Sarah McCraw Crow

As Jennifer Savran Kelly’s debut novel, Endpapers, opens, main character Dawn Levit has stalled. She’s in her mid-20s, dissatisfied with her art (she designs, prints and binds handmade books) and unable to make anything new. She’s also feeling stuck in her relationship with Lukas, whom Dawn is pretty sure would love her more if she were a man. Dawn has been exploring her own gender and sexual identities since high school, taking tentative steps to find her way, but she’s still doubting her instincts and herself. Lately, she and Lukas have found comfort in “slipping back into the closet,” where neither has to worry about feeling accepted. But neither of them is content, either.

While at work in the book conservation lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dawn finds a torn-off paperback cover bearing the title Turn Her About, which depicts a woman looking into a mirror and seeing a man’s face. On the back is a letter handwritten in German; the correspondents’ names (Gertrude and Marta) and Ich liebe dich (“I love you”) are the only words Dawn can understand. But this letter, apparently from the 1940s or ’50s, sends Dawn on a quest to learn more about the pulp novel, and about Gertrude and Marta. 

Following Dawn through the spring of 2003, Endpapers depicts a New York City still shrouded in post-9/11 gloom, evoking an uneasy mood and underlining Dawn’s sense that even in early 21st-century New York, being different isn’t safe. Out at a bar one night, Dawn, Lukas and their friend Jae are harassed by two men, which leads to a hate crime that Dawn feels she incited.

Dawn’s introspection is at times painful; she’s young, self-absorbed and prone to missteps with her friends and co-workers. But as the story progresses, the mystery of Gertrude and Marta converges beautifully with the artwork that Dawn begins to conceive. Kelly is a bookbinder and book production editor, and the novel’s details of book and print restoration ground and add depth to Dawn’s story. 

Endpapers is a coming-of-age story about growing as an artist and learning to trust and build relationships in a world that doesn’t want to make room for you. Despite its early 2000s setting, Endpapers still feels timely, leading us to reflect on how far we’ve come in accepting differences and how far we still have to go.

Though set in the early 2000s, Endpapers still feels timely, leading us to reflect on how far we’ve come in accepting differences and how far we still have to go.

Throughout our lives, we encounter fraught decisions around love and money: whether to take a better job across the country when our partner wants to stay put; when and whether to marry, buy a house, have a child; if we should work full time with children in the picture. Money and love “are profoundly intertwined, and both are fundamental to living a life of purpose and meaning, health, and well-being,” write Myra Strober and Abby Davisson, co-authors of Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions.

Strober, who was the first female faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, created a groundbreaking class on work and family and has led thousands of students through it over the years. As a business school student, Davisson took Strober’s class with her then-boyfriend, and for their final paper, the couple chose the topic of living together before marriage. (Now married, the two have returned to the class as guest speakers for a decade.) Money and Love is informed by this popular class.

Organized around issues such as dating, marriage, deciding where to live and dividing household chores, the book’s chapters offer anecdotes, background research and thoughtful commentary, as well as questions and exercises. The authors call their decision-making framework the 5Cs: clarify (define your deep-down preferences), communicate, choices (generate a broad range of choices), check in (consult with friends, family, research) and consequences (categorize possible outcomes over time). This framework may sound simplistic, but the authors emphasize the complexity of each step toward making life decisions. Good communication, for instance, “isn’t always polite and calm. Sometimes it’s incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes it involves raised voices and, later, apologies for what was said in the heat of the moment.”

Money and Love offers a readable approach with nuggets of wisdom throughout. “Remember that each new agreement is essentially temporary, changing as different parts of life ebb and flow,” Strober and Davisson note in the chapter on sorting out housework and caregiving. The authors supplement anecdotes from former students and colleagues with their own, and Strober’s stories about the end of her first marriage and her second husband’s Parkinson’s disease, and Davisson’s story of her mother’s devastating brain injury at 68, add depth to the book. Money and Love is a useful guide, particularly for young couples on the verge of big decisions.

Organized around issues such as dating, marriage and deciding where to live, Money and Love is a useful, logical guide for couples on the verge of big life decisions.

Katherine May’s essay collection Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age offers similar meditative pleasures as her previous collection, Wintering—though you don’t need to have read Wintering to enjoy Enchantment. “When I want to describe how I feel right now, the word I reach for the most is discombobulated,” she writes, going on to chart the losses, burnout and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of this era. “Time has looped and gathered, and I sometimes worry that I could skip through decades like this, standing in my bathroom, until I am suddenly old.”

In the opening essay, May describes feeling like she had lost some fundamental part of being alive, some elemental human feeling—like she had become disconnected from meaning. Without this missing piece, “the world feels like tap water left overnight, flat and chemical, devoid of life,” she writes. She began to wonder if she could find a solution in enchantment, which she defines as “small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory.” So she set out to find and record such moments, beginning with the places where she found beauty as a child, such as the farmland outside her grandparents’ English village.

Enchantment’s essays are arranged into four sections—Earth, Water, Fire and Air—detailing May’s investigations into each realm. For example, a visit to an ancient healing well goes in the Water section. “There are steps down to a pool of dark water about a foot deep, the heart-shaped petals of the [briar] rose floating on its surface,” she writes about this hidden well. As in the book’s other essays, May doesn’t gloss over her feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy. “It has the air of a place that has waited patiently for a long time for someone to come along and worship, and now it has me standing awkwardly before it, at a loss. It crackles with magic, but I have no template for how to behave around it, no tradition or culture that prepared me for this.”

May details the small disappointments and larger surprises she encountered on her journey, and her sentences, plain yet gorgeous, cast a spell. The essay “Hierophany” opens simply, “Just after lunchtime when I was a child, my grandmother would sit down to eat an orange, and peace would fall over the house.” Enchantment mixes nature writing and bits of history, theology and literature with memoir—scenes from May’s childhood, her failures at meditation, ordinary marital discontents—to form a lucid, restful collection. Though May’s search for enchantment seems perhaps better suited to the English landscape, with its fairy tale-like ancient sites and villages, than to our American suburban sprawl, Enchantment offers a lovely, meditative way to begin another tumultuous year.

Wintering author Katherine May returns with Enchantment, a lovely, meditative ode to finding connection in a disconnected age.

Stephanie Clifford’s second novel, The Farewell Tour, is both a dual-timeline redemption story and an epic journey through a half-century of country music. 

At 57, country music star Lillian Waters—or Water Lil, as she’s known to her fans—is drinking too much and feeling her age, and she’s unable to write any new songs. Even worse, she keeps alienating almost everyone in her life. In short, Lillian’s washed up. When a doctor gives her more bad news—her voice is deteriorating due to polyps—she decides to hit the road one last time for a farewell summer tour. 

Lillian’s manager, Stanley, puts together a ragtag band of backup musicians and books some county fairs, but the tour gets off to a comically bad start. To try to salvage it, Lillian calls on her old friend Charlie Hagerty, a session musician and songwriter, and he agrees to join. 

The Farewell Tour alternates between the summer of 1980 (the novel’s present) and a retrospective sweep of Lillian’s life as told by the woman herself, beginning with her Depression-era childhood on a subsistence farm. Like real-life midcentury country legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, Lillian overcomes a hardscrabble background and abusive early years, though she’s the daughter of Swedish immigrant farmers in Washington rather than from Appalachia or the Deep South. Obsessed with the country music that she first hears as a girl, Lillian sets out to beat the long odds, learning to play the guitar, writing her own songs and performing on radio stations. Over and over, she faces sexism and misogyny in her quest to make it big. But at the center of this epic story is a quiet mystery, a childhood episode that Lillian can’t quite let herself remember.

Full of marvelous period details about World War II-era Tacoma, Washington, and its proto-country music scene, as well as glitzy 1970s Nashville, Tennessee, The Farewell Tour covers a huge amount of ground, with a correspondingly large number of supporting characters, a sometimes dizzying array. Music fans will appreciate the references to real 20th-century country stars and industry players. Lillian herself is an appealing mix: determined and hard charging, blustery and often unable to get out of her own way. Like a country ballad, The Farewell Tour offers a bittersweet testament to the healing power of old love, long friendships and heartfelt songs.

Like a country music ballad, The Farewell Tour offers a bittersweet testament to the healing power of old love, long friendships and heartfelt songs.

As Emilia Hart’s debut novel opens, it’s 2019, and 29-year-old Kate Ayres is plotting her escape from both London and her abusive boyfriend. She’s recently learned she has a secret place to run to: Her great-aunt Violet, an eccentric entomologist whom Kate barely remembers, has died and bequeathed her niece Weyward Cottage in the remote village of Crows Beck, Cumbria. 

The story then drops back to 1942, when 16-year-old Violet Ayres is confined to the grounds of her father’s Cumbrian estate, Orton Hall, and looked after by a governess and nanny. Violet’s father won’t let her visit the nearby village of Crows Beck or go off to school, though Violet doesn’t know why. He disapproves of the way the girl spends so much time outside, climbing trees and rescuing animals, and he warns that Violet is beginning to turn out like her mother, who died when Violet was a toddler. 

Interspersed among Kate’s and Violet’s stories is the first-person account of Altha, a young woman from Crows Beck who is being tried for witchcraft in 1619.

These three timelines—2019, 1942 and 1619—braid together the quests of Weyward’s women, keeping the tension high as each character faces danger and difficult decisions. As Kate and Violet begin to understand their connections to other women of Weyward Cottage and to the natural world, each also begins to rely on her own strength.

Featuring beautiful descriptions of the plants, animals and insects of rural Cumbria, Weyward also makes good use of objects, such as family pieces passed down through generations. And as befits a gothic story, the novel includes plenty of tropes—the madwoman in the attic, an anxious main character, a dark and crumbling mansion, even a servant named Miss Poole (an apparent nod to Jane Eyre). Most of the novel’s men are portrayed as unremittingly villainous, and some readers will wish for a little more complexity there. Still, Weyward is a satisfying, well-plotted historical page turner and a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature.” It’s perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.

Weyward is a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature,” perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.

Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood are best friends and sixth-formers at the English public school Preshute College, an Eton-like boarding school. It’s 1914, and the Great War has begun killing their schoolmates. The school newspaper, The Preshutian, lists the names of dead and wounded older friends. Meanwhile, outside of school, young women hand white feathers to young men in civilian clothes to shame them into enlisting. 

Gaunt and Ellwood banter, tease, deal with hazing and get drunk with their classmates, but they also harbor secret worries: Gaunt is German and Ellwood is Jewish, marking them as outsiders, more vulnerable in an England at war. What’s more, they can’t admit that their bond is more than friendship— “the love that dare not speak its name.”

Pressured by his mother and sister, Gaunt enlists even though he’s not yet 19, and suddenly he finds himself at the Belgian front, a far-too-young leader thrust into trench warfare. Soon after, Ellwood, starry-eyed with the idea of honor, enlists too, despite Gaunt’s letters urging him against the idea. What follows is an epic war story that depicts the unremitting savagery, trauma and stupidity of World War I. At the same time, In Memoriam tracks an epic love story, as Gaunt and Ellwood sort out their feelings, not knowing if they’ll ever see each other again as their classmates continue to die awful, senseless deaths. 

Author Alice Winn so deeply inhabits her characters, their vanishing prep-school world, the end of empire and the arrival of brutal modern war that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel. In Memoriam feels like an old-fashioned door stopper, with a huge cast of background characters, almost all of them young men (Gaunt’s sister is the only significant female character), and some surprising, even melodramatic plot points as it follows the historical trajectory of the war and its aftermath. The story’s points of view toggle between Gaunt and Ellwood, though the novel’s heart belongs to sardonic, tender Gaunt.

Winn draws on real life not only for war details but also for Ellwood’s character, who seems loosely based on real-life English war poet Siegfried Sassoon. He writes his own poems and quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and Rupert Brooke. These verses—along with fictional letters and newspaper articles, especially The Preshutian’s somber roll call of the dead and wounded—underline the impossibilities of both war and life as a gay man in early 20th-century England. 

In Memoriam is a gorgeous novel, both a meditation on the futility and trauma of a war that sent a generation of young men to their deaths and a gripping love-in-wartime story, with a bittersweet yet hopeful conclusion.

In Memoriam is a gorgeous novel, both a gripping love-in-wartime story and a meditation on the futility and trauma of World War I.

In her engaging Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, memoirist and critic Claire Dederer wrestles with a complicated, sometimes slippery subject: What do we do with art—movies, novels, songs, paintings—we once loved, and sometimes still love, from men we now consider monsters? “I started keeping a list,” she writes. “Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, Floyd Mayweather, though if we start listing athletes we’ll never stop.” The book grew out of an essay Dederer wrote in 2017 for The Paris Review that went viral in the early days of #MeToo. Here Dederer considers the subject more thoroughly in a series of connected essays from a number of angles, walking readers through her thinking and experiences as a reader, viewer, parent, friend and longtime critic.

Dederer’s definition of an art monster is straightforward: “They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing.” As she asks who qualifies as an art monster, and whether female artists can be monsters, Dederer reminds us how our 20th-century concept of “genius” was bound up with masculinity, and often with brutal behavior toward women (with Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso as prime examples).

But what Dederer really wants to get at has to do with our responses to these men and their art; she wants to tell the story of the audience. Reconsidering Woody Allen’s movies, particularly Manhattan, in light of his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, for example, she notes how her male critic friends have continued to see his movies as works of genius, while she and other women have responded quite differently.

One striking chapter looks at our responses to renowned artists Richard Wagner, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, noting the way we shrug off their antisemitic and racist comments because it was a different time. “One of the great problems faced by audiences is named the Past. The Past is a vast terrible place where they didn’t know better. Where monstrous behaviors were accepted,” Dederer writes. Referencing a range of sources, she argues nimbly that these artists did in fact know better.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Monsters is neither rant nor sermon. Dederer is not only an incisive researcher and writer, she’s also conversational, approachable and funny. The book seamlessly incorporates bits of memoir—Dederer’s life in the Pacific Northwest, her experiences as a critic and a woman, her failures—that have informed her critical thinking. Yes, Monsters is a worthy addition to contemporary literary criticism, but more than that, it’s a very enjoyable book about a thorny, elusive subject.

An enjoyable book about a thorny, elusive subject, Monsters is an incisive work of literary criticism about art created by men we now consider monsters.

Early in his freshman year at Yale in 1973, Nate Reminger encounters his classmate Farrell Covington: “Farrell wasn’t simply my cultural opposite, a blinding sun god to counter my pale, Jewish, brown-haired, generous-nosed eagerness. He was a genetic accident, a green-eyed, six-foot-three-inch, broad-shouldered gift, and yes, there were dimples when he smiled.” Farrell, also a freshman, lives in a swanky townhouse with a butler, and he speaks as if he’s in a Cole Porter production, with a voice like a person who’s “been raised by a bottle of good whiskey and a crystal chandelier.” 

Farrell happens to be the scion of the very conservative, very Catholic, immeasurably wealthy Covington family of Wichita, Kansas. And narrator Nate, who knows he’s gay but never had so much as a kiss, is shocked when Farrell declares that he may be in love with Nate. This opening section of Paul Rudnick’s novel Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style is especially strong, offering a mini coming-of-age story that’s filled with new friends and well-grounded in both place (the Yale campus and New Haven, Connecticut) and time (the early 1970s).

After a whirlwind freshman-year romance, Nate and Farrell are separated when Farrell’s flinty homophobic father blackmails his son into leaving Yale and promising to never see Nate again. It’s no spoiler to say that Nate and Farrell do indeed see each other again; the novel follows them for almost 50 years. Nate narrates the forces that keep the two apart and Farrell’s ingenious measures to bring them together, along with the ups and downs of late 20th-century gay life—the vibrant downtown club and disco scene of the ’70s, and the AIDS crisis and its effect on both Hollywood and New York’s theater world. But while Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style is heartfelt, it’s rarely somber. It’s a good-natured romp through the decades, with a large cast and plenty of clever quips and throwaway lines.

Rudnick is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter, and here he draws on his own life, sometimes to comic effect. (Rudnick wrote the play I Hate Hamlet and the screenplay for the movie Sister Act, while Nate writes the play Enter Hamlet and the screenplay Habit Forming.) Because it covers so much time and summarizes much of the action, Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style occasionally feels more like the outline for a novel than a novel itself. Still, it’s a warmhearted, funny story with unexpected twists and to-die-for settings, a sweet recounting of a 50-year romance.

Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style is a warmhearted, funny story with unexpected twists and to-die-for settings, a sweet recounting of a 50-year romance.

In her debut memoir in essays, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, poet Jane Wong offers a nonlinear narrative of her life and her family’s lives. Her parents emigrated from China in the 1980s, when they were in their early 20s, and settled on the Jersey Shore to run a Chinese restaurant. “This is the story of lost enterprises,” Wong writes about Atlantic City in the elegiac title essay. “Of boarded-up pizza joints, lonely stuffed animals sans tipsy game operators, echoing parking lots with floating trash, and neon lights toppled over like sand castles.”

Those lost enterprises also refer to Wong’s father’s gambling addiction, which led to the downfall of the family restaurant, and his eventual disappearance from their lives. His experience is part of a larger story that also develops throughout the memoir: that of big gambling companies preying on Asian Americans, allowing gambling to take hold of vulnerable communities. These strands of systemic injustice are braided with Wong’s own memories of her childhood. “Here is one scene, on a shore of many: on the way back to Caesar’s Palace, my mother sits on a boardwalk bench, the dune grass behind her like the back of a throne,” she writes. “From her purse: stolen bread rolls from the Palace Buffet. She chews out all her anger on those bread rolls.”

In the gorgeous essay “Root Canal Street,” Wong links the cruelly casual racism she experienced in middle school and high school, her parents’ upbringing in rural Maoist China and trips with her mother to see unlicensed dentists in Chinatown, arranged by a friend of a friend whom they paid in baked goods. “A cornucopia for crowns: crispy almond biscuits; pineapple buns with golden cracks like some fantastical goose egg . . . egg tarts with their pools of custard glory; and chewy winter melon cakes with sesame seeds.” 

Wong writes with anger and clarity about men who have abused her and the racism she’s endured throughout her life, including at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But mostly this memoir is a story of family as Wong recalls her absent father, her intrepid and resilient mother, her brother and her grandparents. Interspersed between the book’s longer essays are sections devoted to, an imaginary website where you could type a question or worry, and Wong’s mother would offer a reassuring answer. (And for those wondering about the book’s evocative title: Yes, the memoir includes a Bruce sighting.)

Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is experimental in form and dense with beautiful sensory images, particularly of food. In her own indelible way, Wong records her coming of age and finding her place in her family, in poetry and in the world.

Poet Jane Wong’s experimental memoir is dense with beautiful sensory images about coming of age in Atlantic City and contending with her father’s gambling addiction.

“I started my life with one thing: science. Astronomy, to be specific. And I dove into it,” writes Aomawa Shields in the introduction to her memoir, Life on Other Planets. “Then I found something else I liked: the arts. Acting, to be specific. So I dove into that instead. Neither one by itself felt fully right.” 

Beginning with her initial glimmers of love for the stars and planets as a preteen, Shields tells her story chronologically, with writing that is immediate, sometimes poetic. In a scene rich in detail, she recounts the snowy winter night when, as a high school student at Phillips Exeter Academy, she first glimpsed Jupiter and its moons through a telescope. “That I could measure something in space, just by looking—this was the shattered ceiling of the Earth, ascending up and through the atmosphere into nothing,” she writes. At MIT and then the University of Wisconsin, Shields steeped herself in astronomy. But the pull of acting, which she discovered in high school playing the role of Truvy in Steel Magnolias, never faded, and she eventually put her work in STEM on hold to pursue an M.F.A. in acting at UCLA.

Shields’ nonlinear path through science, acting, the arts and back to astronomy (she returned to graduate school at age 35 and is now a tenured professor of astronomy and physics at UC Irvine) makes up the rest of the memoir’s narrative. Yes, she faced a bevy of struggles: As a Black woman, Shields was buffeted by racism in graduate school, as well as by self-doubt and impostor syndrome. She’s also candid about the sometimes-difficult balance of marriage, family and work, and her worry about whether she’s “Black enough” in certain settings. Throughout, Shields is an illuminating guide to her own idiosyncratic journey, seamlessly unpacking complicated concepts about stars and planets.

In Life on Other Planets, Shields has written an inspiring memoir about charting her own path and merging her scientific and artistic pursuits. Along the way, she also gives us glimpses of the wonder she’s found while studying the cosmos.

Astrobiologist Aomawa Shields’ Life on Other Planets is an inspiring memoir about charting her own path and merging the two worlds of science and art.

Caroline O’Donoghue, the bestselling author of the YA fantasy novel All Our Hidden Gifts, has published several books for adults in the U.K. but makes her American adult debut with The Rachel Incident, a dual-timeline narrative that’s mostly set during Rachel Murray’s last year of university in Cork, Ireland.

In 2009, Rachel is living at home with her parents and working part time in a bookshop when she meets James Devlin, who’s just been hired as a bookseller. Rachel and James charm each other, begin a sudden bantering friendship—she’s fairly sure James is gay; he insists he’s not—and soon she’s moved out of her suburban family home and into his ramshackle downtown house. 

When Rachel falls for her married English professor, Dr. Fred Byrne, both Rachel’s and James’ lives become entangled with Dr. Byrne and his wife, Deenie, who works in publishing. To Rachel, the older couple’s well-kept house and professional lives signify modern adulthood. 

This is only the beginning of Rachel’s tumultuous year, one of haphazard and sometimes terrible decisions, heartbreaking first love and frequent despair—and all as the Great Recession squeezes everyone she knows. Rachel and James work on his sitcom screenplay based on their life together, and they dream, plan and save in order to leave conservative Ireland for London and a more fabulous life. 

Counterpointing and narrating this chaotic year is the voice of an older Rachel, now in her early 30s, a journalist in London who’s pregnant with her first child. She’s still friends with James (mostly via texting), who’s now a comedy writer for a late-night TV talk show in New York City. The present-day Rachel has news for James that she’s not sure how to share.

In both timelines, but especially the earlier one, Rachel’s first-person voice and wonderfully off-kilter observations make her a character you want to settle in with. By turns comic and bittersweet, this is a tender tale of platonic and first love, as well as a sharp look at such issues as homosexuality and abortion in the more repressive Ireland of pre-repeal days. The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright and funny voice in a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.

The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright and funny voice in a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.

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