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In this enchanting first novel by Polish poet, Wioletta Greg, life in a politically tumultuous 1980’s rural Poland is seen through the eyes of a precocious child, in chapters progressing from her earliest of memories through to those of her teenage years. Greg consistently uses the minutest and most unexpected of details, and evocative imagery to suggest a time, a place, a mood, a feeling: “I lay down beside her and watched the sky spin candyfloss out of the clouds.” The beauty and ability of her language to capture a child’s wonder, confusion, and curiosity at the world, and to summon nearly palpable childhood memories in the reader is unparalleled. The captivating and lyrical language of this poet simply knocked my socks off; her novel is a magical testimony to the belief that the child in us is universally ever-present, and can be stirred to life by a consummate writer.
This vivid and moving coming of age tale is told in narratives alternating between a teen-aged Hermano, and the adult Hermano, as the latter takes a spur-of-the-moment detour from a road trip (and his life) to visit the town where he spent his youth. There, familiar surroundings trigger a flood of memories, both tender and violent, and we are placed smack-dab in the middle of the struggles of both the child to fight peer pressure during angst-ridden teenage years, and the man to come to terms with regret and deep-seeded guilt over decisions made as a child. This is a bittersweet meditation and powerful reflection on the ways in which some of our earliest of decisions haunt us throughout life. It is one man’s story of facing the past and making amends as best he can. We can’t undo the past, but we can take steps to atone, just as our bones can be broken and reset and healed. We go forward, scars and all, but we go forward.
Senna’s nuanced treatment of the challenges of finding one’s adult identity, and her spot-on hilarious chronicling of the social mores and manners of 1990’s NYC, combine to make this one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years. But it is so much more. To all of the universal issues young adults face, add a layer of complexity for these mixed-race characters who struggle with their racial identity and society’s reaction to them, and the result is this forceful, honest, indignant, impassioned, cynically comic, and heartbreakingly sad commentary on our supposedly post-racial America. I’m a firm believer that there is much to be learned from an excellent work of fiction, and this novel graces our lives at just the right moment. As with the best of novels, it offers no easy answers, but helps us ask the right questions and strengthens our understanding.
I worked with Jeff, the author, at Borders, and he is a friend. Knowing him, I’m in no way surprised that he's written a novel filled with wisdom, sensitivity, pathos, hope, humor, and irony.* What I couldn’t have known was that his debut would be so well-crafted with plot twists and turns I never saw coming, and vivid, colorful characters who absolutely come alive off the pages until you’d swear they were living and breathing in the room with you as you read. This is the story of Conor McLeish, a middle-aged gay novelist with scars from a traumatic childhood that have never healed. With decidedly mixed results, he is desperately trying to avoid sabotaging that which is good in his life, and to find that solid ground that we all seek. His colorful, dysfunctional family serves throughout as both a weight around his ankles, pulling him down, and an anchor to help ground him. Conor’s story is universal, and yet uniquely his. I cared deeply about and empathized with, each and every central character Jeff created, and I laughed, I cried, I laughed some more, and truly rooted for Conor every step of the way. I was a weeping mess when I turned the last page. This is a dazzling debut.
*I feel compelled to point out the irony of the title and the cover photo; also, consider that the story is set in Florida, which may one day be under water, and that the author lives in California, perhaps on a fault-line.
This suspenseful novel hooked me from page one and never released its grip on me, nor did my admiration for its literary references, vivid characters, and clever plot, ever waver. Set in Michigan, it tells the story of both Mary, a young and talented poet who lived during the early 20th century, and Lydia, a successful romance writer and the wife of a present-day English professor who has made the study of Mary's poetry his life's work, and unraveling the mystery of Mary’s disappearance, his self-destructive obsession. These women struggle to cope with similar issues: abusive marital relationships, society's expectations of them, and their own demons. Their stories are so artfully intertwined as to skillfully illuminate how the impact of their suffering both changed and didn’t change from Mary’s time to Lydia’s. The lingering allure of this novel for me is in contemplation of the continued struggle of women in our society that it inspired, a struggle that is almost harder to assess the more progress is made. This is a most engaging and thought-provoking novel.
I was hooked on this thriller from its first sentences ("He came to on the back of a horse. Weeping into his chest. The dreams he's had, the man he was.") to its final perfectly wrought and helplessly hopeful sentence. It has both an endearing, wackly appeal (one character has a weekend gig at a local toy store, playing a mind-reading superhero called Brainstorm--the twist being that, unbeknowst to everyone, he actually has this ability, and it is used to both comic and poignant effect), but also an intriguing futuristic element (the research being done at a biotech facility calls into question whether science is making us more, or less, human). It is Maazel's insight into human nature that makes this so much more than a really good page-turner. I found myself struggling with resentment, anger, forgiveness, and empathy along with the cast of characters. What more can we ask of a book than to entertain, enlighten, and enrich us, to make us a little more human , perhaps?
This novel gives one pause to question just about everything we take for granted about ourselves; in other words, it's the best sort of novel. Just think about how utterly fascinating and unnerving it would be to receive letters decades later from your three best childhood friends recounting shared memories. That's what happens here as three friends each write letters to David, now an amnesia victim (though he could be faking it--it's that kind of book), in hopes that their words will jog his memory. I identified with the first narrator to a painfully uncanny degree, so it was rather shocking to read the subsequent narrators' accounts, as they disparaged him as well as one another in one way or another. In the end, I felt a connection with each narrator, flawed though they all were--in fact, maybe because of their flaws. This novel speaks to the vast distinction between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others, to the impossibility of truly knowing another person, or even oneself. This is one of the most amazingly original and utterly captivating novels I've read in recent years. It just kind of blew me away.
The unlikely heroes, heart, charm, humor, intelligence, and gripping tension of both Miller's first novel, Norwegian by Night, and now this stunningly powerful and insanely funny second novel, make Miller one of my favorite comtemporary novelists. Miller wrote his dissertation on the Iraq civil war of 1991 and writes in the afterword to this book that he knew that he "needed to return to the subject matter through fiction, where a greater range of truths could be explored." This novel, set mostly in Iraq, but international in scope, is the result. All of the characters are captivating, but I have to single out the American soldier, Arwood Hobbs, as one of the most original, troubled, enigmatic, and hilarious characters ever. I will never forget him. And the man who created Arwood also wrote lines such as this: "There was no topsoil. There was surely a proper reason for this, but Benton imagined that too many feet had walked here for too long in search of too much." This book which addresses a host of themes with insight, humor, and compassion, will be with me literally and figuratively always.
This riveting novel is one of the best I’ve read this year. I was captivated by the overarching theme of reputation—the relationship between “truth” and reputation. The protagonist is a successful and influential political cartoonist responsible for affecting the reputations and careers of many politicians in his native Colombia. At the height of his career, he finds himself reexamining the events of 28 years prior that inspired one of his most scathing cartoons. As a result, he questions his choices and motivations (was he only concerned with enhancing his own reputation at the expense of truth?), and ultimately the merits of his career and basically every important life choice he has made. The words of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen (“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”) reverberate throughout, and the theme of the ephemeral nature of memory, this idea that “certainties acquired at some moment in the past could in time stop being certainties” never fails to intrigue me. It inspired me to consider how I will reflect on my life one day. How will my memories be altered by time? What will my reputation be? Will it be deserved, earned, justified? Vasquez is a master storyteller, and I devoured this novel in a day, but have been thinking of it ever since.
Koch’s novels just keep getting better, and this was one of my favorite books from 2016. I love his twisted mind, for the totally unpredictable, suspenseful plots and for the complex, you-hate-them-and-yet-you-love-them characters it produces, but mostly I love his sardonic, razor-sharp, sickly hilarious wit which spares no one (of a librarian, one character observes, “At which age did that face slam shut like a book no one felt like finishing?”). Mr. M is a writer (Koch doesn’t hesitate to skewer his own profession) of some renown whose most successful novel, based on the very real disappearance of a high school history teacher, was written years earlier. The suspense in this novel, written from alternating points of view from both the present and the past, involves exposing what happened to this teacher. The solution is jaw-droppingly brilliant and Koch’s skill for exposing human flaws is without equal.
The best compliment I can pay a book is to know that I will never part with it; that I will treasure it and revisit it. This is such a novel. It is a complex, wonderfully original and unforgettable "romance" with twists and turns I never saw coming. Swift writes with humor and wisdom, creating vivid characters and subtle truths with an economy of prose. The alluring romance that begins the novel "once upon a time" on a sunday in 1924 in the English countryside is between an orphaned maid and the heir of a neighboring estate. After the events of that day, the story takes an unforseen path that led me to believe that the real romance here is between writer and writing, both for Swift and for his protagonist. This is Swift's love-song to the process of reworking, reimagining memories to get to "the quick, the heart, the nut, the pith: the trade of truth-telling" ...all the while knowing that "many things in life..can never be explained at all." But still writers write and readers read in a search for truth and answers. I admit it, I'm in love, and my romance is with reading masterful novelists such as Graham Swift.
This is a stunningly original coming-of-age story narrated by the teen-aged Lucia. She is a witty, cynical (understandable given the hardships she's suffered in her young life), brutally honest, precocious, perspicacious, and complicated anarchist and wannabe arsonist. She's also probably the smartest person in the room at any given time, with an uncanny knack for spotting and exposing pretense. To read Lucia's thoughts is to be in awe of her mind, to feel compassion for her, to learn from and admire her (her rule: "Don't do things you aren't proud of."), to be sometimes skeptical of, but always intrigued by her ideas, to laugh at her astute observations ("History is just people behaving badly."), to be afraid for and yet hopeful for her, and yes, to love her. She is one of the most memorable characters I've ever encountered. Thank you, Jesse Ball, for Lucia.
This is a happy, wise, life-affirming, love-affirming book, and yet I, who am usually drawn to rather sad, bittersweet novels, loved it. The story, set in NYC which is brought delightfully and vividly to life, is told alternately through the eyes of three interconnected, smart and likeable characters over the course of one week. Each has a fascinating career about which they are passionate and through them, the reader will learn about photography, NYC literary and historic trivia, ornithology, and the art of organizing and simplifying ones life. All three characters have fairly recently experienced a devastatingly painful, life-altering event which they struggle to understand by recalling their painful pasts in moving details and images. In this pivotal week, they are also each awakened to the promise of a brighter future. They learn from each other, they learn from the past how to forgive, and from the present that healing does happen. This is a book full of suffering, hope and joy; it is an uplifting read for anyone who needs a reminder that out of intese sorrow can come unbelievable joy. I think it was kismet that I happened to pick up this book to read at a rather pivotal point in my life; I was at a crossroads of sorts and was ready for a joyful read. This book will always hold a special place in my heart.
I'm a New Yorker groupie and a grammar nerd, and so I was in heaven reading this book by Mary Norris, long-time employee of the New Yorker Copy Department. She cares about grammar without being a purist ("A hyphen is not a moral issue.") and the book is charming and laugh-out-loud funny. You'll learn something about grammar, but also about dictionaries and how to properly sharpen a pencil. You'll also be treated to stories of life at the New Yorker (she had actual convervsations with Pauline Kael in the 18th floor bathroom!) and of working at a cheese factory prior to that. I had the pleaseure of meeting Ms. Norris at a recent book conference. She signed my copy of her book with her pencil of choice (a Blackwing 602) and my parting words to her were: "You're lilving my dream." She responded, "I'm living my dream." And that joie de vivre shines through brightly in her first book.
Francine Prose's novel is a tour-de-force of character and point-of-view with a most fascinating setting--Paris from the carefree, bohemian early 1930's to the sobering Nazi occupation. She tells the story masterfully and most originally by assuming the voices of a colorful cast of characters writing via letters, articles, memoirs, as well as chapters from a present-day biography of one of the characters. These self-serving testimonies are often contradictory, and I was struck with how elusive historical fact is, as it depends on the memory, motives and perceptions of witnesses and researchers. I wonder is this not why we read intelligent, entertaining, thought-provoking novels with a sense of place, history and atmosphere that is palpable, such as this one -- to better understand human history and ourselves?
This early novel from William Maxwell, longtime fiction editor extraordinaire of the New Yorker, is a quiet gem with perhaps the saddest, wisest, most profoundly perfect ending I’ve ever encountered.
The novel takes place in 1912 in a sleepy, small (really small) Illinois town—a setting Maxwell knew intimately. At the center of the novel are Austin King and his family, but the town is also populated with a cast of colorful minor characters who provide humor, charm and conflict, and for whom Maxwell clearly has a deep fondness, foibles and all. Austin tries always to act honorably, to do no harm, but when a visit from his Mississippi foster family brings conflict to the surface, Austin realizes how subjective doing the “right thing” is, and that even the best of intentions can have devastating consequences.
The marvel of Maxwell’s novel is in his quiet empathetic prose, his fascination with the seemingly harmless actions, words and gestures that can produce hurt and pain in others. I simply don’t know how Maxwell manages to capture the complexity of human interactions, particularly of marriage, with such graceful simplicity and power. Maxwell is my sad, compassionate and totally wise god of fiction.
I cherish this book; it holds a special place in my heart and I'm not sure I can explain or even know why. It is the story of a friendship. Stegner captures like no one else both the joy of a new once-in-a-lifetime friendship that develops between two couples (each character so richly drawn) who meet in their 20's as the men are beginning their university teaching careers, and the reality of how the friendship evolves as circumstances change and flaws surface. I love the book's honesty, wisdom and simplicity, and appreciate that there is nothing simple about writing a novel that flows so effortlessly and beautifully. Just as friendships change over time, this is a book that should be savored again and again as one matures. It's one of my all-time favorite novels.
Millard writes of a most fascinating chapter of U.S. history and in so doing, has written a book that will appeal not only to the history buff, but also to the political junkie, the scientist and just anyone who appreciates a riveting tale well-told.
The narrative artfully weaves the story of James Garfield’s reluctant rise to the presidency (he wasn’t even a candidate prior to being selected as the nominee at the dead-locked Republican Convention of 1880); the assassin Charles Guiteau’s life of delusion culminating in the belief that it was God’s mission for him to save the country from Garfield; the doctors, who in trying to save Garfield’s life, ultimately killed him with archaic medical practices; and Alexander Graham Bell’s race to perfect an invention that he believed would save Garfield.
I came away from this book with great admiration for Garfield as a politician, educator, orator, man of letters, and, most importantly, a man of honor, as well as a desire to learn more about this period. I simply can’t imagine anyone not being captivated by this story so expertly told by Millard.
This is arguably the best book of many outstanding books I read in 2013. In each of the four stories that comprise this book, the characters struggle with joy and disappointment, temptation, expectation, guilt and shame; they want to believe in love but are just as eager to sabotage it and escape its complications to live a more predictable and controlled solitary life.
Dubus is a consummate master of prose and I recorded pages of passages that are short gems which speak volumes about the characters.
What I liked best though, is that the characters who are only mentioned in passing in one story become the central focus of another story. They seem marginal and uninteresting until Dubus tells their tales. The lesson that everyone has a story to tell, that everyone deals with love and loss and guilt and shame, that the world is a better place if we each remember that and treat one another with kindness and respect, is one we all should embrace. This book reinforced that lesson as few other books have done for me; I loved this book.
I loved this novel about three male generations of a Chicago Jewish family and the women they loved, for the strikingly original manner in which the tale is told and for the emotional response it evoked in me. Through the memories presented in its many short chapters, a portrait of a family whose members struggle to connect emerges. These vignettes, presented in a chronologically meandering order, are about the odd details, the strange moments in life whose emotional punch we recall more powerfully than the big events of our lives. Reading this novel triggered my own compelling memories— the image of looking out of an attic window and being surprised that the view is no different, took me back to my fascination with the attic window in my parents’ house. A simple detail, but powerful and poignant, a longing for something I can’t quite put my finger on. This book will stay with me.
This debut novel is a Scandinavian thriller with a solid plot, a page-turning ending, strong characters, heart, humor and intelligence. The plot involves the desperate flight taken by Sheldon, an edlerly Jewish-American, and Paul, a young Serbian boy, after they witness the brutal murder of Paul's mother. The novel has many serious themes: aging, dementia, war, the Holocaust, loss, family love, regret, guilt and more guilt – always with the guilt, and just maybe redemption. Amazingly, these themes don't overwhelm the plot, and in fact the book is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. The heart and soul of the novel is quite simply the poignant relationship that develops between Sheldon and Paul; they don’t speak the same language, but wow, do they communicate and connect. I loved this book.
Salter, one of my favorite writers, at age 87 is in rare form here, able to sustain mood and emotion and sum up a scene, a relationship, a betrayal in a few spare, elegant sentences like no one else (some of the best chapters, featuring minor characters work as stand-alone short stories so tightly and skillfully are they constructed to conjure a life out of a vignette). Salter writes here with equal skill and attention of both the mundane and the momentous moments in the life and many loves of Philip Bowman, a naval officer who becomes a successful editor at a small, literary NYC publishing house after World War II. The passage of time figures prominently as Bowman, trying to determine what things really matter in life, is drawn to another relationship, making mistakes, learning and maturing bit by bit, trying again and making new mistakes, while taking comfort in the everyday details of life. Sounds like nothing momentous, but that, after all, is life… all that is. And in Salter’s hands, it’s a tale beautifully told.
I recently re-read this novel and fell in love with it all over again. It's a charming, thoughtful, upbeat and offbeat story of four people fallinig in love in 1970's NYC. Colwin makes happiness seem possible and plausible, but knows that sustaining happiness over time requires true effort--so there is angst and substance here. The characters are witty and smart, and you are treated to snappy, intelligent and hilarious dialogue, odd-ball secondary characters, and to one of my favorite characters of all time--Misty Berkowitz. She's full of cynicism, sass, intelligence and insecurities, and she's always setting roadblocks to happiness for fear it won't last. I get that, and I love her and want her to be my best friend. Colwin helps me to remain ever hopeful and happy a lot of the time.
I’ve long loved The New Yorker and have a particular interest in its early years—the time of Dorothy Parker (who I wanted to be when I grew up … and still do), the time when writers gathered at the Algonquin Round Table, the time when Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, was also the editor, and James Thurber was a contributing writer. I bought this memoir in a used bookstore decades ago, and it remains one of my very favorite books. Ross was irascible, unintentionally hilarious, and a brilliant editor, and thus a most perfect subject for a book. It’s not only packed with literary history and anecdotes about the remarkably articulate and witty writers of the day, it also touches on the process of writing and editing. If Thurber embellished the “truth,” well, the book is so damn funny, endearing, and charming, and Thurber exhibits so much tenderness and affection for his subject, who cares! I treasure this book.
Wnen I read this novel some years ago, it instantly became one of my favorite books ever, and Malone one of my favorite writers. It is many things at once: an intricately plotted and suspenseful buddy-cop mystery; a romance with one of the most tender, realistic, and humorous renderings of two people falling in love I’ve ever come across; a thoughtful, literary novel that captures the feel of its small town Southern setting with beautiful prose and imagery, and its themes of class and race with honesty and nuance; and a playful screwball comedy of a book with its wacky humor and clever dialogue. Malone populates his town with colorful, complicated characters who breathe life and humor and conflict into the mix, and make this book smart and engaging. Reading this book was an absolutely exhilarating experience.
This is a beautiful, intelligent story of a middle-aged couple working to save their marriage after the wife’s infidelity, as told from her point of view. She is a wise, self-aware, sensitive, and likeable artist who struggles daily with the effects of guilt, jealousy, regret, dishonesty, and honesty on a relationship, as well as the nature of forgiveness (how hard to forgive and how impossible to feel forgiven). The novel is suspenseful, even though we know the ending from the first sentence—the heart of the story is not the outcome; it’s the journey—the fact that we are all works in progress (“We are a life’s work, aren’t we?”) with complicated relationships and motivations (“How was it that any one of us could walk across a room without our own multitudes tripping us up?”). I love that sentence; Black’s writing is marvelous, and I will eagerly follow her writing life.
I love it when I chose a book I've never heard of to read, by an author I've never heard of, and fall head over heels in love with it; reading this book was like finding a buried treasure. I have a special fondness for ponderous, rather existential Russian novels, and this one excels on that level. It is also a love story with complex characters and a suspenseful tension that had me totally captivated from the first sentence: “Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I committed.” The narrator is haunted from that point on by this war-time killing, until years later he reads a short story that describes this murder, to which there were no witnesses, to the last detail. And the search for the author of that story begins. This book is a gem.