Today's releases include a novel about a woman who takes a really long nap, the untold story of the USS Indianapolis, a riveting account of Flint's water crisis, and a prodigal son tale set in contemporary Shanghai. Learn more about these and all of our picks for the Best Books of the Month.
Not a whole lot happens in Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel. If that sounds like a deal breaker, consider yourself warned. My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes place in 2001, when a pretty young Columbia graduate with an easy job at an art gallery decides to take a year off just to sleep. She has access to a quack psychiatrist willing to prescribe her an arsenal of pills, and she has money that she inherited from her deceased parents. She also has a terrible older boyfriend who works on Wall Street and a best friend, Reva, with whom she shares a thorny, complicated relationship. That’s pretty much all the raw story material Moshfegh is working with—again, the goal being for the unnamed protagonist to hibernate—and the fact that Moshfegh keeps the pages turning, and turning rapidly, is a testament to her profound skill as an author. This is a mostly internal novel. It is insightful to the smallest detail, and it is darkly, insightfully funny. It shimmers with intelligence and empathy. No one in the book is particularly happy, but I am particularly happy I read it. – Chris Schluep
As anyone who's ever watched Jaws remembers, many of the Indianapolis's sailors were eaten by sharks in the four days before they were discovered adrift in the Pacific during World War II. While the horrifying shark scenes will spark many readers to pick up the book, the rest of the Indianapolis's story is equally as tense, from its top-secret mission to deliver materials for the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, to the sailors' frantic attempts to get out a distress call after they were torpedoed at night, to the court-martial of the captain—a court-martial that his crew fought against even after McVay's suicide. The clear, tight scenes brim with first-person details, and seasoned author Lynn Vincent and documentary filmmaker Sara Vladic include not only the expected tales of heroism under duress but the just-as-human stories of willpower bending and sanity breaking. This is history writing at its finest, shining a spotlight on a wartime tragedy that still echoes within the survivors and the Navy today. —Adrian Liang
Flint, Michigan, has become a byword for municipal failure. When the government switched the city's water source, residents started to complain that the water tasted strange and they were growing ill. After repeated strong statements from the city and state claiming the water was just fine, interspersed with perplexing boil-water alerts, residents finally took large-scale water testing into their own hands, and a local hospital analyzed its patient data to prove that residents were suffering levels of lead poisoning at an unheard-of scale. Detroit journalist Anna Clark deftly sets the stage for Flint's man-made disaster: the big drop in population that affected the pipe infrastructure, Flint's financial emergencies, and the long history of sidelining poor and African-American residents in Flint. As Flint's water failures cascade and the population continues to sicken, Clark provides even-keeled reporting of the crisis even as the outrages pile up despite Michigan's attempts to bury them. Those who also read A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr will wonder how we got to this point with bad water yet again…and why, this time, it’s the government who is harming its citizens. The Poisoned City will open readers' eyes to both the scary truth that most of our cities rely on equally weak water infrastructure and how a city's residents can force others to listen. —Adrian Liang
Lucy Tan is a wonderful storyteller. Using smooth prose, carefully developed characters, and Shanghai set against the backdrop of greater China, her debut What We Were Promised brings the Zhen family back to Shanghai to join the upper class after twenty years in the U.S. We see this life through the eyes of characters like husband Wei and wife Lina, but we also see life through the eyes of Sunny, a housekeeper who sends part of her wages back to her family. Tan employs secrets and family drama to drive the plot, all the while examining themes of rich and poor, individualism and tradition, future and past, boredom and ambition. The real joy of this book is getting lost in the characters, some of whom will remain with you long after you have finished the novel. Lucy Tan is an author to watch. –Chris Schluep