THIS IS HOW I know my sister and I are truly getting along: Lost in a marathon phone conversation, one of us will tell the other a story. Then, during this story, someone will casually refer to our parents as “my dad” or “my mom.” As if we don’t know exactly who these people are. As if we didn’t all spend a decade in the same house. “Yeah, I know,” one of us will respond, laughing, “she’s my mother too.” To the outside ear, this slip-up may read as a sign of concussion or inebriation, or both, but she and I know it’s a compliment. It means that, in that moment, my sister and I feel so close that we transcend the familial bond to become friends. Families are complicated (Tolstoy really nailed that one) but the families we choose (our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, even our pets) have the distinction of being selected. Of being found and maintained deliberately. And what lovelier compliment is there than to be bound to another person by choice, even if it’s your flesh and blood?
This month’s books focus on the cornucopia of family (cobbled together, born into, driven crazy by), starting with Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious Chekhovian quarantine drama (Is there any other kind?), “Our Country Friends” (Random House). The novel opens with Sasha Senderovsky, writer and owner of a house in Upstate New York, preparing his property and his pantry for guests fleeing New York City in early 2020. Despite the “kernels of a growing tragedy,” he is secretly happy to have his old friends together again, under one roof, like family. But, like all family gatherings, this one does not go smoothly. Over the next six months, these disparate personalities wait out the pandemic together — dramas unfurl, class issues arise, old resentments are unearthed, and both trauma and hilarity ensue. Shteyngart’s powers to lambast with love are in full effect here, and with COVID-19, he’s not lacking for meat on the bone. Upstate itself is not spared: “The city across the river had recently become fashionable, but was still studied by urban planning graduates as a cautionary tale.” Ultimately, it is his gimlet eye for the architecture of human relationships — marriages, friendships, social circles — that stands out. Shteyngart turns a time that was so very shapeless and gray into something definite and bright.
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At the same time that Shteyngart’s fictional hero was gearing up for guests, the very real and very remarkable writer Lily King published “Writers & Lovers,” which became a bestseller and a balm for many during quarantine. So it’s a pleasure to get lost in her bracingly beautiful narratives once again with “Five Tuesdays in Winter” (Grove). These 10 stories, spanning generations, explore the lost innocence of youth and the frustration of age with honesty and delicacy. “When you die, she thought now, you can no longer give love. You can’t give love anymore. She wouldn’t be able to love her children. It struck her suddenly as the very worst thing about death, worse than not being able to breathe or laugh or kiss.”
Two-time PEN/Faulkner winner John Edgar Wideman’s short story collection “Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone” (Scribner) features the many facets of family, be it the image of a boy standing alone beside his grandfather’s coffin or the story of a man who has waited over four decades to reunite with his formerly incarcerated brother.
Tracy K. Smith writes a new introduction to Lucille Clifton’s moving memoir “Generations” (New York Review of Books), a harrowing and elegant family biography that weaves backward through Buffalo, New York, to Jim Crow to her Dahomey roots in West Africa. “I look at my husband and my children,” Clifton writes, “and I feel the Dahomey women gathering in my bones.”
Kyle Lucia Wu’s much-anticipated and poignantly executed “Win Me Something” (Tin House) features a young Chinese American narrator who never quite fit in when she was growing up in New Jersey, and who feels further alienated from her family after her parents’ divorce. In this exploration of kinship of all stripes, she gets drawn into the lives of an upper-class white family in Manhattan.
In addition to being one of our more talented novelists, Ann Patchett has always had a penchant for found family in her nonfiction (her “Truth & Beauty” is a devastating portrait of a friendship). The essays in “These Precious Days” (HarperCollins) touch on home, family, friendships, and the thin borders between them.
Spike Lee’s “SPIKE” (Chronicle Chroma) is a glossy tome of never-before-seen behind-the-scenes photographs taken by the legendary director’s brother and longtime still photographer David Lee.
A brutally tragic but mesmerizing read about morality and justice, Katharine Blake’s “The Uninnocent” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) recounts the devastating story of the author’s sixteen-year-old cousin, who was sentenced to die for the murder of a little boy.
Mina Seçkin’s affecting debut novel, “The Four Humors” (Catapult), unfurls the narrator’s drama-packed summer in Istanbul in this multi-generational familial tale.
Poet Mona Arshi’s “Somebody Loves You” (And Other Stories) delves into one seriously strained mother/daughter relationship. After the daughter in question, Ruby, stops speaking (“Everything worth saying can be written on your fingernail”), her mother sinks deeper into depression.
In Kirthana Ramisetti’s fast-paced debut, “Dava Shastri’s Last Day” (Grand Central), a billionaire matriarch tests her own legacy by gathering her four adult children together and informing them of her plans to leak the news of her imminent demise … as if it’s already happened.
British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s luscious and evocative new novel, “The Island of Missing Trees” (Bloomsbury), finds exquisiteness in nature, amid the pain of war in Cyprus, where two teenagers fall in love. Years later in London, a woman finds herself searching for the very root system of family.
Last but not least, should you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by family or just a bit alone among them, there’s Meichi Ng’s wry illustrated stories, “Barely Functional Adult: It’ll All Make Sense Eventually” (Harper Perennial).
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Sloane Crosley Writer
Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" and "Look Alive Out There," and the novel "The Clasp." Her new novel, "Cult Classic," is out now.
Marina Esmeraldo Illustrator
Marina Esmeraldo is a Brazilian-born, Barcelona-based illustrator, artist, and lecturer. Her award-winning work draws on a tropical upbringing, a modernist training in architecture, and her innate wanderlust.