"Majnun and Layla: Songs from Beyond the Grave" by Yann Damezin, translated by Thomas Harrison and Aqsa Ijaz; "Eyeliner: A Cultural History" by Zahra Hankir; and "Ruined" by Sarah Vaughn, illustrated by Sarah Winifred Searle and Niki Smith.

The Mary Sue Book Club, November 2023: Graphic Novels & Stories of The Body

After reading some of this month’s picks for TMS Book Club, you’ll probably want to buy another copy as a gift for the holiday season. This month features three graphic novels, beginning with my favorite highly specific subgenre, graphic novel memoir. There’s also a regency romance and a illustrated retelling of the tragic love story of Majnun and Layla.

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November also features a lot of good non-fiction new releases, with two that TMS readers will love. One dives into the cultural history of eyeliner and the other examines how women artists approach the body in art. In fiction, we have a YA retelling of Le Mis set in a futuristic Beijing and Sigrid Nunez’s ninth book centering a person reflecting on how to move forward through tumultuous times with humor.

Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey by Edel Rodriguez

Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey by Edel Rodriguez
(Metropolitan Books)

When Edel was nine, Fidel Castro announced his surprising decision to let 125,000 traitors of the revolution, or “worms,” leave the country. The faltering economy and Edel’s family’s vocal discomfort with government surveillance had made their daily lives on a farm outside Havana precarious, and they secretly planned to leave. But before that happened, a dozen soldiers confiscated their home and property and imprisoned them in a detention center near the port of Mariel, where they were held with dissidents and criminals before being marched to a flotilla that miraculously deposited them, overnight, in Florida.

Through vivid, stirring art, Worm tells a story of a boyhood in the midst of the Cold War, a family’s displacement in exile, and their tenacious longing for those they left behind. It also recounts the coming-of-age of an artist and activist, who, witnessing American’s turn from democracy to extremism, struggles to differentiate his adoptive country from the dictatorship he fled. Confronting questions of patriotism and the liminal nature of belonging, Edel Rodriguez ultimately celebrates the immigrants, maligned and overlooked, who guard and invigorate American freedom.

Release date: November 7.

The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez

The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez.
(Riverhead Books)

Elegy plus comedy is the only way to express how we live in the world today, says a character in Sigrid Nunez’s ninth novel. The Vulnerables offers a meditation on our contemporary era, as a solitary female narrator asks what it means to be alive at this complex moment in history and considers how our present reality affects the way a person looks back on her past.

Humor, to be sure, is a priceless refuge. Equally vital is connection with others, who here include an adrift member of Gen Z and a spirited parrot named Eureka. The Vulnerables reveals what happens when strangers are willing to open their hearts to each other and how far even small acts of caring can go to ease another’s distress. A search for understanding about some of the most critical matters of our time, Nunez’s new novel is also an inquiry into the nature and purpose of writing itself.

Release date: November 7.

Eyeliner: A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir

Eyeliner: A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir
(Penguin Books)

From the distant past to the present, with fingers and felt-tipped pens, metallic powders and gel pots, humans have been drawn to lining their eyes. The aesthetic trademark of figures ranging from Nefertiti to Amy Winehouse, eyeliner is one of our most enduring cosmetic tools; ancient royals and Gen Z beauty influencers alike would attest to its uniquely transformative power. It is undeniably fun—yet it is also far from frivolous.

Seen through Zahra Hankir’s (kohl-lined) eyes, this ubiquitous but seldom-examined product becomes a portal to history, proof both of the stunning variety among cultures across time and space and of our shared humanity. Through intimate reporting and conversations—with nomads in Chad, geishas in Japan, dancers in India, drag queens in New York, and more—Eyeliner embraces the rich history and significance of its namesake, especially among communities of color. What emerges is an unexpectedly moving portrait of a tool that, in various corners of the globe, can signal religious devotion, attract potential partners, ward off evil forces, shield eyes from the sun, transform faces into fantasies, and communicate volumes without saying a word.

Release date: November 14.

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

What kind of art does a monster make? And what if monster is a verb? Noun or a verb, the idea is a dare: to overwhelm limits, to invent our own definitions of beauty.

In this dazzlingly original reassessment of women’s stories, bodies, and art, Lauren Elkin—the celebrated author of Flâneuse—explores the ways in which feminist artists have taken up the challenge of their work and how they not only react against the patriarchy but redefine their own aesthetic aims. How do we tell the truth about our experiences as bodies? What is the language, what are the materials, that we need to transcribe them? And what are the unique questions facing those engaged with female bodies, queer bodies, sick bodies, racialized bodies?

Encompassing with a rich genealogy of work across the literary and artistic landscape, Elkin makes daring links between disparate points of reference—among them Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography, Kara Walker’s silhouettes, Vanessa Bell’s portraits, Eva Hesse’s rope sculptures, Carolee Schneemann’s body art, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s trilingual masterpiece DICTEE—and steps into the tradition of cultural criticism established by Susan Sontag, Hélène Cixous, and Maggie Nelson.

Release date: November 14.

Ruined by Sarah Vaughn, illustrated by Sarah Winifred Searle and Niki Smith

Ruined by Sarah Vaughn, illustrated by Sarah Winifred Searle and Niki Smith
(First Second)

The whole town is whispering about how Catherine Benson lost her virtue, though they can never agree on the details. Was it in the public garden? Or a moving carriage?

Only a truly desperate man would want her now—and that’s exactly what Andrew Davener is. His family’s estate is in disrepair, but Catherine’s sizeable dowry could set it to rights.

After the two wed, Catherine finds herself inexplicably drawn to Andrew. But could falling in love with her husband tear her marriage apart? In this richly detailed Regency romance, duty and passion collide in a slow-burn tale of intertwined fates.

Release date: November 28.

Kingdom of Without by Andrea Tang

Kingdom of Without by Andrea Tang
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

When Zhong Ning’er takes the job, she expects a smash-and-grab burglary she’s doing to make rent and help out a friend. What she doesn’t expect: a sad-eyed army boy who dreams of insurrection, a former rebel leader trapped inside a secret lab, a group of aspiring revolutionaries who are first collaborators, then compatriots, and then, perhaps, friends.

But this is Beijing, nearly a hundred and fifty years after General Yuan Shikai successfully declared himself emperor in 1915. His descendants rule the country from their seat in the imperial city, their gendarmerie—the Beiyang Army—run the streets, aided by cyborgs and the Brocade Guard. Walls have risen, dividing the city into districts called Rings—nominally only by geography, but in truth by class. Earthquakes devastate the northern farmlands, crops drown in the southern typhoons, and all over the country people are hooked on a drug they call Complacency.

As a Sixth Ring girl who watched previous uprisings crushed brutally by the court, Ning’er isn’t much of an optimist, and she’s certainly no revolutionary. But that might not be up to her–as the stakes get higher, the time for passivity is quickly running out, and she must decide if she wants to sit idly in her cynicism, or embrace the breathless, terrible possibility of hope.

Release date: November 28.

Majnun and Layla: Songs from Beyond the Grave by Yann Damezin, translated by Thomas Harrison and Aqsa Ijaz

Majnun and Layla: Songs from Beyond the Grave by Yann Damezin, translated by Thomas Harrison and Aqsa Ijaz.
(Life Drawn)

It is a story known around the world. Born of an Arabic tale, it has been interpreted hundreds of times in Persian, Turkish, and Indian languages. It has influenced playwrights, composers, filmmakers, scholars, modern popular language, the first opera of Islamic origin, and individuals as varied as Aleister Crowley and Eric Clapton. The tragic tale of love unfulfilled – Majnun and Layla.

Qays and Layla were madly in love. So in love, it has been said, that the young man could not contain his passion for his beloved, singing to the winds with such fervor he was given the nickname “Majnun,” The Madman. But their love could not be, as the lovers were separated by fate and man, leading to a tragic end for these star-crossed souls.

Release date: November 28.

Which of these titles are you most excited to read? Let us know in the comments.

(featured image: Life Drawn, Penguin Books, and First Second)

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.