From best seller to austere memoir, here’s what’s coming up next

I have been reading all over the literary spectrum these days. Sometimes I need a serious nonfiction voice sharing life experience. Other times I need popular escape; others a thoughtful classic or, in this case, a scandalous one. I drop a book 70 pages in if it isn’t hitting the mark, pick up another that does, finish it, and then go back to the one I dropped and, this time, I can’t put it down. And so it goes. If this were food, I’d be fine dining at an organic restaurant and going to Dairy Queen for dessert.

I meant to read Andy Weir’s novel The Martian when it was published but never got around to it. I thought it would give me that exciting escape far from reality, a reading vacation when you’re so lost into the plot you don’t hear text arrivals on your phone. In fact, you don’t even know where your phone is or care. Now’s my second chance to dive in: Weir has published his newest page-turner Project Hail Mary, which is already off the charts in best-seller land, a story about the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance space mission. Some are saying it’s even better thanThe Martian. From the description: “His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery—and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.”

A long time ago, I saw Masterpiece Theater’s production of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Why I’m picking up the novel now, who knows, other than I’m gravitating to French books, such as In the Shadow of the Fire (about the 1871 Communard revolt in Paris; it’s excellent!) and Hervé Guibert’s novel (see below). Here’s an excerpt from the Zola novel description: “In a dingy apartment on the Passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, Thérèse Raquin is trapped in a loveless marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille. The numbing tedium of her life is suddenly shattered when she embarks on a turbulent affair with her husband’s earthy friend Laurent, but their animal passion for each other soon compels the lovers to commit a crime that will haunt them forever.” The rest of the description employs the words “madness” and “ghostly revenge.” Who can resist that!

I’ve been aware of the late Hervé Guibert’s novel, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, but didn’t feel urged to pick it up until I read that Kate Zambreno’s new nonfiction, to be published in June, draws on Guibert’s book. I’m eager to read the new Zambreno, the advanced reading copy already in hand, but first I’ll read the Guibert novel, originally published in 1990 by the French publishing house Gallimard. The premise is “a novel that describes, with devastating, darkly comic clarity, its narrator’s experience of being diagnosed with AIDS.” The description continues: “Guibert chronicles three months in the penultimate year of the narrator’s life as, in the wake of his friend Muzil’s death, he goes from one quack doctor to another, describing the progression of the disease and recording the reactions of his many friends.” Back when the novel was first published, the French media revealed the fictional Muzil was Guibert’s close friend and famous French philosopher Michel Foucault, and the book became a bestseller.

Kirkus Reviews describes To Write As If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno as a “contemplative, rhetorically austere memoir.” Zambreno caught my attention with her 2020 novel Drifts (paperback to be released this month) with its compulsively readable, fragmented style and inquisitiveness about the creative life. Now, in her new book, Zambreno contends with her failed attempts to write a study of Hervé Guibert’s aforementioned novel. From the description: “Zambreno, who has been pushing the boundaries of literary form for a decade, investigates Guibert’s methods by adopting them, offering a keen sense of the energy and confessional force of his work.” It continues describing the first half as a novella in the mode of a detective story “searching after the mysterious disappearance of an online friendship” and the second half as “a notebook documenting the doubled history of two bodies amid another historical plague.” Sounds complex; however, Zambreno writes with breathtaking clarity while untangling refreshing, sometimes daunting, concepts. To Write As If Already Dead comes in at a mere, enticing 147 pages. Zambreno is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction.

Another June release I’m looking forward to is the memoir Kin by Shauna Kay Rodenberg. It’s described as “a heart-stopping memoir of a wrenching Appalachian girlhood and a multilayered portrait of a misrepresented people.” Publishers Weekly says the “engrossing series of dispatches offers a humanizing take on an Appalachia not often seen,” while Kirkus Reviews gives the memoir a star and calls it “powerful and surprising.” From the description: “When Shawna Kay Rodenberg was four, her father, fresh from a ruinous tour in Vietnam, spirited her family from their home in the hills of Eastern Kentucky to Minnesota, renouncing all of their earthly possessions to live in the Body, an off-the-grid End Times religious community. Her father was seeking a better, safer life for his family, but the austere communal living of prayer, bible study and strict regimentation was a bad fit for the precocious Shawna.”

Finally, tipping my hat to the Welsh blogger BookerTalk, I’m keen to read The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood, a novel described as an “intoxicating story of love and betrayal, set in the Bauhaus art school.” BookerTalk’s surprise that the novel didn’t get noticed by major literary awards tells me there’s a kind of richness here, in prose and storytelling, likely to be riveting and memorable. From the novel’s plot summary: “In 1922, Paul Beckermann arrives at the Bauhaus art school and is immediately seduced by both the charismatic teaching and his fellow students. Eccentric and alluring, the more time Paul spends with his new friends the closer they become, and the deeper he falls in love with the mesmerising Charlotte. But Paul is not the only one vying for her affections, and soon an insidious rivalry takes root.” Published in 2019,The Hiding Game is available in paperback and sounds like it would be a great summer read.

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