Spring Arts Guide: 10 Semi-Erudite Choices for Spring Literature

Rimbaud, meet Betty White. Plus David Foster Wallace, Tayari Jones, and other spring books picks.

Illuminations
By Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery, April
Did you write poetry in college? Bet you weren’t no Rimbaud. In 1876, the 21-year-old who made enfants terrible turned out his masterpiece, Illuminations—42 of those newfangled (at the time) prose poems, and two others in an obscure style called “free verse,” a Symbolist explosion that would inspire Dadaists, Surrealists, and Bob Dylan. The diffuse nature of the manuscript makes the translator’s decisions crucial to any new edition. How will the revered Omega Man of the New York School, John Ashbery, illuminate this version? Sounds promising—his previous translations have impressed actual French people. W.W. Norton & Co., 144 pp., $24.95

The Pale King
By David Foster Wallace, April
Judging by the excerpt of this unfinished novel of IRS history (and other subjects, doubtlessly) that recently appeared in The New Yorker—a section about a boy who aspires to kiss the entire surface of his body—Wallace’s swan song mashes up Portnoy’s Complaint and The New England Journal of Medicine. Proving again that he’s the writer late-stage capitalism deserves—yearning for sensuality, he gets lost in a labyrinth of clinical factoids. Like Kurt Cobain, his suicide enforces his integrity; whether or not it’s true, it appears as if he couldn’t bear the success bestowed on him by a system he abhorred. Little, Brown, 560 pp., $27.99

Quiet Chaos
By Sandro Veronesi, April
If the hair-raising opening scene of this acclaimed novel, in which two men rescue two women from drowning, one using an inappropriately arousing method, fails to thrill you with its vivid whorl of detail, insane momentum, and dark humor, check your pulse. If you find yourself dead, keep reading, because the excitement may resurrect you. No sooner has one of the unsung life-savers, Pietro, arrived home than he discovers that his common-law wife has passed away in a freak accident. Then he meets the woman he saved. Even a corpse would want to know where a novelist could go from there. Ecco, 432 pp., $13.99

The Tragedy of Arthur
By Arthur Phillips, April
In this high-concept novel, Arthur Phillips invents a fictional character named Arthur Phillips who discovers an unknown manuscript by William Shakespeare called The Tragedy of Arthur. In the 256-page introduction, Phillips the author blends memoir and scholarly discourse to recount how Phillips the character’s family acquired this priceless piece of literary history. Then Phillips the author includes the footnoted “text” of the “original” script of the Shakespeare play, which may be a fabrication perpetrated by the character’s father, also named Arthur Phillips—either way, his Fakespeare had better be a masterpiece of pastiche. Like his spiritual brother, David Mitchell, Phillips not only kicks postmodernism awake but encourages it to shoot crystal meth. Random House, 368 pp., $26

A Queer History of the United States
By Michael Bronski, May
“The . . . slightly counterintuitive, key concept is that LGBT history does not exist,” writes Dartmouth historian Michael Bronski in his introduction to this provocative volume covering an astonishing 500 years of stateside gayness. Wait—it didn’t start with Stonewall? Though ’mos have been “shunned, marginalized, censored, ignored, and hidden,” and in that sense remained nonexistent, Bronski argues that the history of “women and men who experienced and expressed sexual desires for their own sex . . . complicates and enriches the American imagination.” And not just because of all the decorating. Beacon Press, 288 pp., $26.95

Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives
By Robert Thacker, May
If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t)
By Betty White, May
Is it coincidence that these Golden Girls share a release date, May 3? White’s book, a smorgasbord of anecdotes à la Rose Nylund, cashes in as the 89-year-old’s comeback crests. Thacker’s biography fixes in amber the Queen of the Bourgeois Short Story. With Munro’s approval, he recounts how she lived in British Columbia, married, opened a bookstore, divorced, wrote, won awards (but not yet the Nobel!), and moved to Clinton, Ontario. In just 616 pages. If only she’d retire to Miami and room with Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Doris Lessing. “Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives,” Emblem Editions, 616 pp., $22.99; “If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t),” Putnam, 272 pp., $25.95

Out of the Vinyl Deeps
By Ellen Willis, May
Rock criticism abounds with competitive white guys suffering from pop music Asperger’s; to make a living at it and own a vagina you need to be a powerhouse. In 1968, Willis got there before nearly anyone—even anyone male—when she became The New Yorker’s first pop critic. With incredible exuberance and voracious intelligence, she focused her floodlight on Dylan, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, and Mott the Hoople alike. This, her own greatest hits album, compiled by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, both restores her reputation and fortifies the rock journalism canon. University of Minnesota Press, 272 pp., $22.95

Silver Sparrow
By Tayari Jones, May
Jones, who is fast defining middle-class black Atlanta the way Cheever did Westchester, explored the trauma of the Atlanta Child Murders in her first novel, Leaving Atlanta. Her second, The Untelling, spooled out an unusual tale of teen pregnancy and self-discovery. Now she casts her sharp yet forgiving eye on James Witherspoon, a philandering black husband, and his secret family, but the tenderness and curiosity of Jones’s narrators (James’s daughters, Dana and Bunny) keeps this book from lurching into man-bashing Maury Povich territory. Algonquin, 340 pp., $19.95

Someday This Will Be Funny
By Lynne Tillman, May
Tillman, a writer who comfortably and brilliantly occupies a space between the art scene and the lit world, tackles fame, sex, New York, women, and contemporary politics in a jaunty style that aligns her with figures as disparate as Lydia Davis and Cindy Sherman. This new group of shorts inaugurates Red Lemonade’s bid to revive Tillman’s reputation, a project that rescues four out-of-print novels and promises a new one in the future. As the U.K.’s Independent puts it, “To encounter a writer of Tillman’s acute intelligence . . . is a cause for real celebration.” And you bet it’s open bar. Red Lemonade, 176 pp., $14.95

You Are Free
By Danzy Senna, May
An upwardly mobile wife frets after her child is accepted into an expensive preschool, though she applied insincerely and her husband scorns the place. A single woman develops a dysfunctional relationship with a dog she refers to as “the bitch.” A woman who has never given birth receives a call from someone claiming to be the child she gave up for adoption. These and five other crisply written stories take place in a middle-class world we thought we knew, while revealing the strangeness, distress, and sorrow under its blank surfaces. As with Senna’s novels, racial issues crop up, but here they dodge and feint through women’s lives that are never as well-tended as they seem. Riverhead, 240 pp., $15

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