YEARS AGO I had my palm read on the streets of Paris. I was tired from walking around the city and I did it for the opportunity to sit and get a hand massage. The palm reader, wearing a scarf with bells sewn into the hem, guessed I was a summer baby. True! Then she predicted that I had come to Paris “to escape.” Also true! (Though this comment more or less applies to every person who does not already live in Paris.) And then? She was out of guesses. I frowned, asking her, “Shouldn’t you be grossly misinterpreting my love life and longevity?” But she insisted that it was not for her to say. She could tell from the lines on my palm that I would have “many loves” and “be chosen for certain things.” (Oh, great?) But after that? My future was up to me. It’s jarring to hear honesty from a fortune teller, a grift and a gift at the same time.
Books columnists face a similar conundrum, just with fewer bells. What will be the most impactful books going forward? We know enough to glimpse into the future, but we don’t know it all. We can let our tastes lead the way, but your reading future for this month, this year, is up to you. Still, it’s not so bad to guess at the unguessable. Worse comes to worst? You’ll get a nice opportunity to find a chair and take a load off.
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Hewing closely to the facts of Jean Chen Ho’s own life story (she was born in Taiwan and raised in Southern California), “Fiona and Jane” (Viking) is told via the alternating perspectives of two temperamentally different Taiwanese best friends who navigate romance and ambition in Los Angeles. Ho’s stories have a kind of streamlined beauty in that the language never trips on or celebrates itself. This gives them elegance while lending texture to her characters. For example: “By the time she woke up, the premonition had gone, like sand through a sieve.” And onward we go. The story of Fiona’s and Jane’s friendship is chockablock with slyness and heart as it slides back and forth between tales of law school, strip malls, and struggles with both their individual and inherited pasts. It’s also very knowing about men. In one story, “Korean Boys I’ve Loved,” Ho writes that “Men, Korean and otherwise, were always asking What do you write? and then forgetting to wait for the answer.”
Sometimes it feels like we can alter the course of the future; sometimes it feels like our fate to simply wait for it. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in airports. This is the setting of Antoine Wilson’s propulsive, slim, and inventive “Mouth to Mouth” (Avid Reader), a novel about destiny. An unnamed man runs into an acquaintance from college, someone he hasn’t seen in decades, during a layover at an airport gate. It is in this muted and transient space that something very definite occurs. The acquaintance, a wealthy art dealer, suggests they adjourn to the first-class lounge to wait out the time. There, he immediately launches into the story of a lifetime, made comfortable by the fact that our hero was unwittingly “there at the beginning,” during a film class in college. It’s the acquaintance’s morality play — a tale of a questionable death — that propels the reader through this Russian doll of a novel. What will the future hold for both of these men? Well that depends, as always, on the past.
To Infinity and Beyond
“A Little Life” author Hanya Yanagihara’s much-anticipated third novel, “To Paradise” (Doubleday), is an epic historical and emotional showstopper — 720 pages that reimagine a New York of the past (the late nineteenth century), the recent past (the 1990s), and the future (2093), exploring the idea of a utopia.
Katherine Faulkner’s debut thriller, “Greenwich Park” (Gallery), features a mom-to-be who befriends a free spirit of a woman, thinking she’s reaching out to a new friend but ultimately grasping onto something much darker.
This Time Tomorrow
Spanning 35 years, the essays and criticism by the legendary Zora Neale Hurston (whom Toni Morrison called “one of the greatest writers of our time”) in “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” (HarperCollins) have as much to say about our future as they do about our past. They include classic and sometimes controversial works on the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow, and school integration.
Xochitl Gonzalez’s ambitious, funny, and slyly political debut “Olga Dies Dreaming” (Flatiron) tells the story of a brother and sister who have made it in New York, at least publicly (one as a congressman, one as a wedding planner to the rich), but whose lives begin to take on shades other than rosy in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
In “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing” (Pantheon), Sofi Thanhauser lifts the veil on the ethics, or lack thereof, of the fashion industry through the prism of five fabrics and five corresponding stories — linen, cotton, silk, synthetics, and wool.
Time on Our Hands
Memory itself is at stake in Hannah Lillith Assadi’s propulsive and lyrical “The Stars Are Not Yet Bells” (Riverhead), which features an elderly woman fighting through the haze of Alzheimer’s to answer questions from her childhood on a mysterious island.
Where is the future we were promised? Grief tends to do away with our plans, and Pulitzer Prize winner Kathryn Schulz deftly explores this up-and-down emotional terrain in “Lost & Found” (Random House), when, about a year before the death of her father, she meets the love of her life.
With “Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts” (Knopf), famed art critic Jed Perl pens a manifesto about the future of the arts, their nonnegotiable relevance to any society, and their importance going forward.
“The Maid” (Ballantine), the debut from aptly named book editor Nita Prose, is a page-turner that looks through the hotel-suite keyhole to unfold a murder mystery in which our heroine becomes the prime suspect.
Future’s So Bright
Bianca Stone’s timely and searching poems in “What Is Otherwise Infinite” (Tin House) grapple with the uncertainty of our destinies and the difficulty of modern human life, from religion to the environment. “Some days,” she writes, “I get up to go for a run / but instead just sit in spandex / and write about the fog.”
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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.