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I am not exaggerating when I say that towards the end of this book, I BURST into tears. I cannot stress how much I loved these characters and how deeply I cared about their lives, and this is what broke and mended my heart over and over again. A novelist, Ruth, with writer’s block happens upon a Japanese teenager’s diary washed up on shore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Ruth is quickly embroiled in Nao’s life, which is beset by terrifying bullies, a suicidal father, a Buddhist monk great-grandmother, and a kamikaze pilot grandfather, and soon the entire community living on Ruth's isolated island is working to find out more about this mysterious girl. This book will transport you, and it will also bring you back home.
I started this book in bed, thinking I would read for an hour at the most. Fast forward to 2 AM, when I turned the last page and conceded my mistake. My heart pounding from the 300-page journey, I lay awake for another hour, thinking about the tragic passions of the three anthropologists whom I still can’t get out of my mind: Nell, Len, and Bankson. Each led to anthropology by the desire to untangle their own personal, and often dark, questions about human nature, these young, brilliant (social) scientists quickly go from studying the tribes of New Guinea to each other. This book will thunder through you, and then leave your body buzzing. Best not to read before bed.
This might not be news to anyone (the book was a huge hit in 1963), but The Group is one of the most incisive and compassionate novels I’ve read in a long time. The “group” in question is made up of six Vassar girlfriends, fresh from college, whom we follow through all the great milestones—unrequited love, marriage, childbirth, adultery, divorce, and finally death. McCarthy is such a funny writer, and yet she also has a great amount of sympathy and affection for the same characters she’s poking fun at. My absolutely favorite thing, though, is how by the end of the novel, all these unique, contradictory, and sometimes just-plain-wrong perspectives make up a perfect picture of a time, a place, and a friendship.
I read this book with my dad, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and has a PhD in physics. I am a spoiled millennial who has an MFA in fiction. We both loved this book. Because it is EPIC! I don’t know any other novel that can teach me the three-body problem in physics and make me want to learn more about it. From the dramatic first scene to the stirring last line, this book got both my heart and my brain to pump faster. There’s a reason Cixin Liu is the best-selling science-fiction author in China in decades. And...it's part of a trilogy!
Don’t let this premise fool you—under the wrong hand, a novel about a Brooklyn writer who's bad at relationships would be absolutely insufferable. But Waldman, like Austen and Eliot before her, has managed to pull off a simultaneously scathing and sympathetic portrayal of Nathaniel P, a nice, smart thirty-something guy who has bungled more relationships with nice, smart women than anyone, including himself, can comprehend. You will laugh and you will seethe, but even when you are seething, you will not be able to help but laugh, just a little. If you have ever dated a “Nathaniel P,” befriended one, warned your friends from one (only to commiserate with them when no warning was enough), or been one yourself, read this book.
As a reader of many celebrity memoirs, I’ve had my fair share of heavy-handed, two-dimensional tell-alls, and I can assure you that Kendrick’s is the perfect antidote to those braggadocios tomes. Hilarious, self-deprecating, and honest, these essays reveal all the layers and under-layers to fame, child stardom, “difficult” actresses, moving to LA, and more. Kendrick holds nothing back and her openness is refreshing without being cringe-worthy—she’s not shameless, but she is unashamed (of sex, of her lack of fashion sense, of the perks of being in Twilight). Pick this up if you’re looking to be entertained by a no-nonsense, wise-cracking, clear-eyed woman of tremendous talents.
This book really needs no extra help getting into people’s hands, but I can’t stop myself from reviewing it anyways. Me Before You is one of those rare novels that’s romantic without being clichéd, kind-hearted and heart-breaking, funny and sentimental. It’s like rain on a sunny day—unexpected, joyously contradictory, and wet (there will be tears). But rest assured, this is a novel worth weeping over.
When a comedian writes a memoir, you expect, of course for it to be funny. You’re lucky if it’s also emotionally honest. You’re bowled over if it offers a nuanced take on life, or society, or family. I’m here to tell you Trevor Noah’s memoir is like a strike of lightning. The entire time I was reading—when I managed to surface from the gripping narrative of Noah’s harrowing (but never self-pitying or reductive) life in post-Apartheid South Africa—I could not believe how much thought, insight, heart, talent, and, of course, humor went into the writing of what could have been just as successful as a series of punchlines. His first heartbreak from his dog Fufi, an unfortunate misunderstanding over a boy named Hitler, his mother’s ability to sprint after him in high heels—these stories go deeper than I can prepare you for. I defy you to read the first chapter (wherein Noah, age 9, is thrown out of a moving car by his mother) and not feel the urge to keep reading. This book is a powerhouse.
Though I have certainly sold many, many copies of Robin Sloan’s first book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I had not had the pleasure of reading his work until I picked up Sourdough. Sourdough is the deeply charming story of Lois Clary, a software engineer who goes from a lonely, anxious wreck who subsists on a nutrient-rich drink called Slurry, to a curious, ambitious baker who turns out a sourdough bread that is as delicious as it is strange. I have not enjoyed a book like Sloan’s in quite some time—a novel that astounds you with the ordinary, that allows you to rediscover the joy of a life well-lived and well-loved, a novel, in other words, that is most interested in the magic that exists all around us. Sourdough tells us to go beyond the routine, the commonplace, the okay, because there are angels out there, and magic is always within reach.
One summer day in 1969, the Gold siblings find a fortune teller who can tell people the exact day they will die. From there, we follow each sibling, in the order of their deaths, as they attempt to live out the rest of their lives. We learn not only how each of the Golds live with the news of their death date—in willful ignorance, with neurotic obsession, with wild abandon—but also how they react to their siblings’ choices, beliefs, and eventual deaths. What might seem a sensational narrative device is actually deeply grounded in the heart. What I mean by that is that the siblings’ love for one another, the way they reach for and miss one another, is perhaps amplified by the fortunes they hear, and yet Benjamin demonstrates how the fractures and glue of their relationships would have existed regardless. With empathy and wisdom, she explores the depths of sibling love and the irreplaceable intimacy of a person you have known your entire life. An affirming and magical read!
I’ll just tell you upfront: the dog doesn’t die.
This is a book about grief, about death, about the loss of a dear friend and a once-revered way of life, but the dog, a Great Dane named Apollo, remains out of danger’s way. Instead, Apollo shelters our narrator, who takes him in after his owner, a famous writer, as well as her mentor and best friend, commits suicide. A problem—she lives in a tiny no-dog apartment. A more existential problem—writers might no longer be necessary. Nunez’s sentences sing with intelligence and humor, pathos and empathy. She is one of the most balanced writers I’ve encountered, and her paragraphs execute 90 degree emotional turns with a smoothness that rivals the best racecar drivers. So strap in—this is a book you’ll start out wanting to finish in one go, and end up wanting to save the last pages because you can't bear to let go.
After I finished this novel, I felt a great silence in the aftermath. The book is so deeply, yet subtly layered that reading it is like falling asleep under a soft snow and waking up completely buried. Ren Ishida’s sister has been murdered in Akakawa, a small town in Japan. He moves there and assumes her life’s routines, partially to find her killer, primarily to feel close to the person he loved most. But the town is not without its unsettling idiosyncrasies, from a hand model gone missing to a politician’s mute wife. Goenawan writes with spareness and feeling, delivering gut-punches and gentle caresses in equal measure . A winner for any fans of disquieting, atmospheric noir.
There’s so much to praise in this collection that my mind is all tangled up trying to communicate what moved me, broke me, and repaired me. A similar state of speechlessness stutters the young and grown men in Brinkley’s stories. With sharp-eyed empathy, Brinkley shows us how and why love is defined differently by different people, and how violence often waits in that contradiction. What does it mean for a man to care for other men? To be cared for? How do these models of caring and kindness, distorted by masculinity and race, translate later into how these men care for the women in their lives, and how they care for themselves? Every one of these nine stories is flooded by love that misses its target because it was never taught how to aim. And we, the readers, are left to witness all the love left in the room, long after the targets have abandoned the space as empty.
A love triangle; a city on the verge of great wealth; a Chinese American family returning as expats to their homeland; a young woman trying to escape her rural village for the big city—this book is packed with drama and heart. Debut author Tan builds her world of nouveau-riche Shanghai with total authority, capturing not only the absurdity and glamor of a city going through exponential growth, but also how the history of the Cultural Revolution has shaped and still haunts the present day. Don’t even get me started on her characters. I cried just about anytime Zhen Hong came on the page. I loved Sunny, Rose, Karen, Little Cao, and my heart ached deeply for all the rest. This is a novel that I am impatient for others to read, so they can experience what I did.
If you love trippy, experimental ruminations on the intersections of technology and the human condition, read RUBIK. A connected short story collection, it's so smart, so inventive, and so emotionally resonant it will flabbergast you. Every story stacks on top of the one before, but also, inconceivalby, the one that comes after, like one of Escher's illusory staircases. An example of its brilliance? The "Homestyle Country Pie" one of the characters eats right before she's hit by a car is reincarnated in a later story where we follow it in gorgeous, chilling detail from factory birth to convenience store life to roadside death.
I've been reeling over Casey Plett's LITTLE FISH since I finished reading it. I cannot believe this is Plett’s first novel! I don’t know whether to be more amazed by the range of her talent or the depth of her feeling. LITTLE FISH follows Wendy Reimer, a Canadian trans woman who finds out that her late grandfather, a devout Mennonite, might have been transgender himself (herself). It's also about so much more: the power and limitation of friendship, the conditional love of family, the world's cruelty toward the marginalized and the ongoing resistance of staying alive. This book will engulf you.
I could have used this picture book when I was a kid! My family moved a lot and the growing pains of finding my way in a totally new school are perfectly (and hilariously…and poignantly) described by Lilly’s Geraldine, a sweet, sassy giraffe whose family moves out of Giraffe City to a town where they are the only giraffes around. Suddenly, outgoing Geraldine feels like a stranger in her own skin. Until, that is, she makes a friend as unique as she is. Lilly’s attention to detail, both in her illustrations and in her story, is one-of-a-kind. I could study her Giraffe City pages alone for hours. Take a look for yourself! I promise, you’ll fall in love with Geraldine’s journey from outcast to sticking out in all her glory.
When it comes to books, I have the shortest attention span, usually reading anywhere from seven to fifteen books at once. So it takes a special kind of book for me to read it monogamously, all the way through. Chung's story—of her adoption by white parents, of growing up in a town where she was the outlier, of reuniting with her Korean American birth family years later while starting her own young brood—is exactly that book. The passage of her oldest daughter Abby's birth, and the insights about maternal love that it evokes, made me cry until tears were pooling around my chin. I guarantee if you pick up this book, your chin will be balancing tears as well. Powerful love is so hard to capture in writing, and Chung does so in so many iterations that my heart ached for days, both from the pain she evokes, and the joy.
Every once in a while, I read a book that makes my heart ache when I finish it, not because the ending is sad, but because I have to reckon with the thought of never seeing those characters again. Saying goodbye to the ragtag band of misfits that make up the titular South Pole Station of Shelby’s book hurt my heart so bad that I actually had a moment of silence for it! Though the protagonist is ostensibly Cooper, an artist grieving her brother’s suicide, you’ll fall for everyone she meets in Antarctica, from a secretly scheming cook, to a quirky sociologist with a tragic past, to a band of scientists set on finding the beginning of the universe, to a climate change denier, whose presence at the station sparks consequences both grave and heartening. Shelby’s book proves that even in the coldest, most inhospitable settings, humanity and connection not only survive, but thrive.
McCracken is known for her ghastly, vaudevillian, grotesquely gorgeous takes on modern life, and this novel checks all those boxes and more! This is a book that leaps and bounds in language, structure, and sheer imagination. Imagine the weirdest, topsy-turviest, dang-near illogical family tree come to life and you've scratched the surface of the story of Bertha Truitt and her progeny, real, and falsified, and imagined. Truitt appears one day in the Salford cemetary with a purse full of gold and a notion to bring candlepin bowling ("a game of purity for former Puritans") to Massachusetts. As we zoom through the years, prepare yourself for a freak molasses accident, a prodigal "son," spontaneous combustion, a woman sculpted from bowling pins, and more. A mystical, mystifying read!
I’m sure you’ve heard this story before: a teacher with a heart of gold goes to an underprivileged school and, after some challenges, changes her students’ lives with the gift of education. Kuo certainly did, when she went down to the Mississippi Delta as part of Teach for America, where she quickly learns that an earnest educator is not enough to reverse centuries of racist violence and poverty. Even so, she connects with her students through a love of books and poetry, especially the titular Patrick. Years later, she gets a call she’d never expected—Patrick is in jail for murder. The story that unfolds defies well-worn clichés, upending the tired and often harmful teacher-as-savior trope. Instead, Kuo gives us an undeniable example of how much more meaningful it is to connect with another human being, to allow your life to be changed, than to endeavor to change another’s.
I love an unreliable narrator that you can't help but trust, even as their narrative gives you more and more reason to doubt, and even to fear them. Lee's Doc Hata is just that--an upstanding citizen who emigrated from Japan, loyal father to his adopted daughter Sunny, a community pillar in the wealthy (and white) town of Bedley Run, and a man with much to hide. For years, Doc Hata has tried to build a new life in a new country, placid and pleasant and conflict-free. But his is a past that casts long shadows, and try as he might, Hata cannot erase his years as a doctor's assistant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, and the comfort women* whose wounds he treated while they were savaged by the soldiers. As Hata's story unfolds, his preternaturally calm surface grows increasingly sinister until you're left to wonder what this man, or any man, is truly capable of.
*Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army
Hagedorn's first novel is a brash, defiant, punk rock kind of a book, a technicolor collage of the Philippines in the 1950s. Rather than following a traditional novel structure, the chapters read like slaps in the face: quick, seemingly senseless, and also surprisingly intimate. We jump from the perspective of 10-year-old Rio, a privileged daughter of the upper-class Gonzagas; to a DJ named Joey Sands, who turns tricks at the club where he works; to starlet Lolita Luna who has become the kept woman of a notorious general; to the general's pious and long-suffering wife who hopelessly tries to atone for her husband's sins; and if you aren't feeling whiplashed yet, keep reading. The magic of this novel is in how gleefully it occupies all its narrators' voices, and in doing so sweeps us through a country of contradictions, of bloody legacy, of romance, and of revolution.
I love short stories. A superb short story has the potential to short-circuit me for days. So The Story Prize, the anthology of short stories by the past Story Prize winners, has discombobulated me to new levels! This reminds me of the Beatles 1 album, a collection of the best of the best by the best. I loved revisiting old favorites (Saunders, McCracken) and discovering new ones (Mary Gordon!), and I also love that I can put this in any reader's hands, even the ones who insist they don't do short story collections, and know there's a real chance of converting them to this brilliant form once and for all.
If you aren’t already a fan of Choi's psychological mastery, intricate sentences, and acerbic wit, you will be after this book! Divided into three parts, Choi's novel takes us on a breakneck journey through the adolescent swamp of CAPA, a performing arts high school somewhere in the South, where teenagers put on the trappings of adulthood on and off the stage. Whether their childhood is shrugged off or stripped off, the protagonists of Choi's structure-bending book are inextricably pinned to their past at CAPA, burnishing the site in their art and their obsessions. The end left me shattered, in awe of where Choi left me, and also inconsolable. A tremendous novel.
Nowadays, the concept of “community” has become a hold-all for all things good in the neighborhood. But anyone who’s downloaded Next Door or read the local section of their newspaper knows that even the best communities are governed by unspoken codes and vulnerable to petty power struggles. WHITE ELEPHANT gets to the heart of one such neighborhood: the picturesque Willard Park, a suburb of DC. The conflict begins over, of all things, a tree, mistakenly cut down by a new neighbor. Soon, there’s a serial tree-killer on the loose, a cafe bulletin board-turned-confessional, extramarital affairs, oh my. Fans of Tom Perrotta (or the residents of Gilmore Girls’s Stars Hollow) will eat this book up!
Jones was my first creative writing teacher, and she is part of the reason I'm a writer today. Not because of her teaching (though it was excellent), but because when she gave a reading at the end of the course, her writing was so electric, so honest and haunting, so lovelorn and hopeful, that I decided that THIS was what I wanted to do. I asked for the full story after the reading, which is actually the story “Upright Man” in this book. Set in small-town Kentucky, these stories explore what happens when the mundane is horrifically altered. A father faces his 19-year-old son’s rape accusation; a basketball coach falls in love with his teenaged player; a woman mourns her daughter while her husband moves on. A stunning collection.
This is the seminal book, not only on screenwriting, but also long form storytelling in any medium and genre. Mckee is famous for his “Story” seminars, three-day workshops he gave all around the world, which formed the backbone for this guide. He manages to boil down all stories into their most basic structures, using classic films and novels to back up his teachings. But in no way is Mckee encouraging formulaic work. His structures do not tell you what to write, or really even how to write, but rather why certain stories succeed and others fail. The work is still up to you, but it’s certainly easier when you understand why you have a dud on your hands! Engaging, at times philosophical, always insightful, if you read any book on writing, make it this one.
I love every essay in this collection, which knows how to break your heart in five pages and heal it in four. These essays are often described as spare, which might make you think that Ginzburg’s ideas are small, to warrant so few pages, but in fact, this is a writer who knows that you don’t need to take up space to make your mark, and that in fact the truest statements often require the fewest words. An Italian author who lived through Fascist rule and saw her husband tortured and killed for anti-Fascist activism, Ginzburg has the strongest kind of wisdom: hard-won, principled, and, despite everything, idealistic. Just take five minutes to read Ginzburg’s first essay, and if you don’t want to spend the rest of your afternoon with this brilliant woman, this isn’t the book for you.
I would call Sabrina the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read, but that might give you the wrong impression. Objectively the most terrifying event to happen in Drnaso’s pressure-cooker of a graphic novel, the abduction and murder of a young woman, happens off-page. Instead, like that popular, parasitic form of entertainment—the Youtube reaction video—we see the horror of the event only through the faces of others, from the news outlets that break the story, to the woman’s family, to the strangers on the internet who, intentionally or not, make the horror exponentially more awful. Amplifying the tension is Drnaso’s incredible drawing style, which illustrates the unreadability of people’s faces, the impossibility of discerning friend from foe. What makes Sabrina so terrifying, in the end, is how it puts me intimately in touch with the terror I already feel every day, a terror that, for my own sanity, I shove as far down as I can. Evil might be hidden in plain sight, but if Drnaso is to be believed, we are the ones doing the hiding.
A phenomenal accomplishment, Barker’s historical novel feels utterly confident in its time and place: a war hospital in Scotland during WWI where soldiers with shellshock (now known as PTSD) are sent to recover. Away from the battlefields, these men carry with them the guilt and shame for their psychological injuries, which, invisible, brand them as cowards and mentally unfit. One man, however, war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, is here of his own volition, sent to be cured of his pacifism. Assigned to psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, Sassoon begins a battle of wills as each man questions if such wanton destruction of life is ever warranted. Interspliced through this narrative are Rivers’s other patients, impeccably realized characters who will each claim a part of your aching heart. I can’t remember a book that has impressed upon me the tenderness of the human spirit with as much subtlety and care as Barker’s. A perfect novel.
Can you know a person, or a place, simply by looking at the foods they make and eat? Stradal’s soul-warming dish of a debut answers this question with a resounding yes! At the center of this spiraling exploration into the ways we reveal ourselves through our stomachs is the indomitable Eva Thorvald. From her first brush with an heirloom Moonglow tomato as a toothless infant at a farmer’s market to her eventual explosion onto the culinary scene as the owner of the most exclusive supper club in the country, we follow Eva, as well as an expanding network of family members, friends, and competitors, as her talents and tastebuds grow. This book is a sensory wonderland, a love letter to the Midwest, and an unforgettable ode to all the ways we feed and are fed.
Why do we love sports? Is it the thrill of victory? Or is it really the infinitesimal moments of sacrifice that make these victories all the more thrilling? Chen’s novel-in-vignettes not only makes the argument that we’re suckers for suffering, but that our very narratives of success have become meaningless without masochism. Her protagonist Athena Chen is struggling to write her American Studies dissertation on competitive sports. Once a promising student in her program, Athena enters her seventh year of grad school only to learn that her ex-boyfriend has killed himself. A former Olympic hopeful, now mired in depression, Athena cannot put together an argument, and instead curates story after story of athletic triumph, each invigorating on its own, but all together, create a chilling effect that numbs the vicarious joie de vivre that makes such stories so addictive in the first place. If you’ve ever wondered what lies on the other side of incredible achievement, this is the book for you.
I'll bet you've heard of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, but have you heard of Nell Scovell, the comedy writer behind these and other cultural landmarks? Just the Funny Parts is a an unromantic yet inspirational look at Scovell's multi-decade journey of trying to break in, and then stay in, Hollywood. From the toxic boys' club of the Letterman writers' room, to being a showrunner of Sabrina with a one-year-old baby, to the true creative partnership of co-writing Lean In with Sandberg, Scovell's memoir sings with humor and heart. Jokes might have gotten Scovell her success, but it's the relationships she makes along the way that kept her sane. Both are capture in these pages, making an unforgettable and entertaining story!
C. Pam Zhang's How Much of These Hills is Gold has the power of a river current, pulling any hapless reader into its bracing grip. A family epic, a tale of sheer adventure, a genre-bending Western, a hard-talking meditation on power and tenderness, this book confidently twists and turns, refusing to be defined. Lucy and Sam, Chinese American siblings in the 1800s have lost their father, and whatever home their family managed to scrape up in the cruel and prejudiced West. In search of something they cannot articulate--another home? belonging? a living tiger? a palmful of gold?-- the siblings travel across the plains and hills of California, through salt flats and towns with names like Sweetwater. A book full of wonder and pain, gold and dust. Do yourself a favor, and take a drink out of this mighty river.