A few weeks ago, I heard a report on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” about efforts to bring more books into the Los Angeles County Jail. It was an interesting story in its own right, but the tidbit that has stuck with me was a detail at the very end, about the kinds of books that donors aren’t allowed to give: no hardbacks (presumably they could be used as weapons), no porn (to avoid inflaming the passions, I guess?) and — the real kicker — no romance novels for the male inmates, although they’re fine for the women.
I would love to hear the rationale for this decision, which feels completely arbitrary on the one hand and, on the other, hauntingly resonant with book-banning battles playing out elsewhere at the moment, insofar as it starts from the premise that certain kinds of books are inherently dangerous for certain kinds of readers.
As it happens, one book that would almost certainly be forbidden in the Los Angeles County Jail was itself originally written in prison: the Marquis de Sade’s notoriously filthy novel “120 Days of Sodom.” This week we recommend a fascinating history of the book’s creation and its subsequent fate — “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade,” by Joel Warner — along with Joseph Earl Thomas’s coming-of-age memoir and a host of new fiction, including novels by Jenny Jackson, Donal Ryan and Jessica George. Happy reading.
Jackson’s smart, dishy debut novel embeds readers in an upper-crust Brooklyn Heights family — its real estate, its secrets, its just-like-you-and-me problems (which threaten to weaken the clan’s stiffest upper lip). Does money buy happiness? “Pineapple Street” asks a better question: Does it buy honesty?
“This is an unabashedly old-fashioned story involving wills, trust funds, prenups and property — lots of property. … Jackson’s characters are admirably complex.”
From Jean Hanff Korelitz’s review
Pamela Dorman | $28
In Hardinge’s young-adult fantasy, magical marshlands known as the Wilds are home to spiderlike creatures who give people the ability to curse others. Young Kellen is able to unravel these curses, although his gift comes with dangers and tough choices.
The “novel’s power springs from the wilderness in its heart: intuitive and compassionate, as intricate as knot work. … Haunting and lovely.”
From Amal El-Mohtar’s science fiction and fantasy column
Amulet | $19.99
THE QUEEN OF DIRT ISLAND
Ryan’s new novel follows four generations of women in rural Ireland from the 1980s to present day. Saoirse, who loses her father just days after she is born, is our protagonist and our guide through this complex family history full of tragedy, love and social change.
“Love is the great triumph and the great mystery, and the love among the Aylward women of Nenagh, Ireland — relentless, reliable and hilarious — is what I think every person hopes for.”
From Amy Bloom’s review
Viking | $27
Joseph Earl Thomas
The lush prose of this memoir perfectly suits the author’s tender, teeming boyhood imagination, in which video-game and manga characters offered more guidance than volatile adults did. Most remarkable is Thomas’s matter-of-fact depiction of the daily depredations he faced without losing his spirit or his abundant creative gifts.
“Perhaps one of the biggest boons of ‘Sink’ is its insistence that care is, above all, shared. It is everyone’s prerogative. In this way, Thomas has earned a deep bow.”
From Bryan Washington’s review
Grand Central | $28
THE CURSE OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE:
A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History
This jaunty history traces the fate of the 40-foot scroll on which the infamous marquis wrote his scabrous novel “120 Days of Sodom,” following it through a procession of colorful figures.
“Warner’s research and extensive interviews help him shuttle across centuries to depict remarkable characters. … The story’s most important figure is the marquis himself, a scion of one of France’s most powerful noble families. Warner is attentive to sadistic detail.”
From Kevin Birmingham’s review
Crown | $28.99
Maddie, the London-born daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, is gridlocked, unable to work because she’s her father’s caregiver. There are disappointments and worries, even devastation; but then, on the next page, there’s an old friend who shows up and takes Maddie out for brunch.
“Dark moments commingle with light ones, exactly as they do in real life. … George shows the details and scope of life with such confidence and joie de vivre, it’s easy to forget she’s a first-time novelist.”
From Elisabeth Egan’s review
St. Martin’s | $27.99
WHEN TRYING TO RETURN HOME:
Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Drawing on her Puerto Rican and Black American heritage, McCauley introduces a diverse cast of characters who struggle with a desperate need to belong, to the world and to one another. Like her poetry, her fiction displays a lovely lyricism and musicality.
“Within a crowded field of collections that explore family, motherhood and identity, this debut makes the case for one more.”
From Amil Niazi’s review
Counterpoint | $27
Maylis de Kerangal
In de Kerangal’s brief, lyrical novel, translated by Jessica Moore, a young Russian soldier on a trans-Siberian train decides to desert and turns to a civilian passenger, a Frenchwoman, for help.
“In Maylis de Kerangal’s luminous vision, conveyed by the inspired translator Jessica Moore, Siberia’s immensity dwarfs human perspective. The insecurity of existence across this vastness and on board the train emphasizes the significance of human connection.”
From Ken Kalfus’s review
Archipelago | Paperback, $18
A COUNTRY YOU CAN LEAVE
This debut takes complicated mother-daughter relationships to a new level. The novel follows the biracial daughter of a magnetic but unreliable Russian immigrant as they start a new life in a Southern California trailer park.
“A master class of a bildungsroman. … Like childhood, Angel-Ajani’s novel is alternately horrifying and spellbinding in its lessons about love, family and growing up.”
From Angela Lashbrook’s review
MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $27
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