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In times of struggle, it's easy to imagine running away, but how many of us would actually do it? To leave a certain pain behind but in doing so face the unknown? Tessa Fontaine's remarkable memoir follows her time with a traveling sideshow, grappling with her mother's illness and the light that it casts on their relationship and Tessa's sense of her own story. While working with very tangible fears (snakes! swallowing fire!), it becomes clear that Tessa's story isn't about running away at all, but rather the transformative power of confronting fear itself, how the unknown brings us back to a new understanding of ourselves. The Electric Woman is filled with the excitement and danger of carnival life, but at the heart of the memoir is the wisdom that we can never leave ourselves behind, that being truly alive means carrying pain with us out to take on the world, even when it scares us.
I read this novel for the first time in my freshman lit seminar in college. While discussing a pivotal scene of violence, another student slammed both the book and his mind shut, refusing to keep reading because he disagreed with a choice that a character made, calling the book unrealistic because he could never picture himself doing what she did. My professor asked us to look at our own lives, at the ways in which we were protected from ever having to make such a choice, to consider that other lives force choices that may seem unimaginable to us. For the first time I saw the potential for reading to cultivate empathy, how it can be used as a tool to break open our narrow perspectives and show us other facets of the human experience. Morrison’s writing is stunningly visceral, and I revisit this novel when I need a reminder of what incredible writing is and of what it can do. I hope that someday that student finished the book.
Lovingly placed in my hands at just the right moment by a brilliant friend, this is the collection that made me fall in love with the essay. There is no simple way to describe the breadth of this book except to say that Paterniti approaches each of his subjects with such an incredible sense of empathy and genuine curiosity that I could feel his perspective on the world influencing mine. Heartbreaking and hopeful and in awe of the complexity of human stories, I find these essays surfacing in my thoughts often, a sure sign that this one left a mark. -k
It is no exaggeration to say that this book saved me during a very difficult time, infusing my life with a revelatory new perspective and a deep sense of empathy, for others but most radically, for myself. My go-to prescription for heartbreak, grief, and Big Feelings of all kinds, Tiny Beautiful Things explores the vast experience of human pain but ultimately holds a light to its dual nature: the power of hope and human connection. -k
I have deep envy for readers who get to experience the surrealism of Haruki Murakami for the first time, and he’s one of my favorite authors to recommend. The best thing that I can say about Murakami’s writing is that it is imbued with its own specific mood, one where a character eats an average dinner and then carries on a conversation with a cat with no change in tone. But Murakami’s writing isn’t just strange for its own sake, but rather uses the dreamspace to delve into the lives of his characters with a unique emotional intelligence. Kafka is a puzzle of interlocking narratives and strange occurrences, and is an excellent entry point into the worlds of both Murakami and magical realism.
My mom recommended this book to me by telling me that she loved reading it to her second-graders, that its many layers resonated with different kids in different ways, but that mostly the kids loved it because reading it aloud always made their teacher cry. And there’s something comforting to me about the idea that several cohorts of elementary school kids learned firsthand that while books are indeed made of plots and characters and ideas, ultimately their power lies in how they move us. There are many books written for children that get at the heart of life better than most books written for “adults;” this is one of those. Recommended for readers of all ages, particularly those who’ve felt a bit of sorrow and know that the purpose of heartbreak is to open the heart up to love.
“in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.”
This is my favorite underrated classic. Anderson is often named as an influence on Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck among others, and is considered the first to link short stories into a larger, novel-like narrative. Winesburg, Ohio tells the stories of the residents of a small town, with each chapter settling into a different perspective. The brilliance of this book lies in its tenderness, in how it highlights the loneliness of being human while also fostering empathy for the many stories and trutthat exist in the human experience.
I read this novel many books ago and it’s still the one that comes to mind when someone asks about the last book that I read that really blew my mind. I rarely use the words weird and lovely together, but this symphonic meditation on the ways that we live and love and must learn to let go glows bright in my heart and just might be the weirdest and loveliest book that I’ve ever read.
Neil Gaiman is one of my very favorite authors. I recommend all of his novels, his short stories, and the Sandman series, and also his essays on storytelling and the importance of libraries and books and Ray Bradbury, and also his writings about literacy and about working with Syrian refugees and about art and about how to love. I recommend his work because he writes with a deep respect for stories, and always with an eye for the magic in the world. Gaiman is incredibly prolific and there are many places to start with his work, but I found him through this small story about a boy raised by ghosts.
In my memory I can still feel the cover of my childhood copy of this book, a texture that registered as soft and rather peachlike to my small fingers as I curled up with my mom to read our nightly chapter. My love for otherwordly, imaginative fiction certainly began here - a lonely boy drops a bag of magic crystals, a peculiar and very peachy adventure ensues. Dahl is great fun, and while I know for a fact that my mom and I shared many books before this one, it’s James and the Giant Peach that comes to mind when I think of how she taught me to be a Reader.
Enter the singular world of Karin Tidbeck, where people fall in love with airship prototypes, phone operators connect calls from demonic beings, and something weird lurks around every corner. Translated from the Swedish by Tidbeck herself, this collection is so delightfully bizarre and written in language to deceptively simple that its many moments of loveliness will take you by surprise. For fans of Swedish weird fiction and, more importantly, those who don't yet know that they love Swedish weird fiction.
Told through a series of near-death experiences, I Am, I Am, I Am breaks from a chronological narrative to mimic memory itself, each chapter rising to the surface before becoming sensory and deeply visceral. While the subtitle suggests a preoccupation with death, O'Farrell's title & epigraph (a line from The Bell Jar) reveal the memoir's true heart: an unconventional and revelatory delve into what it means to be alive. As O'Farrell revisits each of the times when her life nearly ended but didn't, I was left considering all of the other everyday moments in between, and how thinking of life in such impermanent terms changes their hue. Yet, written as guidance to a daughter living with a life-threatening illness, O'Farrell's memoir isn't only asking us to appreciate life, but also to see that life will hurt, for all of us. Nevertheless, being truly alive means taking big, gulping breaths of it anyway.
This is a memoir about getting sober, and a good one at that - rehab, the shock of seeing life in a new light, the often mundane changes required of a big shift, all told with the offbeat humor characteristic of Augusten Burroughs. By Dry is also one of my favorite love stories, a chronicle of the messiness of emotions, of taking ownership over one's personal STUFF and the ways in which it gets in the way of relationships. I first read this book over ten years ago, and it remains one of the best testaments to learning to show up for those whom we love, a bloody endeavor but ultimately why we're here. -Kelsey
Leni Zumas' writing hums with an energy that I can't quite put my finger on except to say that I didn't want to put this book down. One could begin to talk about this novel through its premise: abortion has been made illegal, personhood is now declared at conception, in vitro fertilization is also illegal as a result. But it feels truer to start talking about this novel with its characters, to say that Red Clocks is about four women leading their lives in a small town, much the same way that I am leading a life in a small town. Their lives are vastly different from each other's, but what they share is that they are all in one way or another trapped by their circumstances, longing for freedom under a system defined by the absence of choice. I loved these characters, felt their heartbreak and their frustrations and desires in such a deep way. Brilliant and nuanced, Red Clocks is a fiercely feminist exploration of the multitude of ways in which women seek meaningful lives under the limits of a patriarchal system that is dangerously close to our own.
Carmen Maria Machado's stories are like nothing I've ever read (although I can say that they put me in an Angela Carter & Kelly Link sort of MOOD, the best sort of mood). These stories are otherwordly and genre-bending, absolutely, but also sexy and visceral and pointed. They don't just let the darkness lurk in the corners, they pull it into the light, see how it feels in the body, open it up to reveal both the violence and tenderness inside. This is a brilliantly crafted collection and will be deeply satisfying for readers interested in the subconscious horrors that are present with us always.
I have a growing list of women whose writing makes me feel vulnerable and introspective and purposeful in the best way, and I was so happy to find Megan Stielstra to add to it. This is a collection of threaded essays exploring family and politics and relationships and work and community and the power of writing, difficult to pin down in its breadth and deeply thoughtful as a whole. Stielstra writes of being a person in the world with such an incredible sense of empathy that, wanting to spend more time with her, I was sorry to see this book end.
I was completely caught off guard by how incredibly gorgeous this novel is. The characters in Good Morning, Midnight could not be facing bleaker circumstances, but Lily Brooks-Dalton tells their stories so masterfully and with so much heart and heartbreak that I found myself thinking about them long after I finished reading. This novel transcends its own story and becomes a beautiful meditation on what life means, in the face of the end of everything, and how the ways in which we show up for ourselves and others might be the point of it all.
To say that I was moved by Sherman Alexie's memoir is a terrible understatement; in fact, there is a pulse in this book that has worked its way into my being and irrevocably changed how I think about my own life. Alexie's kaleidoscopic approach to storytelling is so representative of the feeling of being human, with childhood memory, relationships, love, trauma, and art all moving in and out of focus at once. At the center of You Don't Have to Say You Love Me is a deep grieving, for Alexie's mother, for the ways in which parental love is imperfect, for unthinkable personal and cultural traumas. But Alexie's brilliance is in holding multiple truths, that one can experience simultaneously both trauma and hope, grief and humor, violence and love. I, like Alexie, "tend to fall in love with the unnamable," that nebulous complexity at the heart of the human experience that can only be understood by holding on to all of the pieces of your life at once, a practice both beautiful and terrifying. Alexie achieves this exquisitely, and You Don't Have to Say You Love Me is an unforgettable work.
Borne introduces us to Rachel, a scavenger, and Wick, her partner-in-survival and a biotech engineer. Rachel and Wick scrape together a life in a ruined city suffering under the tyranny of a giant bear, a Magician hungry for power, and the shadow of the collapsed Company and its failed biotech experiments. But Rachel changes everything when she brings home Borne. Found on a scavenging trip, Borne is maybe a plant, maybe an animal, but is definitely one of the more interesting characters that I've ever met. As Borne grows, Rachel and Wick are forced to ask deeper questions - of each other, of their world, of power and love and agency and of their own sense of identity. I was struck by the vulnerability carried by these characters against such a bleak world. At its heart, this novel grapples with what, to me, are the most meaningful questions to be explored in fiction: What makes us human? And how do we keep hold of this humanity in a world that tries to take it from us? This book is going to stick with me for a long time.
Where humanity has driven itself to the brink of extinction, Lidia Yuknavitch finds amid the rubble an urgent yearning for hope. Brutality and love, creation and destruction, desolation and the richness of art all move through this novel with a forceful energy, translating the transcendent power of the human experience into something to be felt on a visceral level. Or, as whispered by one of our narrators, "Bodies are miniature renditions of the entire universe...This is what we have always been." The Book of Joan is an unforgettable work ofspeculative fiction.
In The Wanderers, Meg Howrey brilliantly weaves together the vastness of outer space with the intimacy of human nature. Howrey’s characters are artfully drawn—full of strengths and failings, and each yearning for something in their relationships with others. The Mars simulation at the center of the novel represents an exciting new frontier for human beings, but Howrey's astronauts demonstrate that even those driving the larger quest for human greatness are beautifully flawed individuals leading complicated lives. This is a wonderfully introspective novel on the meaning of space exploration and what we learn about ourselves in facing the unknown.
Claire Fuller's storytelling is masterful. I loved Our Endless Numbered Days for how I felt as a reader, that information was being revealed to me so artfully that I immediately wanted to reread the novel to better keep an eye on how it was done. While very different in plot and character, Swimming Lessons is so recognizable as Fuller's work; the story is not driven by the passing of time, but rather by the careful unraveling of insights for the reader. This novel is a beautifully-written literary mystery that dives deep into the complex inner-workings of a family. Memory and the past set the tone of the novel, but I was most affected by the messy yet profound love between the characters.
This book begins with the tale of the Frost demon, told on a cold winter evening by the grandmotherly Dunya. Nothing could better set the tone for this novel, as reading it feels much like settling in for a folktale around a warm fire in the dead of winter. Arden's storytelling is enchanting, full of an old, wild kind of magic raging in the Russian wilderness. Vasya is a fierce protagonist with powerful gifts, and I reveled in seeing her learn to trust herself against the ancient spirits that threaten everything that she holds dear. This is a highly original take on the fairy tale told in a beautiful voice.
This is a fascinating look at how American history can be read through our ghostlore! I came for the spookiness - and there are some great ghosts in here - but Dickey's focus is more on how ghost stories function in our culture. I love how this book is organized (by theme and region), so that a particular story is brought back into context. From this perspective, it seems that the stories we tell ourselves about the dead may say a lot more about us than about historical facts. Bonus points for featuring my favorite spooky place, The Ridges, in Chapter Ten: The Stain.
I adored this book. Willis has much to say about our hyper-connected culture, and her take on telepathy brilliantly comments on the complex ways that social technology affects our relationships. But I couldn't put this book down because Crosstalk is just so much fun - Willis is a master of whip-smart dialogue, and Briddy and her eccentric family made me laugh. It took me by surprise how deeply I came to care for these characters, and I quickly found myself invested in the quirky and heartfelt relationships that develop throughout the novel.
Imaginative and articulate, this collection envisions fascinating technologies and the cultures shaped by them. But what makes these stories remarkable is how they are grounded in a sense of the everyday; each story grows out of the question of what it would really feel like to live in its world. And as in the best speculative fiction, Weinstein's stories are driven by a longing for deeper answers: What defines us as human? I'm haunted by many of these characters and their search for human connection in worlds where technology appears to supersede it, but I'm comforted by the implication that human connection will still be essential. This is an astonishing debut.
This dark fairy tale exists in the space between dreaming and waking, that impossible-to-pin-down feeling of both confusion and deep knowing. Pearl is a fascinatingly unreliable protagonist, and her experiences in the liminal space of a nightmarish island explore childhood and motherhood in a way that seeps into the bones. -ko
This is one of the most unique novels that I've read in a while, and I could not put it down. Jemisin's use of the apocalyptic setting to explore oppression is brilliant. Her world-building is masterful, but most importantly for me as a reader, I came to care deeply for her characters and their places in the world of the novel. Jemisin has said that this was a difficult novel to write given its exploration of racial injustice, but I'm so glad that she stayed with it -- Jemisin has made an important contribution to the world of SFF. **WINNER OF THE 2016 HUGO AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL**
This is an extraordinary work of narrative nonfiction. Covering over 80 years of history, Dittrich explores the often dark evolution of neuroscience as it led up to the "birth" of Patient H.M. and the resulting memory research that occurred over the course of his life. But what makes this book remarkable is Dittrich's approach; it is less a straight biography and more a kaleidoscopic investigation for which the reader has been invited along. The role H.M. plays in the history of brain science is fascinating alone, but the dark undercurrent of Dittrich's intertwining family narrative makes this book especially riveting.
"And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly. Does the thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human? We live for such miracles."
This is one of the best short story collections that I have ever read. Every story is meaningful, and Liu uses science fiction and fantasy elements in such thought-provoking ways. I believe that science fiction has some of the highest potential for critical themes of any literary genre, and this collection is my new favorite evidence for this. For short story lovers, sci fi readers, and anyone who loves thought-provoking fiction. -k
I've been on the hunt for some great new fantasy, and this book was everything that I needed. Parallel Londons exist within the world of this novel, each with its own complicated relationship with magic. Kell is one of the last magicians able to travel between the Londons and has a dangerous interest in smuggling magical objects. Delilah is a young woman surviving as a criminal in Grey London who gets drawn into Kell's quest to repair that damage he has caused. But don't call her a sidekick - she has motivations of her own. I loved the characters in this smart fantasy, and I can't wait to read A Gathering of Shadows. -K
I've been eagerly awaiting Brian Selznick's next book for four years, and The Marvels does not disappoint! Once again, Selznick uses his unique style of mixing text and images to tell his story. The images chronicle the family history of the Marvels over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, a legacy filled with adventure and the force of fate. The text follows the story of Joseph, a schoolboy living in 1990s England who runs away to find a mysterious relative. I loved unraveling how these two stories are connected across time. This beautiful book is a great read for those familiar with Selznick's work and new readers alike. -k
Once on a school field trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art, I saw an eery photograph of a young girl that I couldn't get out of my head. Without the title or the name of the photographer, it took another chance encounter years later for me to discover that it was Sally Mann. I can't think of a better way to describe Mann's work than to say that each of her images is powerful enough to haunt you for years. In Hold Still, Mann begins with the idea of a "meuse": the nest-like imprint created when an animal beds down in long grass. With dramatic family history, a deep connection with her Southern heritage, and, of course, photographs, Mann explores the imprint that has both influenced and been created around her life as an artist and human. Reading this memoir is like listening to a wild relative recount all of the stories of her amazing life, only that relative also happens to be one of America's most renowned (and controversial!) photographers. I loved every page of it. - K
What I loved about this memoir is how Macdonald builds her story through several moving parts: a close reading of T.H. White's The Goshawk, childhood memories of her father and her love of White's book, and how these two converge to shape the present as she grieves her father and trains her own goshawk, Mabel. A poet, historian, and passionate falconer, Macdonald writes of her experience in such a satisfying way - I could relate to both her grief and her yearning to understand the meaning behind her own story. -K
All I can say about this novel is that it is pure emotion on paper. On the surface, A Little Life follows the lives of four close college friends as they grow into adulthood. It is impossible to reduce this novel to a plotline, though - the experience of the novel takes precedence over the story itself. For me, this book is about the power of the past and of human relationships, and is ultimately an exploration of the deep struggle of being a human being. Equal parts beautiful and heartwrenching, this is one of the most extraordinary books that I have ever read. -K
It's rare to read a novel that makes me feel like the author is literally inventing a new way to tell a story. Brian Selznick doesn't just pair illustrations with text, but rather seamlessly moves between text and illustration, using pictures to tell entire sections of the story. The Invention of Hugo Cabret follows an orphan boy living in a train station in Paris, alternating between words and images. Selznick's Wonderstruck tells the story of Ben and Rose, two characters living 50 years apart whose lives intersect in amazing ways. Ben's story is told through text, while Rose's storyline is entirely illustrated. These are beautiful books that push the boundaries of storytelling! -K
Gaiman's collections of shorter works are such a treat for me because I get to see what he fills his time with outside of his more well-known projects. Gaiman is present in many spheres, and this collection is certainly representative of that. Trigger Warning contains a few of Gaiman's many side projects - a Sherlock Holmes tale, a Doctor Who story, a series inspired by a Twitter poll, and an ode to Ray Bradbury all number among my new favorite works of his. A must-read for Gaiman fans! -K
This novel is Gaiman at his most distilled - a fantastical and at times terrifying world exists alongside our own, and storytelling and myth prove to be the most powerful tools against everything that threatens Ocean's young narrator. Ocean taps into the deep emotional space of memory and myth and is ultimately a beautiful, edgy fairy tale about being a human being. Also, I dare you to not fall in love with the Hempstock women! -K
Originally published as a weekly series in the San Francisco Chronicle, All Over Coffee pairs beautifully drawn cityscapes with poetic musings delivered at the pace of a comic strip. Madonna's words read like overheard conversations somehow meant for the listener, seemingly mundane but also perfectly timed and deeply meaningful. Coupled with Madonna's unique drawings, All Over Coffee's panels feel like a series of beautifully composed moments that, as a collection, somehow convey the deep hum of an urban environment as people go about their lives alongside one another. -K