You’ll know without a doubt when you’ve begun an Ariana Harwicz novel – before you can even sense the disconcerting atmosphere, her first sentence has likely reached through the book to grab you by the throat. From that moment on you’re in the hands of the most brutally intense and instinctive voices writing today. It’s the kind of book you’ll likely either find repulsive or propulsive – I was completely absorbed by this absolutely ferocious, fast-paced, and unflinching portrait of a depraved and discomforting mother-daughter relationship. At times it’s so suffocating that you might feel a need to come up for air, but by its thrilling final stretch I was exhilarated by what is one of the most strange and darkly poetic stories I’ve had the stomach to see through.
A triumphant ode to all us procrastinators. A book about trying, but really about failing, to write a book. Levrero’s narratives emerge unassumingly from real life situations – in this case, his actual receipt of a Guggenheim grant to finish a long-abandoned novel. But as we receive a glimpse into the repetitive mundanities of his daily life spent avoiding that task in evermore elaborate ways, this book soon reveals itself to be nearly entirely a “Diary of the Grant, an extended prologue to the book itself, which I don’t think is a spoiler to say… remains unfinished. I loved entering Levrero’s singular headspace, full as it is with an oddly earnest fascination for dreams, detective novels, home improvements, used booksellers, pre-installed computer card games, and even the odd dead pigeon decaying on a nearby roof. It’s a sly chronicle of what he calls the “never-ending series of small hours,” ones that in their accumulation can make something striking.
One of the most joyful, exciting, and inventive books I’ve had the pleasure of reading – a sprawling mosaic of a story that defies basic summary but reverberates throughout with a love for the written word. It’s a book about a writer, after all, though in honesty the plot is fragmented and sort of beyond the point. What it remains is alive and electric – from sentence to sentence, section to section, inventory to anecdote. A metafictional wonder full of asides and digressions, pop and not-so-pop culture references, a fascination with Bob Dylan, Tender is the Night, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Kinks, along with derision for e-readers and autofiction. All that and more. And more. And more. A truly amazing, crazy book – I wish there were more like it!
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This is a stunning and sharply observed book. It's also about zombies. Or may more accurate to say at least there are zombies, as Sims uses this familiar apocalyptic trope as a trojan horse for cerebral ruminations on nostalgia, death, and our emotional relationships with those both in our present lives and in our memories. As two friends attempt to locate a likely undead father before hurricane season hits Baton Rouge, the pervasive zombies pose some imminent physical threat, but even moreso an intellectual and moral challenge, and a chance to question what it means to be alive, to know others, and by extension to know ourselves. Given the subject matter, it's a book surprisingly short on blood and gore, while rife with a deeper and more profound sense of psychological pain, wrought from experiences as simple and realistic as something like living with an aging parent. Either the best or the worst book to have read in the direct aftermath of living through the early days of a sudden global pandemic -- either way, I ate this up.
This book opens with our protagonist asking her husband a question: “Tell me the truth.” He doesn’t. She shoots him between the eyes, and goes out for a cup of coffee. That can serve as the novel in miniature – you could say Ginzburg likes to get straight to the point, but really it’s that she doesn’t care to fuck around. Instead she takes the melodrama-ripe topic of a doomed marriage and just distills it into the most taut and tightly-wound depiction of bitterness and poignant reflection. Short and intense, it’s a book you should read entirely in the span of time it might take a good rage to simmer.
Laura doesn’t want to have children. Neither does her friend, Adina. Without spoiling the path taken by these two women in this unassumingly immersive novel, let’s just say that what follows is an affectingly nuanced story of motherhood in its many forms. Nettel explores an entire spectrum of emotions and perspectives as she interweaves the evolving situations of her two main characters with a keen eye and sense of restraint. Though the writing is assured, this book to me feels almost fragile – so delicately poised on the edge of deep, difficult emotions and experiences. It doesn’t shy away from the more thorny elements of motherhood – all its pressures, burdens, and expectations, but it is also gentle, capable of harnessing moments of unexpected beauty that arise from the mundane without feeling maudlin. I absolutely loved it.
Some of the best books take the shape of a thought, or a series of them. In this case, those held within the head of an artist who doesn’t know what her art is, as she walks through a city towards a gallery. The narrator admits she likes taking the long way from place to place – the “longcut” as opposed to the shortcut, which is equally suggestive of the book’s heavily layered, meandering writing style that creates a vivid portrait of this character’s mind. Short but dense, this book is at-times difficult but equally charming and completely unique. A story of a walk in which we seem to travel both everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
A lucid dream, a Renaissance fantasy, a prose poem. Enard stages a speculative fiction around a real life historical anecdote, as Michelangelo accepts an invitation to Constantinople to design a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the capital. I was entranced by this mythic and at times surreal novella, so packed with human insight and told with such precision and economy. Though set in a distinct historical moment, what I love about this book is the way it luxuriates in the allure of the unknown, and the thrill of experiencing a new and exotic culture. There’s something woozy, almost dreamlike in the way Enard’s wonderfully translated voice presents this story, so evocative of a time and place without resorting to stodgy exposition. A special book.
Sometimes don’t we all just need an experimental book about death? It’s a simple premise – Kate is the last woman on earth, living on an empty beach, where she composes a daily record of her memories. As her deteriorating mind drifts further from true human connection, she fills that ever-widening gap with loosely associated historical facts… only to see those recollections be often half-formed or mis-remembered. This is a lonely book, really profoundly so. But Markson’s writing presents Kate’s journal-like entries with such a crystalline and clear precision – each paragraph often its own sentence, or even fragment – that they form almost as stunning little islands floating in a sea of nothingness. These fragments accumulate to form a portrait of decay – not just of a mind but of a history, a culture, and of language. Kate is writing to prove that she exists, but the subtle magic in this book, where we witness meaning being slowly drained from every fact and every thing, is that we’re forced to question… does she?
A novel as a series of interconnected stories, each that shine light on life among the transient and transplants within modern day China. Stories of an anxious high school dropout who has moved to Beijing to help post ads for his uncle's fake ID business, only for sanitation workers to erase them every morning. Of a man who jogs in his business suit to save time between his morning run and the start of his workday. Stories of street fights, cigarettes, and cars made from scrap. Of overcrowded, uninsulated apartments on the outskirts of town, and idle evenings on the rooftop spent choking on polluted air. Of cards, donkey burgers, and beer. Of a life on the periphery, about those in constant motion while being equally stuck in place. Filled with all the heart and humor of a Richard Linklater film, these stories mine the mundane for those unexpected glimmers of the spectacular, surprising, and sublime.
If you’ve read Helen Dewitt’s undersung contemporary classic The Last Samurai, you already know that she’s a master of language, capable of big, ambitious work. What she flexes in this tiny delight of a story, to me, is equally impressive – restraint, humor, compelling character work, a twisty plot, and sharp satire, all somehow slipped into this slim little bite-size package. Here we begin with a highly memorable narrator, a 17-year-old girl brought up by her mother to have impeccable taste, and gradually unravel the circumstances behind her entry point into this world. The novel’s comic voice contains definite echoes of Wes Anderson’s highly-mannered depictions of high society, and as its cleverly constructed story reaches a surprising conclusion, I was left both immensely satisfied and hungry for more – like, would’ve read 300 more pages of this more. In short: let Helen Dewitt cook. I’ll take all of that you got.
Geissler, a novelist and translator, takes a job during the Christmas rush at an Amazon fulfillment center in Leipzig to make ends meet. At this point, I think we all know how we feel about Amazon… but this book gracefully avoids the overdone investigative journalism trope of going undercover to see what a company is “really like.” Instead, Geissler focuses on her experience as a meditation on the value and purpose of work in general. Through a clever use of both a first and second person narrator, she makes the reader re-perform her work in a way that underlines those experiences as universal. This divide in her story between “I” and “you” allows for such a rich exploration into themes of identity and alienation in today’s society. At the end of the day, you can take my word for it, or go with the writer of one of this book’s mere two total Amazon reviews, who felt “the only insight I got was that the Author would be a terrible employee.” Idk, I guess maybe I should get back to work.
A young family's planned celebration in an idyllic French countryside town meets a sinister intrusion -- perhaps an overworn premise... but! Take a moment, open this book, and read its first page. If you're anywhere from intrigued to enthralled by this winding, virtuoso page-long sentence, strap in. Not just a completely immersive and suspenseful story told in tense, twisting prose, this book is truly a staggering feat for its ability to rest the stakes of that thrilling plot entirely within the rich interior lives of its characters. The action is captured by Mauvignier's serpentine sentences that shift us across those characters' perspectives, creating a claustrophobic feel that suits the sense of mounting dread to their situation. And for the patient, the payoff to this slow zoom of a novel does not disappoint.
I picked up this novella based on very little – intriguing cover design, from an indie press that honestly doesn’t miss – and left convinced of it being something of a minor masterpiece. Translated from the Portuguese, the book first presents as an elegant but traditional chronicle of a small and seemingly uneventful life. Our central figure a widow who mourns her dead husband while being forced into the awkwardness and indignities resulting from the fractured family dynamic left in his wake. But as the story continues, we chart this woman’s slow journey from constantly blank-faced passenger in life, “like someone poised on the edge of an ellipsis,” through a series of quiet, haunting revelations that soon shift her emotional state to one of “screaming for help from inside a coffin that had just that minute been nailed shut.” The kind of subtle tragedy that, much like the complicated memory of a loved one, lingers.
Like the painting on its cover, Adler’s wonderful novel provides us beauty in the abstract – on its face a story of a lonely woman who has decided to end an affair with a married man. In practice, an emotionally raw, jagged, and fragmented narrative told through an accumulation of thoughts, conversations, and incidents that all contribute to what becomes a breathtaking portrait of melancholy and confusion. I love the way Adler’s nonlinear writing style evokes her character’s scrambled mindset, capturing each cresting wave of passion and paranoia in equal measure. I also just love books that are unafraid to raise questions that defy tidy explanations, that acknowledge sometimes they can have no satisfying answer at all. Books that are infused by all the mess of our lives. And this book, perhaps again in the spirit of its cover, flourishes in that most beautiful type of mess.
If the circumstances of Tove Ditlevsen’s life weren’t true – among them poverty, emotionally distant parents, abuse, failed marriages, and addiction – she’d be accused of an over reliance on shock-factor. But what’s ultimately so shocking and effective about this brilliant book is the deeply honest, straightforward, and completely unsentimental way she writes of these hardships. For me, this book captures that universal sadness that can permeate a normal life – that creeping, everyday, almost boring bit of darkness that only grows amid the slowly accumulated moments of pain, loneliness, and isolation. For as much as this is a book about being stifled, it’s just as much one about love and the places we find solace, among those places, for Ditlevsen (to our benefit), in books and writing. These three books share such intimate, memorable glimmers of a rich inner life, one that I won’t soon forget.
What is Grimmish? For one, it's a punch to the face -- the kind fiercely dealt by the many boxers who populate its pages -- a reading experience that left me dizzy, disoriented, and in delighted anticipation of what might come next. An experimental "exploded non-fiction" novel that tangles together real historical fact and found text with fantastical fictional flourishes to tell the tale of a little-known figure named Joe Grim -- a man with an almost inhuman ability to absorb physical abuse. The result is a strange, affecting, and at time borderline-hilarious narrative about pain, storytelling, masculinity... and the occasional talking goat. A wonderful and risk-taking little book that really kept me on my toes throughout.
One of the most straightforward and deeply pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had of late – a clear-eyed and thoughtful essayistic look into not just the act of writing, but of creativity, identity, authenticity, and inspiration. There’s just such a thrill to reading a writer speak about the writers they love, and as Cain muses in this “accidental diary” on the many sources of her inspiration, I suddenly saw my TBR pile growing ever larger book by book. The perfect read for when you’re in a contemplative mood, want to gain a little wisdom, or just want to bathe a bit in a love of art and literature. Light a candle, open a window – this introspective little gem of a book is such a simple joy.
What informs the stories we tell about ourselves? How can we truly know a person? These questions reflect and fragment across this brilliant hall-of-mirrors of a novel, in which our narrator sets out to write the biography of her mysterious late wife, a controversial conceptual artist known simply as 'X.' With a structural flair and playfulness that echoes Nabokov and Calvino, Lacey's nesting doll of a novel hopscotches across timelines set in an imaginative alternate US history while exploring themes of art, artificiality, performance, and identity. Daring, ambitious, and endlessly readable -- I loved this book!
What a fantastic novel! An insomnia monologue set within the anxious, wandering mind of an academic over the course of one long restless night. The framing of the story through this internal world of possibilities is creative and a touch experimental, but Riker's warmth and generosity for his central character, Abby, grounds the book in a humane and often playful space so that we never spiral too far from our connection to this woman's concerns. A totally unique reading experience that will leave your mind racing in the best way possible.
Having grown up in the Midwest, I found perhaps too much to recognize in this timeless collection. Here is a treatment of Midwestern life as a series of stunning portraits – of a child found frozen after a snowfall, of a lonely, failed real estate agent fixated on the icicles hanging from the edge of his house. Stories where the stark, vivid prose is perfectly attuned to the landscapes – both physical and emotional – of the region where they are set. Full of bleak and brutal winters and small, simple pleasures. Gass crafts each of these five stories to be completely distinct, while so clearly of a piece, and of a place. His writing, so dense with images and allusions, left me reeling, shivering, and completely in awe.
Neurotic, pompous, elitist, pretentious, and more than a few delusions of grandeur – just a few traits held by our intoxicating narrator, an unnamed art critic who has been summoned to the death-bed of his former friend and now rival critic by means of a relatively short email (only 9 pages). So begins the absurdist tale of friendship and frivolity between these two academic blowhards and brilliant idiots, who share an obsession with the same (fictional) painting, the eponymous Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. Haber’s style owes a clear debt to Thomas Bernhard with its mesmerizing repetition of phrases, a slow spiral that carries us further into the ludicrous and its characters’ shared sense of mania. There is humor, there are hijinks, there’s a holy donkey. What more could you ask for?
I mean, holy shit. This book is so many different things. Yes, for one it is formally audacious – 700+ pages of unbroken, unattributed dialogue, that coalesces into a literal cacophony of voices – a book read like a conversation overheard. And yet it’s chaos feels controlled, and so clearly by design – somehow characters become identifiable, differentiated solely by their characteristics of each’s natural unvarnished speech – all run ons and broken off sentences, ums and ahs. Yes, this book has a reputation for being difficult, but also… it’s kind of just about a kid on a field trip? In seriousness, it’s also about money, and about greed, and about the absurdly comic degree to which our culture remains hell bent on pursuing these aspects of “the American dream” to the nth degree. Fitting that these themes be explored through such a completely engulfing reading experience. Not to lean too heavily into Lit Bro territory with this, bu If you tell me it’s the best book ever written, I won’t say you’re wrong.
A novel set entirely within a single moment, as a young sherpa and older sherpa peer over the cliff face of a Nepalese mountain where a British man has fallen. At least that's the atom of an idea that gets exploded over 100 short chapters that float brilliantly between the minds of both characters and far beyond -- into Nepalese and British history, Shakespeare, and across many of the deepest questions of human nature that are the signature of great literature. A deceptively simple but staggering book.
The most uncanny and indescribable book I read in 2022 (though I'll do my best)! Think 2001: A Space Odyssey refracted through a prism of tedious workplace minutiae. In the far future, a spaceship orbits a planet littered with mysterious objects, and the ship's crew -- humans and humanoids alike, filling every position from janitor to captain -- become increasingly absorbed by these strange artifacts. A story told in a series of witness statements from these "employees" that slowly pieces together a strange and chilling portrait of work, productivity, and human memory. One of those books you can read in one sitting, but you won't ever forget.
You hear the premise of a story set in 1666, when the future father of Calculus travels to meet an astronomer predicting a solar eclipse, and it doesn’t exactly scream “laugh riot.” Then you hear, “oh, and the astronomer has no eyes,” and we’re getting somewhere. Sachs can write the ever-loving hell out of a sentence, and there are several showstoppers here amid his two characters’ discursive, elliptical conversation, full of repetition to the point of becoming ridiculous. Yes, this is a book with big thoughts about the unreliability of history, the torment of knowledge, how we relate to other people, and how we make sense of our place in the world… but I want to stress more than any of that… it is deeply and profoundly silly. I can see a lot of smart people calling this book nonsense, and maybe they wouldn’t be wrong. But what can I say? I never had a mind for science, but I do love a great joke.
A headlong dive into the absurdities, atrocities, and black humor that infest both the court system and contemporary American life. If you're into: (originally self-published!) debut novels that shatter conventions and expectations, indulgent maximalist plays with language, the plot-driven intricacies of a great heist movie, unforgettable narrators surrounded by an equally oddball and tragic supporting cast, philosophy, crime, digressions inside of digressions, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, painfully earnest boxing metaphors, the conversational style of a midnight college dorm room bullshit session, The Honeymooners, and, uh... sword fights... please read this book! Singular, messy, ambitious, and just fun as hell.
A young woman lies feverish in a hospital bed, with no idea how she arrived there. What follows is one of the most propulsive books I’ve ever read – one where I felt almost shoved from page to page, left to ricochet around its nonlinear narrative. This may not be a traditional horror story, but its tone instills a creeping sense of dread, like a poison slowly seeping into its characters’ minds with each passing moment. Urgent and ominous, it’s maybe the ultimate example of a book that “does what it says on the tin” – condense this card down to just the novel’s two word title, and you’ll know the type of head trip for which you’re in store.
For how many recent books have tried (and largely failed) to model themselves as being "about the internet," it tracks that it would take the writer who once tweeted @ParisReview "so is Paris any good or not" to translate the feeling of being "extremely online" into great literature. A book of two very distinct parts: the first half depicts the emotional whiplash of being internet-poisoned, written as an essayistic torrent of irreverent stream-of-consciousness observations, some deeply poignant, others surprisingly hilarious. But for all its wry absurdity, this book resonated with me on a deeper level due to its contrasting second half, when our unnamed narrator is confronted by a situation more human and bracing than those she scrolls through constantly on her phone. For a book so deeply embedded in the bizarre, that it should also capture such beauty and resonance makes it something truly special.
Look, it's trite to say a book with this title "blew me away," but this is the rare contemporary novel that immediately reads like a lot literary classic, one so fully and ferociously realized that it earns its lofty comparisons to the likes of Faulkner and Bolano. Within pages, Melchor's masterful and mesmerizing prose enwraps you in this nightmarish world -- a poverty and superstition-plagued Mexican village where a 'witch' has just been brutally murdered. The discovery of this gruesome death serves as the eye of the storm from which the book spirals outward, with each successive chapter spoken in the voice of another member of this town. Melchor's urgent voice gives the entire book a sustained power and intensity, and avoids any suggestion of "misery tourism" amid the story's unrelenting and graphic depictions of violence and depravity. Grim, disturbing, but shot through with an undeniable beauty.
A deconstructed spy novel like truly only Javier Marias could write. Our hero, a Spanish academic adrift in London, takes a meeting with an old friend that finds him recruited into a shadowy wing of British Intelligence. Through absolutely exquisite prose, we fully inhabit the headspace of our hero and his meticulous observation of the people around him – every moment lightly shrouded in an unsettling atmosphere of espionage and mystery. It’s an engaging high-wire act to keep up for 400 pages with nothing even remotely resembling an action sequence in sight, but once I tapped into its unique rhythm, I was completely captivated. There are days I’d call Marias my favorite novelist, and this book may be the best summation of his preoccupations – mysterious pasts, duplicity, Franco era Spain, Britishness, a bit of middle aged horniness, rainstorms, and of course extended meditations on the human condition. If you’ve never read his work, I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Not like anything I've ever read -- just a completely idiosyncratic little novel that really packs a punch. For one, a book about superheroes for those with no interest in superheroes. But also so much more than that. Lim uses a chaotic structure/style that intentionally mirrors the way information is disseminated in our modern age -- shifting between quick bursts of pulpy action and long philosophical monologues. It's very much a novel of ideas -- ideas about immigrant boyhood, protest, capitalism, and art. Yes, it can be heady, but it's also very much a book that wears its heart and politics on its sleeve. I finished slightly dizzy and disoriented but completely impressed by how sharp, smart, and completely singular the telling of this story proved to be.
It's a uniquely magic experience to read a debut and discover a truly original writer -- Emezi's novel, narrated by a chorus of the fractured main characters' selves, challenged conceptions I've held, whether about health, identity, or even just what a novel can be. It's a stunning book, one of those that unscrews your mind and empties it out. While it's by no means the most neat or tidy narrative, the experience of peeling back each layer to this fascinating character(s) and world is one I won't soon forget.
As the title implies, a story with its fair share of death and darkness -- but one that in its reading remains an utter delight. We enter this world through the worn eyes of an unforgettable, perhaps unreliable narrator -- an eccentric middle-aged woman in rural Poland who finds herself in the middle of something of a murder mystery. Considerably "lighter" than Tokarczuk's other novels, this book is not without its reflective and philosophical insights. But here those serve as grace notes to what becomes a pacy literary crime story, led by the aforementioned eccentric -- she with her astrology, her William Blake, and her odd perspective on the events that transpire. For those looking for an offbeat, twisty almost-thriller with subtle humor and a beautifully stripped-down style, not to mention a surprising but completely earned final moment.
This collection would serve as a perfect entry point for anyone unfamiliar with Ottessa Moshfegh, for my money one of the most interesting and audacious writers to come along in the past ten years. Pitched between grim realism and dark (DARK) humor, these stories focus on a cast of seemingly irredeemable characters who are undoubtedly "Moshfeghian" -- isolated, lonely, at times perverted and grotesque. As we enter each of their warped and alien perspectives of the world, it's fascinating to find how much humor and psychological depth are wrung out of the banishing of sentimentality in favor of the strange. For those with a strong stomach and a taste for the slightly bizarre.
Amid the desert haze of Arizona, an assortment of motherless girls deal with grief and the afterlife. Yes, this is a book with space for ghosts, and even more for the horrors of being alive. The plot here is really secondary to the startling observation of detail and dazzling language. Devastating, hilarious, strange, perfect – it’s another piece of evidence that Joy Williams is really just having more fun than most anyone else. A completely absorbing book that so capably captures the absurdity, banality, and wonder of life. We’re all doomed, but at least we have books like this one.
A pediatric nurse punches in for a string of night shifts, all while flickering across the boundary between sleep and wake. This brilliant little novel is just as quiet and foreboding as those shadow-laced hospital hallways, gentle and assured in capturing a growing sense of claustrophobia. Dark, lyrical, and dreamlike, this book fully transported me into that liminal space navigated by the exhausted caregiver at its center, who, for short intervals of time, is utterly consumed by what she's doing (and what she's doing for others). It's a strange and hypnotic tale of isolation & burnout, for those who like their novels finely balanced between quiet grace and utter devastation.