In Zarrar Said’s epic novel Pureland, a servant turned physicist wrestles with science, faith, and love.
Salim is born a Pureland plebeian in 1950, but a levitating ascetic prophesies future greatness for him, influencing his fate. With the help of General Khan, Salim wins a scholarship to Columbia University and earns a doctorate under the tutelage of a professor with whom he is later awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Meanwhile, a dictator, and then the caliphate, take over Pureland, declaring a fatwa on Salim’s life.
Pureland is a study in contrasts, with Salim at its center. While born an Ahmadi, a persecuted people, he grows up amid the rich and powerful in General Khan’s household. He loves his homeland—and Laila, Khan’s daughter—but both are set against him.
Salim’s killer narrates the book as a confession, addressing a jury that’s situated somewhere between killer and the killed. On one hand, the book explains the caliphate’s rise to power and its reasons to abhor Salim. On the other, it depicts Salim as a conciliatory figure whose commitment to physics leads him away from Pureland. His love for his home keeps him loyal, despite its charges against him.
Salim’s speculative theories of universality introduce elements of magical realism. Divine intervention becomes a plausible and welcome counterpoint to the real and violent forces set against Salim and all of humanity, while Salim’s import in politics, science, and religion elevate him to near messianic status. The effect is an urgent novel—as if reading about Salim is akin to cheering on freedom itself. Meanwhile, provocative, sing-song language and outlandish behavior from the rich and poor alike add levity to the novel’s charm.
Pureland is a modern fable with a momentous moral about collective responsibility.
MARI CARLSON (June 27, 2020)
Follow Harris and Ayana—one with a mop of unruly golden curls, the other with an adorable puff ponytail—as they navigate the streets and apartments of their urban neighborhood with good-natured mischief and a handful of sidewalk chalk. Organized into a baker’s dozen of vignettes, each of the book’s chapters is full of charm and understated humor. They include one-liners, beach trips, the first day of preschool, and birthday parties, too.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (June 27, 2020)
In Emily Adrian’s quirky, resonant novel, Everything Here Is under Control, two women resume the intense friendship of their teen years after more than a decade of estrangement and uncertainty.
After giving birth to her first child, Amanda lives in a state of exhaustion, anxiety, and physical discomfort. Though her longtime partner, Gabe, tries to be supportive, he seems removed from the situation and frustrates Amanda with his detachment.
Overwhelmed by these strange, raw emotions, Amanda takes the baby and leaves New York to drive to her hometown—Deering, Ohio—where her mother and her high school best friend, Carrie, still live.
Escaping Deering, with its rich, “smothered” foods and limited political perspectives, had been one of Amanda’s goals, but she still misses the town’s vast, green backyards, lack of pretense, and even its tornado warning test sirens. And she is in desperate need of help to care for her infant son, Jack, whose tiny, demanding presence terrifies her.
Amanda’s relationship with Carrie is complicated and comforting. Theirs is a sisterly bond, though other circumstances, which are introduced with quiet finesse, led to a tangle of issues and involvements. Nonetheless, Amanda and Carrie still feel an innate closeness, “like dogs born in the same litter, programmed to remember each other’s scent.”
Amanda’s continuing awe of Carrie is clear, and Carrie is indeed impressive: independent, shrewd, and beautiful; a single mother since she was eighteen and a sought-after tattoo artist. As Amanda emerges from her postpartum vulnerability, her own character strengthens. She becomes more confident with Jack and in her relationship with Gabe, and her renewed friendship with Carrie is healthier as well: still bound by the past, but with a better future.
With keen wit and affecting emotion, Everything Here Is under Control is a novel about love, family, and motherhood that balances compromises with possibilities.
MEG NOLA (June 27, 2020)
Conquer Your Fears, Embrace Your Courage, and Transform Your Life
Motivational and hopeful, Nancy Pickard’s Bigger Better Braver is a self-help book for those who think that it’s too late to change.
People don’t intend to live unfulfilling lives, Pickard knows, but so many do. Hemmed in by fear, worry over the expectations of others, and self-limiting beliefs, people shut down and become trapped in small lives. Instead, Pickard encourages embracing what seems impossible and saying “no more” to fear.
The book’s progression is logical, beginning with why it’s even worth it to work toward such change and then suggesting means of uncovering the unacknowledged beliefs that guide people’s decisions—a key step to getting out of autopilot and taking control of the future, without which the next step, crafting one’s vision, is for naught. The book insists that dismantling one’s confining structures—a step that trips up so many who want to change their lives—makes it possible to live a different future.
Harnessing the powers of empathy and narrative by building on Pickard’s own story and those of people whom she’s coached, the transformative tools suggested include journaling and tapping, a technique wherein people tap acupressure points on their bodies while repeating mantras to reprogram their brains. There’s a sense of camaraderie to the work, though it is clear that change can only come from within: you can’t live your dream with someone else’s courage.
Each section ends with points to remember and mantras to ground its learning. Rather than concrete action steps or dry summations, these tend toward inspiration to deepen lessons and strengthen resolve, as with the intriguing question: “What would it be like to be as accountable to yourself as you are to other people?”
Bigger Better Braver is a self-help companion designed to unearth hope and help it to grow.
MELISSA WUSKE (June 27, 2020)
Missteps and Lessons Learned
Katherine Snow Smith muses on the vicissitudes of life in her essay collection Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker.
Smith’s twenty-two essays follow a loose chronology. The daughter of a prominent Southern journalist, Smith also pursued a newspaper career in the South and beyond. Her insightful anecdotes concern self-image, career, child-rearing, divorce, dating, and mortality. Some entries are serious, some not; each is self-contained, but together they capture the highlights of womanhood in the modern world, especially womanhood that considers the expectations of the South. Smith shares episodes from a lifetime defying rules of Southern living with aplomb.
Clever titles, including “A Minute on Your Lips, Forever on Your Hips” and “Miranda Lambert is Not a Licensed Therapist,” reflect the grit, resourcefulness, and humor of the entries themselves. One entry, about meeting President and First Lady Obama, reflects a sweet interaction, but one that becomes all about the high heels torturing Smith’s feet, while “Don’t Move to Podunk” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” are glimpses of the unglamorous life of a young reporter covering town council and school board meetings and the pitfalls of fielding the romantic interest of a source.
Its style pithy and unaffected, the book boils its stories down to their essences and finds levity in the most heartbreaking moments, including the death of Smith’s sister, heart surgery, and cancer. When Smith’s daughter undergoes surgery, Smith’s compassion and concern are palpable, though without the suggestion that she’s a perfect mother. A story about a dying friend includes funny incidents from their time coleading a Girl Scouts group and baking brownies; these punctuate Smith’s last moments with her friend well.
Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker is a warm, genuine memoir about living fully beyond the bounds of others’ expectations.
WENDY HINMAN (June 27, 2020)