Surely the most unforgettable literature comes in disruptive books that imprint themselves indelibly. Books that present characters who take up residency in a reader’s head long after the last page is traversed—and inevitably, remain as permanent housemates.
Perhaps these troublesome books cause intense envy that the reader is not their writer, that architect of a marvelous sentence, phrase, descriptive passage, or dialogue. These books might even cause people to question their doltish mental capacity or education, as in, “Duh, why didn’t I know that?” “Duh, why didn’t anyone teach us that?”
And in less navel-gazing but still-angsty moments, the thought that a gem-like book might have been overlooked, or prematurely dismissed as unworthy of attention fills an appreciative reader with discomfort bordering on horrified dismay.
Not to mention, all the books accidentally overlooked, dismissed, or those still waiting in the towers that stand like pillars in the home of a certain journalist who wishes there were 48 hours in each day, with 24 of them reserved for reading. What was missed? Shuddering at the thought.
Another wake-in-the-night-with-terror realization is that there are banned books in the world. It leaves a lit lover with a profound, fervent, disruptive wish that not a single disruptive future book is subjugated, sacrificed, lost, or unsaved.
On that note, here then, briefly, are 10 disturbing, disruptive, recently released literary items.
‘THE WREN, THE WREN’ BY ANNE ENRIGHT (W.W. NORTON & COMPANY)
Those darn McDaragh women storming through this novel are so formidably human; eery, hateful, humorous, and infinitely lovable. Additionally, Enright writes so well of subjects of longing that are better to wait for than to be with (a paraphrase of a great line about a certain kind of lover). The cathartic nature of crying spurs her to write, saying through one character, “Science make our tears sound better than the milk of human kindness. I want to build a crying farm; miles and miles of glass Petri dishes in which lonely tears cry themselves out so mankind does not have to bother with that, anymore.” It’s a marvelously unforgettable book.
‘LOVED AND MISSED’ BY SUSIE BOYS (NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS)
If the duplicitous title isn’t enough (it could mean loved and missed, as in pining the loss or distance of; or loved and missed as in loved, but missed the target, or both), you will fall into the keen, current tragedy of chasing after a child trapped in drug addiction. There is perilous hope in the book’s portrayal of the endless love of mothers, the promise of youth. Amidst all of this ascent and descent, there’s pain, love, despair humor, joy, celebration, healing, hope. Powerful women characters prevail; the writing is spare and superior, somehow capturing in single sentences life’s grandest emotions; loving … and missing. Wow. Hearts and dreams are shredded, sometimes beyond repair.
‘DEMOCRACY AWAKENING: NOTES ON THE STATE OF AMERICA’ BY HEATHER COX RICHARDSON (VIKING)
Here we land in a book causing wonder. Richardson cracks the code of American history and lays bare how the principles and ideals upon with the country was formed have been decimated by false teachings, fake news, weaponized language, misdeeds performed by authoritarian, money-holding titans, and similar travesties. Remarkably, hope rises in what Richardson reveals are the dreams, aspirations, and lives of marginalized people who are America’s real nobility: a royal army of families, individuals, and admirable citizens. There is hope for the future of democracy, if only we can know and honor the good of America.
‘THE DELICACY OF EMBRACING SPIRALS’ BY MIMI TEMPESTT (CITY LIGHT BOOKS)
A poetry collection this incendiary should come with a fire extinguisher. The labyrinthian narrative of a Black woman who is both imprisoned and emancipated, eviscerated by the white gaze and victorious over it—is such a thing even possible? The answer is “yes,” when it comes to tempestt. Read her book for the unforgettable characters—the elderly woman who “plum sweet/looked deep into the barrels of my eyes/said sadness is a towering friend/feeds you bread crumbs/then testifies that you’ve been fed pie” and perspective on audiences that try to solve tempestt “like a rubik’s cube” or are “misunderstanding my full-figured salaciousness.” Devastating, daring, deserving of every attention: this poetic voice is that and more.
‘OF TIME AND TURTLES’ BY SY MONTGOMERY (MARINER)
The tenderness and delight in Montgomery’s storytelling elevates the lowriding reptile most often maligned for being especially slow, or pitied as a child’s pet that will surely die and receive burial in a shoe box. Will enough people slow down—ha!—and recognize the good fortune we have to co-exist and care for turtles? Poaching, pollution, and other traumas imperil them: do we care? If enough people read this book, it’s possible.
‘GRIEF IS AN ELEPHANT’ BY TAMARA ELLIS SMITH AND NANCY WHITESIDES (CHRONICLE)
This warm, wise, and tenderly told and illustrated children’s picture book convincingly captured all that grief is, not just for young people, but for all of us who have experienced loss. And who hasn’t suffered the pain of separation? The largest loss would be disallowing a tiny young person—or anyone—from experiencing grief and, like the book’s sweet protagonist, encouraging them to use the feelings to light the way to remembering and moving forward.
‘LET US DESCEND’ BY JESMYN WARD (SIMON AND SCHUSTER)
Behind this novel is a stark truth: human beings were sold and enslaved in this country, supposedly founded on liberty, freedom, and social justice for all. To know this while reading Ward’s novel is to be 100 percent disturbed. It reverberates with visceral storytelling, and casts the reader into eternal awe at Ward’s craft and artistry. Out of such a violation comes a story of Black hope, reclamation, and joy. Shiver and shed tears one may, but never shy away from Ward’s words.
‘THE COVENANT OF WATER’ BY ABRAHAM VERGHESE (GROVE PRESS)
Will it take 14 years for the next novel by Verghese to come out? Waiting too long puts so much pressure on readers! And on this book, because his previous Cutting For Stone casts a long shadow on this still-noteworthy, but slightly less remarkable book. Somehow, that’s disruptive.
‘HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A MEMOIR’ BY SAFIYA SINCLAIR (SIMON AND SCHUSTER)
I am distressed because there can be only one “first reading” of this amazing memoir about Sinclair’s brutal upbringing in the household of a strict Rastafarian father. Told with courage, grace, generosity, and elegance, it’s shattering to travel with her through this survival story that leads, nonetheless, to victory. Read it more than once, sure, but there’s nothing like the first time.
‘TOM LAKE’ BY ANN PATCHETT (HARPER)
Not every novel from Patchett hits its mark so thoroughly, which means some people might choose not to read this one. This story about Lara and her three adult daughters who return to the family’s orchard in Michigan is set in the pandemic and some readers might reject it entirely because they are over it, or want to be. Any reason to not engage with one of Patchett’s finer work is distressing to contemplate, but with this one, please don’t disengage: pick it up and read.