Annalisa Quinn

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.

Wild Things, Bruce Handy's new book about "the joy of reading children's literature as an adult," recounts a famous Maurice Sendak anecdote: After sending a young fan a drawing, Sendak got a letter back from his mother saying that the child had loved it so much that he ate it. "He didn't preserve it ... He ate it. I mean, that's how primal, that's how animalistic, that's how passionate we are as small people," Sendak said in a 1991 interview with Larry King.

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.

Here it is again. The voice. The single white woman in New York figuring out her s- - - and drinking too much wine voice. Confessional, casual, brash, tell-it-like-it-is, flawed-yet-familiar, ostentatiously relatable.

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.

Kendall Francois raped and killed at least eight women in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., leaving their bodies to rot in his house while his family went about their lives, apparently unaware.

Seattle Times reporter Claudia Rowe, then a stringer for The New York Times, was living in Poughkeepsie at the time of the murders. When she heard that Francois had been arrested, she rushed to his family home:

Mercy is a human impulse, but so is murder. In Human Acts, Han Kang's novel of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath, people spill blood, and people brave death to donate it. With a sensitivity so sharp that it's painful, Human Acts sets out to reconcile these paradoxical and coexisting humanities.

Manju has the body of a boy, the forearms of a cricketer, and a superstitious, arbitrary tyrant of a father who wants only one thing: To raise the first-best and second-best batsmen in the world.

Odysseus was the man of many minds and many ways, according to his Homeric epithets. And among the many minds of Odysseus, there's room for a space queen.

Odyssia is warlike, merciless, "witchjack and wanderer," "starminded," '"wolfclever," "lightspeed," a "wolfwitch." Written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Christian Ward, ODY-C is a beautifully colored space Odyssey, both graphic and novel, which makes Homer new.

Zombies, I'll admit, bore me. Kitsch, dopey, stumping around all smelly, zombies lack the machinations, the stealth, and the whiff of sex that make other creatures of the night — vampires, say — appealing.

They are, however, pure body, and thus an apt choice for a fantasy novel that deals with the corporal realities: periods, sweat, masturbation, the trials of going to the bathroom in the woods, and the way thighs chafe in the heat when their owner hides out from flesh-eating corpses.

Two brown girls from North London council estates want to be dancers. In the same dance class, the same shade of nut-brown, they are "two iron filings drawn to a magnet," friends before they speak. One, Tracey, is a natural dancer: intuitive, genius, even. The other, the narrator of Swing Time, is talented in another direction: She is an observer, a wallflower given structure by stronger, surer women around her. Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity.

Sometimes, my brain goes dull.

If you think the same thoughts enough times, they make paths, like water does, create deepening grooves, until habituated expressions and permitted thoughts become a canyon you can't get out of. There are many books I love, but Anne Carson's make me reconsider my life. Her poems feel like anarchic rainfall, a fresh shower, an escape from the canyon.

"Blow not your broth at Table," George Washington wrote in an early school exercise on civility. And "bedew no mans face with your Spittle." Wise man.

Other etiquette rules hold up less well over time ("to Pull off the Hat when there is no need is Affectation.") More recently, Emily Post warned young ladies against unchaperoned boating with young men, lest a sudden fog delay them and her reputation be ruined (sudden fog, as you perhaps know, is prime cover for you-know-what).

Black lives matter — not only black deaths. But you wouldn't know it from paging through major publishers' catalogs. The publishing industry, despite all those solemn, virtuous panels on diversity, has thus far shown little interest in ordinary black lives. Black lives, families and stories matter — but they don't have a commensurate place in fiction.

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