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I knew I had to read this book when Bill Moyers described it as “the boldest, bravest and most bracing book about politics that I have read this year.” Fountain is an award-winning novelist and a creative writing professor with a law degree and a love of politics and history. This is a smart, stimulating analysis of the 2016 presidential campaign, but also of the current state of social and economic justice. It's far from being just a rehash of the 2016 election or just another Trump-bashing book; in fact, no one escapes unscathed. Fountain gets to the heart of why Trump, why now, where we went wrong, and what might save us. One conclusion he draws is this: “Smart white men acting stupid will be the death of America.” No book has ever satisfied so completely my interest in politics, my elation over a great metaphor (he describes Cruz as a man who “gargles twice a day with a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and holy-roller snake oil”) and my love of literature (the book is generously peppered with pertinent literary quotes; the most prophetic belong to James Baldwin). I’ve read many very fine books during 2018, but this one stands alone at the top of my list. It is an important and edifyingly profound read.
Eisenberg’s 5th collection of stories is further resounding proof that she is the ultimate master of the short story. She artfully and unexpectedly fuses the mundane and the visionary, despair and hope, the private (faces are "closed") and the social ("your duck is my duck"), the historical and the political, the emotional and the intellectual, the young and the aged, into stories that have the soul, heart, and force of the best of novels. Her characters are quirky, funny, wise, sensitive, anxious, self-aware, but also endearingly confused by life’s trivialities (“I began to unpack, but there was the issue of putting things wherever, so I decided I would leave all that until morning.”). Though the stories speak to and of our deeply troubled time, just knowing that there exists this incredible person who can work magic with words left me inspired and hopeful for the future. Here’s a bit of that magic: “In our small city, when darkness and cold go on and on and most things smell and taste like lint, I groan with longing.”
It strikes me as critical in these fraught times that we move out of our comfort zone and try to better understand those from different backgrounds, countries, or of different races. To that end, I encourage you to spend a few hours of your life with the characters in this masterful debut. Through the uncompromising force of the writing that delivers one emotional punch after another, these inter-connected stories will thoroughly immerse you in the lives of 4 young black friends living in postindustrial Pawtucket, RI, as they struggle with the transition to adulthood. For them the standard issues of sex, class, and career choice, are complicated by racism, and the ghosts of their family legacies that haunt them and raise barriers to achieving their hopes and dreams. Holmes demonstrates the power of fiction to transport one to a different world, a world that could exist just around the corner or even next door—a world we need to understand. I'd be surprised if this isn't one of the best books I read this year.
I am so grateful for this beautiful, heart-breaking, truthful novel. In chapters alternating between Chicago in the late 1980s and present-day Paris, Makkai tells the story of those whose lives were irreversibly affected by the early days of the AIDS epidemic. I felt as though my brother’s story, for one, was being vividly brought to life; he lived in this Chicago neighborhood, frequented the same restaurants, gay bars, movie theaters, and in the end, died in the same AIDS ward as do some of the characters. I didn’t expect, however, to find elements of my story in the present-day chapters. This book gave me a new awareness of the degree to which my brother’s fate has impacted my life—the subtle ways a traumatic experience can scar one for life, so that one is always living in its aftermath, and unavoidably shortchanging the present. The very best of novels are imaginative and immersive, but also inspire just such self-examination. And the piece de resistance is that rare perfect ending.
This short story collection is nearly 30 years old, but its artistry and appeal are timeless. The descriptions are succinct and rich with poetic detail (“His voice was slow with prairie, thick with Great Lakes.”). And Moore can be wry and funny as all get-out (“Illinois,” says one character, “it makes me sarcastic just to be here.”). She is a writer with an uncanny talent for capturing the universal thread that unites us no matter how different our personalities or circumstances are as readers, from the characters whose stories we read. I experienced a spark of recognition in all eight stories that connected me with the characters, even if it was just one line that stopped me in my tracks. These stories are truly like life, snapshots of lives brought to us by one of the best short story writers around.
This luminous debut novel takes us inside the complex lives and loves of the owners and employees of an established Chinese restaurant in suburban DC. It is rich with detail, humor (“Vegetarian? Isn’t life hard enough?”), and, most importantly, wisdom about human nature—how we can spend a lifetime trying to “crawl out from under the shadow of our family;” how our entangled relationships can sap our energy and bring equal parts joy and misery to our lives. It is about appearances vs. reality—how impossible it is to truly know someone. It is about how those who seem to have “the instruction manual to life” often don’t have a clue. This enthralling, imperfect cast of characters could stun me with their capacity for cruelty to each other, but then could melt away my harsh judgments as they attempt to turn their lives around and forgive. Lillian’s talent for storytelling, her wisdom, and her imagination captivated me from the first rich, bustling restaurant scene to the last somber, reflective page. Brava, Lillian!
This is classic Brookner—intense, funny, elegant and intelligent, at the center of which is Frances, a middle-aged Londoner who still lives in the apartment she inherited from her parents; she has a good job, a few friends who she keeps at a comfortable distance, no love life, and a nagging fear that she may never have more. She is a self-professed observer of life, a skill which she uses to become a successful short story writer, often writing about the more dynamic, decisive, participants of life around her. Her writing becomes her saving grace, but is also what isolates her. Brookner’s novels remind us to pay attention not just to those who seem to effortlessly command attention, but to acknowledge that everyone has a story to tell; they may be stories of loneliness, but not necessarily of sadness. I found myself wondering whether Frances’s oft unspoken admonition to “look at me” was a plea, or a dare, or both. Brookner has the rare talent for daring the reader to pity her characters, while enticing us to accept them, to admire them even, for all of their hopes and disapointments, for simply who they are.
With this, his third novel, Miller completes a literary hat trick. He’s one of my favorite contemporary writers, consistently creating novels that are at once entertaining and provocative. Here, Sigrid, the Norwegian detective who worked the case in Miller’s first book, Norwegian by Night (you don’t need to read it first, but read it you should), travels to the U.S. to locate her missing brother. The book is graced with witty, intelligent characters who seem to live and breathe on the pages (such as the New York sheriff who is also a graduate of a Jesuit divinity school), with humorous and insightful observations about contemporary life (here, drawing contrasts between American and Norwegian life), and a plot line that tackles the issue of race (here, through fatal shootings in both in Norway and in upstate New York of non-Caucasians, by white cops). In the end, my love for this book is about sentences such as this: “The heart is one of the few places where facts and truth may be separable.”
This is the absorbing and beautifully written tale of the marriage of two artists who struggle to find a place where they both belong, struggle to satisfy their creative urges, to accept compromise, to hold on to what initially drew each one to the other, to find ways to fill those “little pockets of emptiness.” It’s also the tale of how easy it is to compromise ones integrity, to make decisions that can upend ones life and expose the depths of a “selfish and imperfect heart.” Appanah exhibits a rare understanding of the capriciousness and complexity of human nature through her exploration of that elusive balance between longing always for more, or for something different, without letting hopes and dreams sabotage what one already has. As promise turns into disappointment, is it the best we can do at the end of each day to want all “thoughts, wishes, and regrets to close up for the night like water lilies” and to wait for tomorrow and repeat, ad infinitum? Sad and truthful, this book will haunt and enrich many of my tomorrows.
This passage captures the essence of this novel — love, loss, regret, and the power of memories to haunt, but also enrich a life:
“...we’ll speak about two young men who found much happiness for a few weeks and lived the remainder of their lives dipping cotton swabs into that bowl of happiness, fearing they’d use it up, without daring to drink more than a thimbleful on ritual anniversaries. But the thing that almost never was, still beckons. They can never undo it, never unwrite it, never unlive it, or relive it—it’s just stuck there like a vision of fireflies on a summer field toward evening that keeps saying, ‘you could have had this instead…’ ”
Aciman’s words will break your heart, entice you to examine your life and face whatever powerful regrets you may have. Sad, to be sure, but I also found satisfaction, and oddly, joy, in the power of words to move me and reduce me to a puddle of tears. Immersing myself in this dazzling novel was richly rewarding and good for my jaded soul.
After surviving the hideous year that was 2017, I turned to this book because I just wanted to laugh. And laugh I did over the many dry, self-deprecating humorous musings as Hodgman confronts grown-up issues like the discovery that the giant white metal Tylenol sculpture in his vacation home yard is actually a propane tank which doesn’t fill itself; you must call the “gas daddy” for that. I should have known from his work on the Daily Show that the book would be more than just funny. It turns out that what I needed and really wanted was a book that would also inspire reflection on human nature and the sad state of our country, and this book delivered. There are many moments of guilt-ridden self-discovery. Is his whole life being spent in vacationland? After all, what is he but a privileged white male who is fortunate to have enough money to at least buy “the conditions for happiness”? With his penchant for droll self-reflective humor and insight and for spot-on social observations, Hodgman has grown even further in my estimation with this book.
In this wholly enchanting first novel by Polish poet, Wioletta Greg, life in a politically tumultuous and menacing 1980’s rural Poland is seen through the eyes of the precocious Wiola in chapters progressing from her very earliest memory fragments through to those of her teenage years. The sheer beauty, freshness, and power of Greg’s 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. With a mesmerizing and sensuous poetic touch, Greg consistently uses the most unexpected of details to suggest a time, a place, a feeling, a mood: “I lay down beside her and watched the sky spin candyfloss out of the clouds.” This dazzling novel is a spell-binding testimony to the belief that the child in us is universal, ever-present, and can be stirred to life by a consummate writer. It is a rare sparkling gem of a book.
This is must-reading for those who care about baseball; it will help you see why you’re right that baseball matters, all the while knowing that it kind of doesn’t. Philosophy professor Kingwell softens his philosophical, literary and historical examination of the game with a most engaging personal narrative. He views baseball as theatre (a game of stillness, with sudden explosive action), as poetry (what is it but “a quest to leave home and return home safely, against all odds”), and as a pasttime rife with failure (errors, missed opportunities galore, batters failing to get hits far more often than they succeed). He makes the case that if we learn best from failure, baseball as “a game which embraces failure as its beating heart, offers significance beyond its apparent pointlessness.” Most games are not memorable, but that’s what makes those rare games, those “games for the ages” so exhilarating, just as in life, our failures make our successes sweeter. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” A lesson for baseball and for life.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.