness and energy of a comic book. THE VAMPIRE By Nick Groom. (Yale, $25.) Two hundred years after the bloodsucking creature first appeared in literature, Groom presents an authoritative take on the history of the vampire. He tracks its origin to the 18th century and rumors about vampirism that led proponents of the new science to investigate and scrutinize and fantasize about this monster. THE MANSION By Ezekiel Boone. (Emily Bestler/Atria, $26.) A successful programmer decides to resurrect a failed project from his idealistic youth: inventing a computer that can control every function of a house. The only problem is that people keep dying, thanks to the evil in the code. SLUM WOLF By Tadao Tsuge. (New York Review Comics, paper, $22.95.) These selections from the late ’60s and ’70s present the work of Tsuge in his prime as a creator of alternative manga that captured the sights and stories of the Tokyo streets. It’s a vision of bars, flophouses, gangsters and drunks, violence and sex.

In which we ask colleagues at Bloomgist Reader Center what they’re reading now.

“I recently took a break from the assigned reading I have to do for grad school (my other job) when my friend, a fellow Floridian, gifted me Lauren Groff’s new collection of short stories, FLORIDA. Most of the stories are actually set in the Sunshine State, where the writer has moved with her family. She perceives it as a weird place, which I think is, in its way, true. There’s a sense of apocalyptic doom threading all 11 stories together. It’s hard not to feel that way when you live in a state where, if the hurricanes don’t get you, the alligators or face-eaters will. These stories, with characters that include panthers, snakes and a restless mother who screams at her children because she’s so filled with rage about the state of the world, are haunting and arresting. Well worth procrastinating my grad school assignments to get through.”


— Isvett Verde, Editorial Assistant, Opinion, 
on what she’s reading.