The best and boldest new must-read books for May

From poignant novels to eerie speculative fiction, May has it all, even Japanese American Jane Austen short stories

Published May 5, 2020 7:44PM (EDT)

Split of: "All Adults Here" by Emma Straub, "Sansei & Sensibility by Karen Teil Yamashita, "The Prettiest Star" by Carter Sickels, and "Almond" by Won-pyung Sohn (Riverhead Books/Coffee House Press/Hub City Press/HarperVia/Salon)
Split of: "All Adults Here" by Emma Straub, "Sansei & Sensibility by Karen Teil Yamashita, "The Prettiest Star" by Carter Sickels, and "Almond" by Won-pyung Sohn (Riverhead Books/Coffee House Press/Hub City Press/HarperVia/Salon)

What if Hillary Rodham Clinton never married Bill? That's the  premise of Curtis Sittenfeld's speculative "Rodham: A Novel" (Random House, May 19), one of many intriguing book offerings to distract you as we enter the third month of quarantine (along with the many May TV and movie releases). As long as we're pondering "what if" scenarios, Pulitzer finalist Lydia Millet's novel "A Children's Bible" (W.W. Norton & Company, May 12) follows a group of mature teens who must figure out how to live once the generation before them has created a widespread environmental catastrophe.

Among the other highly anticipated novels this month are a few that delve into relationships between women. Gail Godwin's "Old Lovegood Girls" (Bloomsbury, May 5) about a friendship between two women that spans decades, while Ilana Masad's "All My Mother's Lovers" (Dutton, May 26) follows Maggie as she's determined to deliver sealed envelopes her late mother had addressed to five men. And then there's Jennifer Weiner's perfect beach read "Big Summer" (Atria, May 5), in which Daphne's estranged best friend asks her to be Maid of Honor at her big society wedding. 

Book lovers will also appreciate Kate Zambreno's hilarious yet haunting "Drifts" (Riverhead, May 19) about a woman who keeps putting off writing a novel called "Drifts" (ha!). Of course, no reading list is complete without the requisite nod to Jane Austen, and Natalie Jenner's "The Jane Austen Society" (St. Martin's Press, May 26) pays tribute to the author and those who love her with this novel set after WWII in Chawton, a quaint English village that tries to keep the legacy of Austen alive. In keeping with this unplugged theme, Kelly Harms' "The Bright Side of Going Dark" (Lake Union, May 12) follows the ultimate online influencers as she decides to chuck her phone off a cliff and live offline.

In addition to these books, Salon's writers also highlighted six more must-read new books coming out this month below.

"All Adults Here" by Emma Straub (Riverhead Books, May 5)

Astrid Strick was 68 years old when she saw Barbara Baker get run over by a bus. Until that day, her life had been one of quiet routine: she was a widow, a mother of three children and lived contentedly in the small Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York. 

She didn't even like Barbara, "not for a single day of their forty‑year acquaintance," but that freak accident inspires her — in a rare moment of self-reflection — to tell her children about her relationship with Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser-turned-girlfriend 

"There was no time to waste, not in this life," Astrid thinks. "There were always more school buses. How many times did a person have to be reminded?"

But in order to come out to her children, Astrid will have to actually reconnect with them, which means being reminded of what kind of mother she was to them — cold and emotionally distant, at best. 

"She wished she could have a printout of all the mistakes she'd made as a parent, the big ones and the small ones, just to see how many of them she could guess (her temper was always shortest at bathtime) and how many she couldn't." 

And Astrid's children, especially her eldest son, Elliot, pin many of their own mistakes on their mother's parenting failures. 

Elliot, a real-estate agent with two toddlers ("such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more"), is becoming increasingly despondent and indecisive as he approaches middle age. Porter, the middle child, runs a goat farm where she makes artisan cheese; she is newly pregnant via a sperm bank, but has recently rekindled an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest, is hot in that "Oh, he probably stays in weed smoke-filled yurts" kind of way (in fact, he once played a hot high schooler in a movie, a role for which he is still recognized).  And he has a 13-year-old daughter, Cecelia, who is somehow more adept at just living life than any of the adults in her immediate orbit. 

So — this family is kind of a hot mess, but author Emma Straub makes sure they are the kind of hot mess you can a) relate to and b) root for. Each chapter of "All Adults Here" alternates between the points of view of the various characters, creating an immersive world that steadily broadens, quickly enveloping the reader. 

Straub has a super sharp wit, which she uses to introduce topics like gender identity, sexual predators, sexual fluidity, and abortion. The result is a warm, smart novel that feels both very "now," but also timeless in its survey of a family trying to become one again. — Ashlie D. Stevens

* * *

"Almond" by Won-pyung Sohn (HarperVia, May 5)

Fifteen-year-old Seon Yunjae doesn't experience emotions. Not in that way that a lot of teenagers pretend to be completely disaffected, playing at apathy in an attempt to be cool; Yunjae has alexithymia, a defect believed to be rooted in the amygdala, the almond-shaped region of the brain, that renders him incapable of even identifying his own emotions. 

He lives with his grandmother and mother who are both deeply supportive of him, leaving him sticky notes around the bookstore they own that remind him to smile at customers and to exchange pleasantries. It's a really peaceful life, until a random act of violence shatters Yunjae's world, leaving him very alone. 

He retreats into a state of complete social isolation and silence, until Gon arrives.

Gon, a fellow student at Yunjae's school, has been mysteriously absent for 13 years (it comes out that he was being passed from foster home to foster home, before eventually ending up in a youth shelter), and immediately recognizes Yunjae as a target for torment. 

But as Gon's bullying increases, so does Yunjae's fascination with Gon — here is someone whose rage and sadness are unbridled, recognizable to even someone like Yunjae. The two eventually form a strange, fraught bond that inspires both teenagers to open up, bit by bit, to the people around them. And when Gon finds his life in danger, Yunjae is the one who then steps up, and very much outside his comfort zone, to help. 

In her debut novel, film director and screenwriter Sohn Won-pyung (with the assistance of translator Sandy Joosun Lee) has created a tender exploration of adolescence — a universal experience complicated here by extraordinary circumstances. This is one of those books that deftly straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction; it has such a gentle heart that readers of all ages will recognize and sympathize with the characters' struggles and celebrate when they ultimately triumph. — A.D.S.

* * *

"Little Eyes" by Samanta Schweblin (Riverhead Books, May 5)

From 2017 Man Booker International Prize finalist and Shirley Jackson Prize winner Samanta Schweblin comes her second novel, a disquieting work of speculative fiction that is more insidious than the blunt-force nihilism in "Black Mirror." In it, Schweblin examines how the devices we invite into our homes — no matter how seemingly innocuous — can poison how humans behave. 

Set in our world, "Little Eyes" introduces the cute kentukis, stuffed animal-like electronic creatures akin to Furbys, but with camera-lens eyes and a soul on the other end. One can be an owner, aka "keeper" of a kentuki — for companionship, as a pet, to help with limited chores – or one can be an anonymous "dweller" and connect on the other end to make the kentuki move and respond. Why a person would want a stranger to be able to enter their home, albeit in a limited felt-encased three-wheeled robot, is baffling. Nevertheless, the critters have gone global, infiltrating lives from Hong Kong, Italy, Brazil, the United States, Mexico, and beyond.

Through the interwoven tale of multiple keepers and dwellers, Schweblin demonstrates an uncanny ability to extrapolate on a global scale how different members of society would react to the innovation. Yes, there are the expected breaches of privacy, some blackmail, and even the inevitable star-crossed lovers. The novel briefly nods to these more obvious storylines before twisting them, blowing past them, and then digging deeper into the stygian recesses of human nature. 

Schweblin is a master of pacing as she slowly trains the reader on what a kentuki can do, much like how a new keeper and dweller must learn how to communicate and cohabitate. But as each new storyline is introduced and developed, the reader is pulled into the drama of the Peruvian woman who is poised to save her keeper from a no-good lover, or the neglected girlfriend who begins to torture her kentuki, or the young Antiguan boy who will finally achieve his dream of experiencing snow. Schweblin builds tension and suspense, and ultimately a bleak acceptance of inescapable dread. 

Underlying these adventures is an uncanny insight into how people rely on and build a relationship with technology that dovetails with identity in a toxic way. In the real world, we're already taught to distrust our devices — our phones that are always listening, our laptop cameras that are always observing, our home assistants that are always learning — but convenience and ubiquity mitigate our suspicions.

Schweblin's clear and brisk language, aided by a seemingly effortless translation from Spanish by Megan McDowell, drives home the accessibility of this outlandish story. "Little Eyes" is strange and addictive, an experience made even more frightening by how familiar this feels. — Hanh Nguyen

* * *

"Sansei & Sensibility" by Karen Tei Yamashita (Coffee House Press, May 5)

"Mukashi, mukashi . . . " and so begins each tale in the second half of National Book Award finalist Karen Tei Yamashita's new collection of short stories that blends the Japanese American immigrant experience with the works of Jane Austen. Literally translated as "long ago, long ago," these words set the heightened fictional tone of the densely packed, but hilariously sharp stories that are built upon the familiar bones of the Regency author's works.

Want a taste of "Emma" and her meddling hubris? Try "Emi," which mimics Austen's rhythms and quirks, but injects just enough self-aware modernity into the mix:

"Mukashi, mukashi, Emi Moriuchi, intelligent, headstrong, privileged and cheerfully positive came of age in the sixties. O.K., no big deal. You boomer sansei came of age in the sixties, give or take a decade."

Then there's "Monterey Park," which is Yamashita's take on "Mansfield Park," and then the story of Japanese American band "The PersuAsians," inspired by — what else? — "Persuasion." And so on. You get the idea. While Yamashita's buoyant sense of humor and wicked wordplay are fully on display with these Austen tributes, it's a treat that is made sweeter by first traipsing through the first half of the collection.

Why then mention the second half first? Well, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a medium in possession of an Austen reference must want attention. But really the first half detailing the lives of various sansei, the third-generation Japanese Americans who succeeded those incarcerated in the concentration camps, is essential reading not only to gain understanding of a complex ethnic identity, but to enjoy the highly imaginative and gorgeously wrought bites of literary prose. 

Whether it's unraveling the mystery of a dental hygienist who is driving away clientele or delving into the literal bowels of a narrator as she receives a colonoscopy, Yamashita masters every tone, from contemplative to ominous to absurd. Throughout it all, she intersperses generational insight into these hyperspecific yet globalized tales. As a bonus, the "Sansei" side of the book also includes personal essays about Yamashita's family, a select timeline of Los Angeles and Gardena (which boasts the highest percentage of Japanese Americans in California), and real-life sansei recipes, makeshift dishes that one cobbles together to satisfy cravings.

Once the rice of "Sansei" is laid, the decadent Austen-inflected Spam of "Sensibility" is layered on top, all held together by the strong and savory nori of Yamashita's skill. OK, comparing the delightful yet challenging story collection to Spam musubi may seem facile, nay even borderline insulting. Yet this is the playful exploration the book inspires . . . along with research that reveals that Spam musubi was created in the mainland World War II internment camps, not in Hawaii as is broadly accepted. Mukashi, mukashi, musubi, musubi.

"Sansei & Sensibility" brings both joy and contemplation, awe and laughter, and most of all, an appreciation for multicultural blending and exchange. Yamashita does it again. – H.N.

* * *

"The Anthill" by Julianne Pachico (Doubleday, May 12)

In Julianne Pachico's darkly imaginative novel "The Anthill," Carolina, on the run from an academic and personal life in free-fall, travels to Colombia, which she and her British father left 20 years earlier after the death of her Colombian mother as the decades-long civil conflict raged through the country. She has returned to visit Matthias — "Lina and Matty, together forever!" — her childhood confidante who now runs a day center for underprivileged kids in Medellín, and to reacquaint herself with the ghosts of her childhood.

In "the new Medellín," a striving city looking to leave its violent past behind, financially comfortable foreigners can enjoy cartel tourism side-excursions while padding their spiritual CVs with "authentic experiences" such as volunteering at Matthias' center The Anthill, where neighborhood kids eat, play sports, take art classes and participate in the nebulous "Leadership Club," to which the unprepared Lina is assigned. The Anthill's urgent needs have a way of perpetually distracting Matthias from indulging Lina's attempts to investigate her foggy childhood memories and construct a timeline for what happened to him after she left Medellín. But it soon becomes clear that Matthias is actively avoiding re-engaging with the emotionally intimate bond they shared as kids.

Nor is he forthcoming about the present, including the possible existence of a mysterious and feral "dirty" kid with pointed teeth the Anthill children see that may or may not be responsible for all manner of disruption. Lina, consumed by her own unresolved guilt and trauma, becomes "the new volunteer," absorbed into the controlled chaos of The Anthill as she pulls further away from her life back home and the lines between reality and memory continue to blur. As Lina becomes re-rooted in Medellín, a voice from outside of time emerges with its own agenda. Lina can only push so hard, and Matty can only run for so long, before the combined weight of what they know and experienced overwhelms the fragile equilibrium of the Anthill and his refuge from the pain he has had to bury.

Unsentimental yet unfailingly tender, "The Anthill" confronts the question of what privileged survivors of conflict, personal or political, owe the more vulnerable if reconciliation, rather than simply burying the past and moving on, is to occur. It can start with giving the story back, Pachico's novel suggests, with allowing memory to be a living, breathing thing that must be seen and heard if it's to be fully reckoned with. — Erin Keane 

* * *

"The Prettiest Star" by Carter Sickels (Hub City Press, May 19)

To the denizens of most rural middle-American towns in 1986, AIDS remained largely an abstract story — a far-off, alien plague afflicting men "like that" in cities, a scandal involving Rock Hudson, not a health crisis at their own doors. At that point, before antiretroviral drugs were widely available, a diagnosis was almost certainly terminal, too. In Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Carter Sickels' elegiac second novel "The Prettiest Star," a prodigal son of one such town returns that year from New York, alone and grieving, to die in the Appalachian home he fled six years earlier, making the LGBTQ community's immense loss real and unavoidable to his hometown and family of origin at last.

With his lover Shawn and most of their friends dead, and losing his own health by the day, Brian trades one ghost town for another, testing Frost's theory that "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." So they do, but with painful caveats including denial, hostility and shame. When rumors begin to fly through the conservative Christian community, lines are drawn and the hypocrisy of "good people" begins to fray the bonds of his family, despite his fiercely protective Mamaw Lettie's best efforts, when Brian needs them the most. 

"Shawn told me to document everything, the good and the bad," Brian narrates in a handmade video diary he keeps throughout the novel. "He was scared our lives would be forgotten." In "The Prettiest Star," Sickels brings into the light a segment of LGBTQ history that has been underexamined in narratives about this era, of gay men who lived and loved and died and survived in rural places, where they were loved and shunned and embraced and feared, some after returning home and some who never left. 

This final chapter of Brian's life is not without its moments of beauty and solace; his bond with Andrew, a local he befriends whose family embraces Brian when his own comes apart, is particularly moving, perhaps doubly so because rural gay characters like Andrew are rarely seen in full in popular culture set before this millennium, at least. "Why does anyone go home?" is a question Brian asks his diary, and the novel seeks to answer without flinching away from ugliness and without demonizing the ignorant as they seek understanding or the weak as they try to find strength. "You come back to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved." Sickels extends this generosity to Brian's flawed family as well. — E.K. 

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. Her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," will be published in September 2022.

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and food. She also co-hosts the Good Pop Culture Club podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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All Adults Here Books Editor's Picks List Little Eyes Sansei & Sensibility The Anthill The Prettiest Star