Annalisa Quinn

Helen DeWitt's Some Trick seems less like a story collection and more like a series of notes from some vast, alien intelligence, not quite human itself, but capable of picking apart human habits with startling precision. DeWitt's characters are savants, weirdos, and artists, often trying to achieve their ends against the best efforts of the well-meaning and conventional people around them.

In Curtis Sittenfeld's short story "Show Don't Tell" — not, sadly, included in her new collection, You Think it, I'll Say It — a young woman at a prestigious writing workshop competes for funding with an annoying guy in her program. Nearly 20 years later, they have both achieved a kind of literary success, but he is the kind of writer "about whom current students in the program have heated opinions; I'm the kind of writer their mothers read while recovering from knee surgery."

Childbirth is sometimes treated like a specialty interest for women, like ceramics or cross country skiing. You know the contours, vaguely, but you wouldn't seek out information unless you were thinking about doing the thing yourself. Obviously, when it comes to motherhood, this is deeply dumb: Someone gave birth to each of us, probably while in a lot of pain.

"Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting," says the hero of Madeleine Miller's Circe, of her romance with the mortal Odysseus. Circe is referring to Homer's version of the story, in which Odysseus arrives on her island sea-battered and mourning for his men killed by the cruel Laestrygonians. Circe entraps his remaining men and turns them into pigs. But Odysseus, with the help of the god Hermes, tricks Circe and makes her beg for mercy before becoming her lover.

"With a good feeling, it was always: More. Again. Forever." Leslie Jamison's memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath follows the story of her alcoholism in lush, almost caressing detail. "I mashed the lime in my vodka tonic and glimpsed — in the sweet spot between two drinks and three, then three and four, then four and five — my life as something illuminated from the inside."

At the beginning of Meg Wolitzer's The Female Persuasion, shy, bookish Greer Kadetsky is groped at a frat party. Her best friend, "innately, bracingly political" Zee, urges her to report it, but Greer feels sick at the thought. "The idea that something had been done to you seemed to implicate you, even though no one said it did, making your body — which usually lived in darkness beneath your clothing — suddenly live in light."

"I am authorized to perform acts of justice, power, and retribution, to deliver messages of comfort and healing," begins the angel that wrestled with Jacob in Mallory Ortberg's adaptation of the Biblical story, "Fear Not: An Incident Log."

At first, Asymmetry seems like a story we've heard before: Young, pretty would-be writer Alice launches an affair with Ezra, a literary celebrity several decades her senior. He gets a stent, she gets an abortion, he teaches her to pronounce Camus ("It's CA-MOO, sweetheart"), she picks up his meds, he calls her a "good girl," she calls him "cradle robber."

For the first few chapters, it seemed too tired and too insular a story to hear again all for the meagre reward of watching a lightly disguised Philip Roth ejaculate "like a weak water bubbler."

Editor's note: This review contains spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

This review contains language that some may find offensive.

Henry James, Mary Beard tells us in her new book Women & Power, liked to complain about women's voices — American ones in particular. Under their influence, he believed, language risked devolving into a "tongueless slobber or snarl or whine," like "the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog."

In the 17th century, the poet John Dryden satirized the deep anxiety around letting women learn the Classics:

But of all Plagues, the greatest is untold;

The Book-Learn'd Wife in Greek and Latin bold.

The Critick-Dame, who at her Table sits:

Homer and Virgil quotes, and weighs their Wits;

Hoaxes work when we want them to. These longings can be benign: think of Herman Rosenblat's beautiful, fake story about a girl who kept him alive by throwing apples over the fence of a concentration camp, and meeting her years later on a blind date. Who wouldn't want to believe a love story like that?

Sometimes, when Philip Pullman is tired or anxious, a floating speck appears in his field of vision. "I first saw it when I was playing the piano and I couldn't read the music because there was a damn dot in the way," he says, as we sit in the pleasantly jumbled living room of his farmhouse in Oxfordshire.

The floating dot will expand into a flickering ring of light, like a miniature, personal aurora. It can happen when he's driving, and he'll pull over to wait it out, or sleep it off when he's at home.

"What's worse, writing a trope or being one?" the narrator of Carmen Maria Machado's story "The Resident," asks. She is at an artists' colony, and one of the other residents — a "poet-composer" named Lydia — has snidely announced that the narrator's autobiographical writing plays into the madwoman in the attic stereotype, not to mention the crazy lesbian stereotype. "It's sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done," says Lydia.

Later, the narrator, whose initials are also CM, carves the words "Madwoman in her own attic" into the wood of her writing cabin.

King Lear, done right, verges on unbearable. A portrait of cruelty, betrayal, male power become impotent male rage, the disintegration of the mind, all delivered one after another like steel boots to the spine. "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods: They kill us for their sport," says one character.

So unbearable did audiences find it that for nearly 200 years it was performed with an altered ending, where Lear and his daughter live happily ever after.

In the fictional county of Cotton, Georgia, a pair of twins is born, one white and one black. "They looked like a pair of baby chicks ... Only if you looked closely — and people did — could you see that the girl is pink as a piglet, and the boy was brown." In the summer of 1930, in segregated Georgia, they become a sensation, nicknamed the Gemini twins by the press for Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Leda by different fathers.

As a member of the generation that has been blamed for ruining everything from dinner to retirement, I am relieved to discover that it will soon all be someone else's fault. Though this comes at the cost of Death creeping ever closer, sinking the blade of his scythe into the edge of my avocado toast, I'll take what reprieve I can get.

Sing, Unburied, Sing opens with the slaughter of a goat. "The goat makes a sound of surprise, a bleat swallowed by a gurgle, and then there's blood and mud everywhere."

Yes, blood and mud are everywhere in Jesmyn Ward's Mississippi, a place full of ghosts and corpses, bayous and roadkill ("possums or armadillos or wild pigs or hit deer, bloating and turning sour in the Mississippi heat"). That oozing mud sticks to her characters: They dream of drowning, of rising waters and sucking mud. And blood, well.

The past 10 years have seen a parade of sexually damaged Girls in fiction — and by girls, of course, I mean women in their 20s and 30s. After Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and all the other creatively abused women, you could be forgiven for thinking Claire Messud's The Burning Girl is another would-be best-seller about gendered violence and retribution.

Alissa Nutting's plots arrive with all the irrepressible, grotesque flamboyance of a flasher at a funeral. Her last novel was the nauseating but addictive story of a female sexual predator. Her latest, Made for Love, opens with the protagonist, Hazel, arriving at her father's trailer to find him cohabitating with a sex doll named Diane, "the kind designed to provide a sexual experience that came as close as possible to having sex with a living (or maybe, Hazel thought, a more apt analogy was a very, very recently deceased) female."

In the seventh century B.C., the poet Semonides of Amorgos wrote a catalog of unmanageable women. First, there are the women who resemble pigs, "resting in filth and growing fat." Other women, he writes, are yapping dogs, who won't shut up even if you knock their teeth out. And then there are the lazy horses, slutty weasels and ugly apes with no necks. The only kind of woman he praises is the bee — industrious, devoted and, most importantly, fertile.

The best kind of nature writing celebrates not the placidly, distantly picturesque — mountaintops and sunsets — but the near, dank, and teeming. The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry's gloriously alive historical novel, squirms with bugs, moss and marsh.

The idea of reading a stranger's diary is thrilling, clandestine, a promise — that their inner life will roll out before you like a carpet, that you'll finally find out if other people feel the way you do.

And I love to read the journals of writers — Virginia Woolf's melancholy and precise pages, or George Eliot's nonchalant lists of Greek texts she'd read like other people read the newspaper.

"I like to think I sprang from a head; I like to think the head was mine," writes Patricia Lockwood in Priestdaddy, her memoir of growing up with a Catholic priest for a father.

But no. She sprang from the (oft-exposed) loins of Father Gregory Lockwood, who converted on board a submarine while watching the Exorcist: "That eerie, pea-soup light was pouring down, and all around him men in sailor suits were getting the bejesus scared out of them, and the bejesus flew into my father like a dart into a bull's eye."

"Let's show the world what it looks like to be a woman who works," says Ivanka Trump, soft-voiced and chic, looking into the camera. She looks good, this woman who works. It's 2014. She gives a little smile, and a shake of her gently waved blond hair, and the screen fades to the serifed logo of her brand.

"I'm not saying it's proper or right to love a student, and I'm not going to pretend I never did anything about it, because I did, but I can say I didn't do much," says the narrator of Deb Olin Unferth's title story, "Wait Till You See Me Dance."

"All I did was to bring the office assistant to the dance and threaten to kill her."

Unferth knows how to change direction. Her absurd and tender story collection is full of sentences like clear glass doors, and you, reader, are the bird.

Is any story more appealing than the paradise disrupted? Read enough campus novels, and you'll think colleges are little idylls rife with tennis sweaters and conspiracy. Green quadrangles, caps and gowns, dim libraries, "a group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying ... trees creaking with apples ... ivied brick, white spire ..." That's Donna Tartt's The Secret History, the New England campus novel par excellence, fat with exclusion and glamour and wealth and Plato and erudite murder.

Elif Batuman is on record as disliking "crisp" fiction, fiction that streamlines, that asks to be compared to apples, or whips. "Write long novels, pointless novels," she urges in an essay for n+1. And she has. The Idiot is a long wander, a vague rummage, "as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else's incredibly long dream," as her narrator, Selin, says of Bleak House.

A man named Christopher disappears in Greece. His estranged wife, the narrator, goes to find him. A Separation has several separations: the marital separation, the separation between the narrator and her public self, and between herself and the world around her, which she keeps at a careful distance.

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