I felt spooked and confused each time I paused this book to return to my actual life, which suddenly was alien and false--the life inside this book was my real life. I grieved its ending. -Alia
Remembering childhood hours spent in her mother's garden, Jamaica Kincaid once wrote, "A person exists in the kingdom of children no matter how old they are." This is true of adults, but, conversely, also true of teenagers, and of the constrained feeling of that time in life. AVALON takes place in the world of plants and flowers, and of childhood. It is my kind of summer read: a book about adolescence which allows that stage of life to retain its complexities and complications. AVALON is nostalgic, yet not happy or simple; funny and strange, yet serious in execution. Pragmatic in its misery, ecstatic in its hopefulness. Nell Zink forever. -Alia
Lillian Fishman is a master stylist. Her prose is so lovely and utterly without mannerism. The novel's arresting insights feel, within the still elegance of her words, like the best kind of ambush. ACTS OF SERVICE is a quietly subversive, sometimes incendiary, and totally beguiling debut from a truly original writer. I loved it. -Alia
A narration absolutely stuffed with zingers—I’m talking every single paragraph—sudden, devastating bullseye pronouncements on every conceivable subject, flying at your head ceaselessly. And yet, for all her wisdom, our narrator is totally panicked, kind of deluded, and utterly out of control... I felt this book pursuing me even when it was closed, waiting to resume the psychological beatdown. Just incredible. I can’t believe it was on the shelf for almost a year, crouching and poised to strike, waiting for me to pick it up. -Alia
Is the past always an invention? A fantasy? Is our obsession with the past the root cause of our societal ills? What is it about the act of recording—in video, in narrative—that is inherently dehumanizing? How do we participate in the degradation of the people whose lives we witness in recordings? How do we perpetuate a forced reenactment from others, up to and including the moment of their death? First published in 2005, McCarthy eerily presages an era in which every action we take is commodified for exploitation not just by the very powerful, but by our neighbors--an era in which social media reduces life to an exercise in aesthetics.
Being wary of bestsellers with "how to" in the title, I mistakenly believed, in the years since this book's publication, that it was another self-centered self-help book, an instruction manual positing "less time on your phone" as an end in itself, something inhenerently healthy, noble, or moral. What this book does instead is explore why it is so important we spend our limited days immersed in the places our bodies acutally inhabit, and not constantly distracted by the non-world inside the phone. A book for being a better neighbor (not just to humans!) and a better artist. -Alia
Instead of framing her novels around conflict, Heti has questions, and pursuit of answers is the framework for books she has called "novels from life." While previous books' central questions were presented more plainly (favorites include HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? and MOTHERHOOD), PURE COLOUR explores the feeling of questioning itself and the nature of this questioning state, in which many are cursed to remain for their whole lives. A strange fable indeed! -Alia
There are elements of life I never noticed until Adrian Nathan West described them so perfectly in this book. These elements are tangible and intangible--emotions, habits, and ways of thinking, yes, but also the strip malls, apartments, and restaurant kitchens of America... places I've been and feelings I've felt a million times, but whose truth was only revealed to me through West's writing. -Alia
The connective tissue between INVISIBLE MAN and THE SELLOUT, Oreo is a hilarious and strange reinvention of a classic myth that follows its titular character, daughter of a Black mother, from Philadelphia to New York in search of her Jewish father. Author Fran Ross innovates in both content and form, reappropriating Black, Jewish, and novelistic cultural conventions to create a novel that feels ahead of its time even today, almost fifty years since its publication. -Alia
2021 Pick of the Year
Often, when discussing a book's good qualities, a person might say, "I couldn't put it down," or "I read it it one sitting." Like popcorn in a darkened theater we digest these books half-distractedly in huge, oversalted mouthfuls. We are entertained, but not nourished. And that is just fine sometimes. I love popcorn! But this book makes you read it slowly. The completion of each story necessitates a prolonged silent window-stare, a slow walk--some sustained observation of and wonderment at the world Berlin depicts with such pragmatic tenderness. In this popcorn world, why does literature still exist? This book is why. Berlin has tapped a divine tree and presents us humbly its sweet syrup. -Alia
A window in a lighted house at night becomes a mirror - a barrier that reifies, in its reflection, an alienated self. When Ruth and her sister, Lucille, come under the care of their Aunt Sylvie, a once and future transient, the lights of the house are extinguished, and all the barricades and boundaries of civilized life fall away. Sylvie's way of life, reconciled with and part of, seamlessly, the world around her, is alluring - will the girls follow in their aunt's footsteps?
Toews is a poet of the everyday and the absolute best at finding the lone kernel of humor on the sad, sad corncob of life. To read her is to know that laughter is crucial to survival. -Alia
When an author becomes as celebrated and legendary as Morrison rightfully has, the urgency to read their work can dissipate--we go for what's new, because what's classic will always be around. What is in fact slipping away, even this very moment, is the amount of time you have left to live as a person changed by Morrison's writing. If you've never read her work, SULA is a great place to start. This is a book whose lines you will carry and recite like prayer. -Alia
This novel has everything: disillusioned frontier, verdant and sinister Americana, sibling rivalry, brothel madams, prose transfixing in its bizarre simplicity... Steinbeck confronts the reader's own deeply American prejudices in a novel as timeless, universal, and dare I say important as the text that inspired it.
A strange but ultimately sweet book that runs on the wacky, irresistible logic of a vivid dream. July seems drawn to the uncanny, as if to suggest that everyday life--not just the weird stuff, but office jobs, housework, standing in line--is almost unbelievably bizarre. Imagine that!
Johnson's work seems aware that language is adornment. Flowery prose conceals. Johnson's hypnotically direct prose reveals what is, in everyday life, usually hidden. Following America's outsiders and down-and-outs on their misadventures, this collection illuminates a weary god winking, a little divine tenderness in a brutal world.
In terse cowboy poetics, McCarthy tells the story of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole, who travels with his best friend across Texas and into Mexico, where they hope to find work as cowboys. McCarthy characterizes much of what the boys encounter as "blood-red"--not just the "reefs" of clouds at sunrise, but the dirt, the horses, the eys of men... A coursing, almost painful life force, the same mysterious vitality which John Grady Cole seeks.
"I spelled my name with rocks in a large green field so that God would find me quickly and my punishment would be complete."
Toews ("Taves") brings her deepest, sharpest humor and sadness to this story of a group of Mennonite women faced with the discovery that ongoing violent attacks on sleeping women and girls, allegedly caused by demons as punishment for sin, are actually assaults perpetrated by the men of their community. Fans of Lucia Berlin and Denis Johnson will appreciate the enchanting speech mannerisms and quirks of Toews' characters, her recognition of the humor found in times of utter devastation, her ability to find the mystical inside the mundane.
I love, love cooking from this beautiful book. Kassis's family is from the Galilee, like mine, and her recipes have brought me closer than ever before to recreating the flavors from my grandmother's kitchen. Get your grains and spices from one of our local Middle Eastern markets and prepare to be transported! -Alia
I am a longtime Franzen fan, but this book is miles above even the best of his previous works. Franzen seems to have put aside the sometimes-gleeful bitterness for which he's known, now taking a Steinbeck-like approach: his omnipotence as author has extended beyond deep knowledge of the human condition and, divinely, into deep love. I will perhaps forever carry the many lifetimes I lived while reading this book. That enough hyperbole for you? -Alia
Unparalleled in its vivid wit, strangeness, and pain. Even at 600 pages, it is a feat of economy: practically every single line could stand as a thesis for the entire work. It has a kind of magic that defies description. This book really did influence almost every major work of art that came after it, and once finished you'll notice traces of INVISIBLE MAN everywhere you look. -Alia
As your consciousness is merely a collection of cells each of which on its own cannot not be or create the thing that, as a whole, you are, the people, places, and events of this novel become, in their togetherness, something much more magical than any given line by itself. This is a novel not of characters, but of community—the community which, I think, can be so conspicuously missing from character-driven novels. The characters here are, in fact, time itself, community itself, mortality itself. It is a book against the cult of individuality and its horsemen of selfishness, inattention, speed, and commodification. Any great novel transports you in time and place. This novel transports you from a way of life focused on the individual to one focused on the collective.