5 HOT BOOKS: Daphne Merkin's Lively Memoir of Depression, Refugee Fiction, and More

Here are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

“Despair,” writes Daphne Merkin, in this sharp, revelatory memoir, “is always described as dull, when the truth is that despair has a light all its own, a lunar glow, the color of mottled silver.” Merkin, a writer known for her incisive and self-aware essays (some collected in The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags) knows her way around despair.  She locates the first stirring in childhood, with the conflicted feelings her mother inspired, and traces it through therapy, medication, and hospitalizations. Merkin’s recollections are informed by a warm intelligence and an unflagging artistic sensibility. Depression, she realizes, is a chronic condition, “as much a part of me as my literary bent.”

2. Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall (Houghton Mifflin)

“I don’t believe poetry can be taught,” Elizabeth Bishop said to a small workshop of students at Harvard University in the 1970s, which included Megan Marshall, the author of this fascinating hybrid biography-memoir. Their relationship – poet and student, biographer and subject – is a pairing that calls for this approach rather than a traditional cradle-to-grave biography. Marshall, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and was a finalist for The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, reads Bishop’s poetry carefully and draws on newly archived materials to capture the full span of Bishop’s life, from her difficult childhood to her love affairs and life in Key West and Brazil. Marshall splices in her own story intermittently, from her early days as a poet to her coming of age as a biographer, enriching the reader’s understanding of Bishop's life. Reflecting on her experience as a student in Bishop’s poetry class. Marshall recalls that at one point, her august teacher looked straight at the class but not at anyone’s gaze, and said, “’we’ll do what we can with the time we’ve got.’”

3. A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Riverhead Books)

Kitamura’s brilliant and unsettling new novel opens in London, when the unnamed narrator, a literary translator, receives a phone call from her mother-in-law. The narrator and her husband had separated six months earlier, but had not yet “figured out how to tell the story of our separation.”  The narrator needs to go to Greece – where her spouse was doing research – to “formalize the state of affairs between us.” But don’t look to A Separation for a beguiling Mediterranean adventure, because the battleground action is entirely in the head of the slightly unhinged, but essentially rational, narrator and her perceptions of marriage, and herself. “In the end,” she says, “there was not that much difference between the grief of a wife and the grief of an ex-wife – perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more stable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.”

4. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove/Atlantic)

The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s superb novel centering on a conflicted Viet Cong agent who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese Army, won the Pulitzer Prize last year and vaulted the author to superstar status. A professor at University of Southern California, Nguyen is also recognized for his scholarly non-fiction like Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a finalist for the National Book Award, and for the National Book Critics Circle award, which will be announced in March. This short story collection, which he dedicates to “all refugees, everywhere,” grapples with the nuances of conflicting cultural loyalties and interests, and frequently what it means to be Vietnamese-American. Like a psychological and emotional x-ray machine, Nguyen picks up the tiniest nuances in the complex dynamics between parents and children —richly on display in his story “The Americans,” a 2010 finalist for the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren short story award. In it, a former American B-52 pilot, who knew Vietnam from his perspective of 40,000 feet, visits his daughter, now living in Vietnam, who tells him she has a “Vietnamese soul.”

5. Evening Road by Laird Hunt (Little, Brown and Company)

"Some cornflowers shot a cornsilk and set a hundred houses on fire and ran a rampage over the countryside,” is how Bud Lance puts it to his secretary, Ottie Lee Henshaw, in Hunt’s entrancing novel Evening Road. In the novel, whites are cornsilks and blacks are cornflowers, and this precipitating incident leads to what the cornsilks are anticipating enjoying as a horrific “rope party.” It takes place in Marvel, Indiana in the early 20th century, in a time and place evocative of Marion, where a particularly notorious lynching occurred in 1930.  Hunt brilliantly exposes the rage and cruelty of the era through a split screen of two young women on the eve of the lynching, one white and one black. The result is an ingeniously structured, fable-like novel in which the two parts come together in a transcendent reading experience.