The six books I want to share with you for my latest indie press round-up deal with some heavy subjects (addiction, pain, violence, slavery, financial struggles). But they are also innovative, exciting, moving, and, sometimes, funny.
This time around I have books from Mexico, Libya, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and the U.S. The list includes a satirical novel, a book-length essay, historical fiction, and realistic novels (more or less realistic, that is). Three of the books are in the translation.
So why not take a chance on a book published by an indie press and see if you discover something you love?
Temporary by Hilary Leichter (Coffee House Press/Emily Books, March 3)
Temporary is a workplace novel about a woman trying her best to fulfill her life’s dream: to get a permanent job. She’s worked in temporary positions all her life, never losing hope that one day someone would take her on. In the meantime, she has a collection of boyfriends who keep her company, and the variety of jobs on offer at least provides some diversion. These temp jobs are increasingly strange, because this is no straightforwardly realistic novel. She works as a pirate, an assassin’s assistant, and a fill-in for a Chairman of the Board. The novel’s twists and turns are funny, surreal, and consistently surprising. The world of Temporary isn’t quite ours—the people are stranger, the jobs more absurd, and ghosts really exist. But it says so much about identity, capitalism, and our contemporary working world, so full of uncertainty and risk, while remaining a highly entertaining read.
Made in Saturn by Rita Indiana, Translated by Sydney Hutchinson (And Other Stories, March 3)
Rita Indiana’s follow-up to Tentacle is a novel about art, addiction, and revolution, set in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Argenis Luna is an artist, but his heroin addiction has left him unable to work. His father, a former revolutionary who is now a member of the political elite, arranges for him to enter a rehab center in Havana, where he begins the process of healing. But it’s a complicated journey, and he’s haunted by a fraught relationship with the legacies of his family and his country. Once he leaves rehab, he wanders through cities and meets people from his past, trying to understand himself and what he wants from life. The novel is a fascinating portrait of a difficult person struggling through life, and it captures the Caribbean setting and complex political history with vibrant detail.
Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein (Bellevue Literary Press, March 4)
Pain Studies is a book about migraine and so much more. It’s a long essay on what it’s like to live with pain and on the range of meanings migraine holds. She writes about the many methods she has tried to ease her pain, the many diagnoses and pieces of advice doctors have given her, and the many ways her life has changed because of chronic illness. Alongside her story of being a long-time migraine sufferer, she discusses Joan of Arc, House M.D., art, philosophy, and language, looking at the ways pain is portrayed in art and the metaphorical resonances of migraine. She shows how seemingly impossible it is to write about pain, and yet at the same time manages to write beautifully about it. Olstein is a poet, which is clear in the quality of her language. This book is rich, absorbing, and suggestive.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan (Soho Press, March 10)
Right from the beginning, we know that Miwako Sumida has died by suicide. The novel is then about how she got there and how her life and death affected those around her. Central to Miwako’s story is Ryusei, a fellow university student who develops feelings for her. There’s also Ryusei’s sister Fumi, an artist who takes Miwako on as an apprentice in her Tokyo studio. These three meet through Chie, Miwako’s best friend from school. Miwako is a powerful, memorable character, and all the novel’s characters are well-drawn. Each one takes a turn as narrator, so we learn how they became the person Miwako knew. There’s just a touch of fabulism that deepens the story as well. The way these characters’ lives intersect makes for a complex and satisfying tale, one that’s sad at the same time as it’s lively and warm.
The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan, Translated by Nancy Roberts (Syracuse University Press, March 16)
The “slave yards” is an area near Benghazi where black Africans who were brought to Libya as slaves. It’s a place of poverty and struggle, but also community and, sometimes, safety. This novel, set in the 19th century, tells the story of a mother/daughter pair. We start with Atiqa as an adult as she meets her cousin Ali who has news about her family. The story then moves to Atiqa’s childhood growing up in the slave yards, and later to the story of her mother, Tawida. Tawida was enslaved by a wealthy family and catches the eye of one of the master’s sons, an event that changes her life. The Slave Yards is a challenging, powerful story of people trying to survive through some of life’s harshest conditions. It captures a time and place with nuance and care.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, Translated by Sophie Hughes (New Directions, March 31)
Any reader who picks Hurricane Season up needs to be prepared for a lot of violence and darkness. That said, it’s a brilliant, beautiful book. It tells the story of a small Mexican town and the murder of the person the townspeople call “the witch.” The witch has fascinated and repelled the townspeople for years, and her death sends everyone into a tailspin. Fernanda Melchor uses different narrators to tell the tale, each one adding new information and a new perspective on the other characters and on the novel’s events. Almost every character is deeply flawed, but Melchor shows why they are the way they are. They struggle with poverty, abuse, addiction, violence, and hopelessness. Melchor’s long, energetic sentences are entrancing, and the book is hard to put down. It’s explosive, unrelenting, and unforgettable.