Sarah McCraw Crow

Ellyn Gaydos' meditative Pig Years mixes memoir and nature writing as it details her four years of seasonal farm work in New York and Vermont. In punishingly long days as a farmhand, she planted seeds, tended vegetable plots (weeding, watering, coping with pests, harvesting, sorting and selling) and raised chickens and pigs. The book opens right in the middle of things, describing the pigs on a small farm in New Lebanon, New York, and zooming in to consider Gumdrop, an accidentally pregnant pig, and her piglets, who “came out like torpedoes all attached through different stems to one briny umbilical cord. . . . Nature, being unsentimental, accommodates the reality that some sows eat their young, but Gumdrop is gentle in her new domesticity, tenderly positioning her body so as not to squish anyone. She is a good mother.”

The book's loose narrative proceeds chronologically through the seasons, and through Gaydos' relationships with other farmworkers and with Graham, her partner. Gaydos' close eye on the natural world allows us to vividly see the cycle of a farm's blossoming and dying seasons. She doesn't look away from any part of it, either from newborn pig life, for instance, or from the pigs' later deaths—the procedures of slaughter and the preparation of the pork that she will eat and sell. “I keep seeing death's face in different ways,” she writes. “It is funny to choose a profession, like farming, in which death is taken into the fold and yet nothing is clarified. It does not steady me for loss even if I have held a pig's head in my hand or seen a chicken collapsed in the dirt. It is like a blunting of the real.”

The bulk of Pig Years takes place on the farm in New Lebanon, which is part of a former Shaker settlement that's now a Sufi commune in decline. Throughout the book, Gaydos turns to 19th-century Shaker farm journals for comparison, and we can see the similarities between the current-day farm's gains and losses and those of the long-ago Shakers. There's a coming-of-age aspect to Pig Years, too, as Gaydos, a young woman in an unsettled phase of life (and an inherently impermanent field of work), studies the women and moms around her. She reflects on her own path, imagining possible futures as a parent and life partner.

Gaydos' cleareyed, sometimes intense perspective reminds us that farm work is not always pretty: It often involves constant near-poverty, injuries, even desperation. Still, Pig Years is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the farmworkers who eke out a marginal living as long as they can. It's a narrative that evokes the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.

Ellyn Gaydos’ debut memoir, Pig Years, is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.

David Sedaris’ latest essay collection, Happy-Go-Lucky, finds the author in late midlife, mining his life, the lives of his family—including his longtime boyfriend, Hugh, his siblings and his 98-year-old dad—and their surroundings for comedic stories. In the book’s opening essay, “Active Shooter,” Sedaris and his sister Lisa visit a firing range in North Carolina, which offers him a chance to plunge into the oddities of gun culture as they learn to shoot pistols. It’s a perfect David Sedaris essay: one that lures you in with funny family anecdotes and self-deprecation, gives a sideways look at some aspect of society, then ends with an unexpected emotional punch. This essay, like several others here, also offers deft, sharp commentary on masculinity. One of the collection’s delights is a commencement address delivered at Oberlin College that skates along on the surface with funny throwaway lines and ridiculousness while offering slyly sensible life advice underneath.

The collection progresses somewhat chronologically, beginning with essays that look back to Sedaris’ childhood and to his young adult years when he was writing plays with his sister Amy in New York City. Later essays recount Sedaris’ experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, walking New York’s empty streets and wondering if his livelihood—reading works-in-progress to audiences all over the country—is gone for good. But in 2021, he returned to the road in a changed America, making pointed observations about different states’ vastly different approaches to the pandemic along the way.

These essays offer plenty of laughs, but the tone is often dark as Sedaris contemplates his dad’s failings, and his own. “I’m the worst son in the world,” Sedaris jokes to a nursing home aide about not visiting his dad more often. At first these confessions feel callous, but as the essays reveal more about his dad’s abusive, competitive behavior, such remarks take on a different feel. In “Unbuttoned,” I teared up at Sedaris’ evocation of both the pain of such abuse and the unexpected moment of connection between the two men at the end of the elder Sedaris’ life.

Happy-Go-Lucky is an entertaining collection, both cringey and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably Sedaris way.

Happy-Go-Lucky is both entertaining and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably David Sedaris way.

The Dunne family has made a comfortable home in Seaside, New Jersey. Margot and Brian Dunne have built a business of beach-house rentals, and their teenage daughters, Liz and Evy, help out on weekends. But this summer, a fast-growing brain tumor has turned energetic Brian into a stranger who is prone to obsessive behavior and speaks in meaningless phrases. Brian is dying, and Margot, Liz and Evy take turns caring for him and accommodating his odd demands in “a world where all the same rules of how to behave still applied, even if he couldn’t follow them anymore.”

Katie Runde’s debut novel, The Shore, rotates through the perspectives of Margot, Liz, and Evy as they attempt to carry on with their lives while managing Brian’s care. Liz and Evy work summer jobs—Liz renting out beach umbrellas and Evy making candy at Sal’s Sweets—while seeking, and maybe finding, their first loves. Margot soldiers on at the business that she and Brian worked so hard to build over the years, which now makes her feel trapped.

But Margot is also keeping a secret, one that helps her cope with her difficult present and imagine a life after Brian. She has an account on a site called GBM Wives, an online support group for women whose husbands have glioblastoma multiforme tumors. What she doesn’t know is that Evy has caught on and is lurking in the forum where Margot shares all the fears, anger and secrets she’s concealing from her daughters.

Runde has written a heartfelt family drama saturated with a sense of place and the passage of time. Brian’s decline occurs over the course of one summer, but the novel also explores the long, complicated history of Margot and Brian’s relationship. Along with the particulars of life in a Jersey Shore town and evocative sensory details of the beach, Runde vividly renders a portrait of a family on the edge. The novel occasionally moves into a more lyrical, meditative mode that imagines the Dunnes in the future, but there is also excellent use of more prosaic text messages and emails.

The Shore will appeal to readers of Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans and Rachel Beanland’s Florence Adler Swims Forever, two other family stories with slowly revealed secrets.

Katie Runde's debut novel, The Shore, is a heartfelt family drama saturated with a sense of place and the passage of time, perfect for fans of Tracey Lange's We Are the Brennans.

As This Time Tomorrow opens, Alice Stern is about to turn 40, and her life is mostly fine—not great, but fine. She works in the admissions office of the private school she once attended, she has a boyfriend and a handful of good friends, and she’s content to live alone in her basement studio in Brooklyn. But one aspect that’s not fine is Alice’s dad, Leonard, who’s dying. Leonard is essentially Alice’s only family, and she spends all of her free time visiting the unconscious Leonard in the hospital.

Late on the night of Alice’s birthday, something mysterious happens, and when she wakes the next morning, she’s 16 years old and in her childhood home. With the help of her longtime best friend, Sam, who was with Alice on her original 16th birthday, Alice begins to puzzle out her new reality.

What follows is a time-travel story that blends aspects of other time-travel and time-loop stories, such as the movies Peggy Sue Got Married and Groundhog Day, which Alice references as she unravels her own mystery. The novel lays the groundwork for its more fantastical elements by situating Alice in a storybook setting: She grew up in a small house on Pomander Walk, a tiny hidden neighborhood of Tudor-style houses on New York City’s Upper West Side. When Alice was little, Leonard wrote a time-travel novel, Time Brothers, a mega-bestseller that spawned a much-loved TV series. He never published another book, but instead devoted himself to caring for Alice and attending fan conventions, where he and his writer friends debated fictional time travel.

While This Time Tomorrow is propelled by Alice’s quest to figure out what happened and learn what she can about her dad's illness, it’s also a dual coming-of-age story. The novel’s more meditative passages convey Alice’s midlife regrets, her loneliness at being left behind by the friends who’ve married and had children, her yearning for something beyond the life she’s made and her grief and love for her dying dad.

Like Alice, author Emma Straub is a New York City native whose father is a well-known novelist. With wonderful place details, This Time Tomorrow evokes the Upper West Side of the 1990s and offers some sly observations on class, especially the subtle gradations between New York’s merely privileged and its ultra-privileged. Alice’s high school scenes are sprinkled with ’90s music and pop culture references, which will be especially enjoyable for millennial readers.

This Time Tomorrow’s many references to other time-travel stories occasionally stray into metafictional territory, but ultimately it's a story with a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Emma Straub’s time-travel novel has a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Jessi Klein’s second essay collection, I’ll Show Myself Out, finds Klein in her 40s, parenting a toddler and trying to regroup in unfamiliar Los Angeles, a world away from her beloved New York City. “I constantly feel like I’m a leaky raft in open water,” she writes in “Listening to Beyoncé in the Parking Lot of Party City.” It’s a thoughtful essay that laments the changes of midlife and motherhood; it also had me laughing out loud, wishing I could share it with a friend.

Some of Klein’s essays are light—the one about her love for designer Nate Berkus, for instance, or learning to live with her ugly feet—while others dig a little deeper. She builds one essay around the “underwear sandwich,” a contraption postpartum moms wear to cope with bleeding and birth injuries, somehow managing to make fresh, feminist points in the process (and, yes, making me laugh out loud again). These voicey, funny essays give unexpected dimension to familiar topics, such as how widowers remarry faster than widows or that the mommy wine-drinking trend is out of hand.

One of the collection’s themes is anxiety—Klein’s, her partner’s and her child’s—and how it can rear up in the most innocuous-seeming moments. Another is Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, which Klein muses on to marvelous effect throughout the book. She turns the narrative template on its head, positing that pregnancy, birth and early motherhood are full of rigors and pitfalls, as difficult and life-altering as any masculine adventure. “We just feel the guilt of being terrible monsters, ironically, at the exact moments that we actually, as mothers, become the most heroic,” she writes.

Klein, who has produced and written for TV shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Big Mouth,” fills in the picture of a woman at midlife who’s beginning to make sense of it all. This collection is as entertaining and heartfelt, personal and comic as they come.

Jessi Klein’s second essay collection is full of voicey, funny pieces that give unexpected dimension to the familiar topics of motherhood and midlife.

The sixth novel from Emily St. John Mandel, author of the award-winning, bestselling Station Eleven, is a time-travel puzzle that connects a disparate band of characters.

Sea of Tranquility opens in 1912, as Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the aimless youngest son of an English earl, makes his way across Canada. Edwin lands in Caiette, a remote settlement in British Columbia, where he experiences something that cannot be easily explained, and encounters a strange man named Roberts who claims to be a priest.

The narrative then leaps to 2020 in New York City, where Mirella Kessler is trying to discern her friend Vincent’s whereabouts. (Readers of Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, will recognize Mirella and Vincent.) Mirella finds herself talking to a stranger, Gaspery Roberts, who seems familiar. Gaspery wants to know about a glitchy moment that Vincent captured on video years ago.

The narrative skips ahead again, to the year 2203, when writer Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour, talking to audiences on Earth about her bestselling pandemic novel. Olive lives with her husband and daughter in Colony Two on the moon. Olive, like Mirella, finds herself talking to a man who calls himself Gaspery Roberts. Gaspery, a magazine reporter, asks about a brief scene in her novel, an odd moment in the Oklahoma City Airship Terminal.

And then once more, the narrative jumps forward in time, and now Gaspery Roberts begins to tell his own story.

How these four (and a few other) characters are linked, and how one strange moment reverberates through time, are the subjects of this novel. There’s a mournfulness to Sea of Tranquility. Its main characters feel themselves to be exiles, trying to sort out where and how they belong. But the novel is playful, too, taking a metafictional turn: Olive, like her creator, Mandel, has written a bestselling novel about a pandemic, and she’s stuck on an endless book tour, far from her family, as an actual pandemic approaches. And Gaspery is a dryly funny, self-deprecating guide to his era and his unlikely travels through time.

Although readers may question the particulars of the novel’s depiction of the future (wouldn’t the concept of a book tour be impossibly quaint, or even unknown, by 2203?), Mandel’s character development will sweep them along. Turn-of-the-century character Edwin’s sections are particularly well rendered.

Mandel’s prose is beautiful but unfussy; some chapters are compressed into a few poetic lines. The story moves quickly, the suspense building not only from the questions about that one strange moment but also from the actions of those investigating it. In the end, the novel’s interlocking plot resolves beautifully, making for a humane and moving time-travel story, as well as a meditation on loneliness and love.

Read more: Through multiple audiobook narrators, Emily St. John Mandel's novel transforms into a stage play in an interdimensional theater.

The interlocking plot of Emily St. John Mandel’s sixth novel resolves beautifully, making for a humane and moving time-travel story.

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