Ten Books from Small Presses You Should Read This Summer
Independent publishers play a vital role in the book world. They are often mission-driven, striving to find and publish writers that likely wouldn’t have a platform at a “Big Five” publisher. Whether it’s experimental prose, niche poetry, works in translation, voices from historically marginalized communities, or just something that’s hard to describe, indie presses enrich the literary world with their work. Here are some titles from independent presses, coming out in the first half of 2019, that are worth your reading attention.
Casting Deep Shade: An Amble by C.D. Wright
(Copper Canyon Press, February)
This posthumous collection from poet C.D. Wright is a physical as well as lyrical work of art. Before her unexpected death in 2016, Wright, who the New York Times described as “belong[ing] to a school of exactly one,” was in the midst of a loving exploration of the beech tree. Through delving into scientific and cultural histories of the beech, researching its etymology, interviewing arborists, and visiting hundreds of beech trees, Wright created gorgeous poem-essays about humanity’s history—and her personal relationship—with the hardwood. Housed in a three-panel hardcover that encloses Wright’s writing and photographs from artist Denny Moers, this stunning book is both a literary gem and a coffee table centerpiece.
The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee
(Unnamed Press, February)
This debut novel from Indian–American writer Rheea Mukherjee throws the reader into the middle of a modern love story from the opening scene: Mira, a widowed teacher, sees a beautiful woman on a park bench have a seizure. Mira’s attraction to the woman, named Sara, is immediate, and this event sets off a deep, complicated, and sometimes disquieting friendship/love affair between Mira, Sara, and Sara’s husband Rahil. Set in the fictional city of Suryam, India—the only place in the world where the mysterious Rasagura fruit grows—this book is deeply rooted in its sense of place, and centers on flawed characters. Written in a unique conversational voice, it has mystery–thriller undertones that keep the reader slightly on edge as it explores themes of loss and illness, weaknesses of the body, and the meaning of love.
Joy: And 52 Other Very Short Stories by Erin McGraw
Prolific novelist and short story writer Erin McGraw proves her mastery of short-form craft in this collection of 53 very short stories, each no more than a few pages. They provide a diverse array of slice-of-life vignettes about characters with vastly different lives, who are strung together by the universal messiness of their humanity. These unassuming stories manage to convey great complexity and the collection is easy to dip in and out of while remaining cohesive.
Mars by Asja Bakić
(Feminist Press, March)
This short story collection of speculative fiction from Bosnian author and poet Asja Bakić, translated from the Russian by Jennifer Zoble, is strange and playful, dark and layered. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet it probes the complexities of death and art, the (sometimes literally) explosive power of words and communication. Some of the stories have an almost carnivalesque atmosphere; some are unsettling and violent; some read like tangled parables or fairy tales. At turns funny, surreal, and grounded in simple language but flung through twisted realities, the stories in this collection are provocative and utterly readable.
Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana
(Feminist Press, April)
Another collection of short stories from Feminist Press, by Thai author Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Poopoksakul. This is Pimwana’s English-language debut; her novel Bright (2019) is also the first novel by a Thai woman to be translated into English. The stories in Arid Dreams center on working-class people in Thailand, both rural and urban, and examines class, race, and gender in clear prose. Several stories are written subversively from a male first person point of view, scrutinizing the male gaze (such as in the titular story) and male rage (as in “Men’s Rights”). Every story is compelling and offers insight into a changing country.
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
(Dzanc Books, May)
Drager has developed somewhat of a cult following her previous books, The Lost Daughter Collective (2017) and The Sorrow Proper (2015), and for good reason—her writing is hypnotic. In The Archive of Alternate Endings, Drager blends fiction and history into a narrative that jumps around in time and place, but is circular in its recurring images. It tracks the evolution of the story of Hansel and Gretel at (non-linear) 75 year intervals—including well into the future—that correspond cosmically with Halley’s Comet. This book feels like a true archive and a fairy tale in itself. There is a roster of years at the top of each chapter to locate the reader in time, and the short sections create a mosaic of characters, including the Grimm brothers, an illustrator, several unnamed siblings, a “witch” who cares for gay men during the AIDS crisis, and Johannes Gutenberg. With themes of sibling love, queerness, time and space, and the earthly, this is an engrossing and poetic read.
Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer
This debut memoir about a young woman who traveled to Mongolia to compete in the world's longest horse race is unique among extreme sports memoirs. As a spontaneous 19-year-old, Prior-Palmer registered for the Mongol Derby, in which dozens of participants race across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland on a series of 25 wild ponies. If that’s not enticing enough, the lyrical prose describing the grit and determination of a woman just on the brink of growing up, the wild setting of this ill-advised journey, and the suspense of a harrowing physical feat propels this narrative into enthralling territory. This will appeal to anyone who has ever felt a reckless youthfulness or a drive to do something big.
Oval: A Novel by Elvia Wilk
(Soft Skull Press, June)
This dystopian novel set in a near-future Berlin follows Anja and Louis, a couple who live in a malfunctioning “eco-house” who perform sustainability in a world rapidly becoming bruised and sweaty under climate change. Louis helps invent a pill called Oval that he wants to introduce into the Berlin club scene—the pill will make the users more generous and thereby, he hopes, create equality in a time when the wealth gap keeps expanding. Soft Skull has a reputation for provocative, striking, and genre-bending prose, and Oval is no exception.
Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime by Alex Espinoza
(Unnamed Press, June)
Just in time for Pride Month, this is a fascinating history of cruising as a pillar of gay culture. By combining oral history, personal experience, and historical research, Espinoza takes readers across the world—through time, class, race, cultural landmarks, and the patriarchy—to create a portrait of the gay pastime as a subversive art form. In the opening paragraph of the prelude, Espinoza describes cruising as “meditative,” calling for “patience and perseverance… It teaches you how to be still in the moment… how to sense the gravitational pull of the ground beneath your feet.” With this gentle and authoritative tone, the reader is guided through a history too often written off as unworthy of examination.
Speaking of Summer: A Novel by Kalisha Buckhanon
Award-winning novelist Kalisha Buckhanon returns with a literary thriller about a woman's search for her twin sister, who walks onto the roof of their Harlem brownstone one night and disappears. Autumn Spencer’s quest, along with her friends and neighbors, to find Summer without the help of authorities who are disinterested in the disappearance of another Black woman, leads her into an obsession with local murdered women. With absorbing prose, fast-moving plot and excellent dialogue, Buckhanon examines silence in the face of patriarchy and white supremacy, and the dynamics of family.