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“So you’re a girl and you’re poor, but at least you’re light-skinned—that’ll save you.”
So Castillo’s debut begins, with a voice that pulls you in like a fist twisting the front of your shirt. And this isn’t even the protagonist! Just wait until you meet Hero, full name Geronima De Vera, who arrives in the Bay area from the Philippines with her thumbs broken and a past she both wants to remember and leave behind. She moves in with her uncle Pol, his wife Paz (speaker of the first line), and their unforgettable daughter Roni, a singular spitfire of a child who becomes Hero’s charge. The story unspools with prose so muscular and melodic it’s like an anthem, to political resistance, to new love, to innocence shattered and then re-mended. A marvel of a book, an absolute stunner—months later, I’m still in awe.
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.
What if we lived in a future where time machines weren’t only real, they were totally ordinary? That’s the world of Yu’s book, where his protagonist (also named Charles Yu) fixes time machines for a living. It’s a surprisingly lonely job, cleaning up after people who insist on changing the past; surprisingly boring, and yet surprisingly dangerous too. This book is all about surprising you, with its imagination, its humor, its intelligence, and its ability to make your chest ache for all the characters, even the hypothetical ones. Take the ride—go somewhere unexpected.
There’s nothing like watching a cast of characters grow up in front of your eyes, each passing year making each person both more and less knowable, until you are as attuned to their individual changes as to the waxing and waning of your own understanding, delight, and frustration with them. With Kevin Wilson’s latest, Perfect Little World, such character growth is nearly steroidal as we are presented with not only a cast of ten babies, but also ten pairs of parents, all living together in pursuit of a revolutionary child psychology experiment created by Dr. Preston Grind. Under such extreme circumstances, impossible to imagine yet, under Wilson’s meticulous hand, compellingly and magically easy to believe, we follow Isabelle Poole, the only single mother involved in the Infinite Family project, as she tries to stitch together a family out of total strangers. Wilson, as author, is the true parent of this brood of squalling characters, and he treats them each like a good parent might, with watchful love, never blind to their flaws but always, eventually, forgiving of them. I wished that I could live in the imperfect, larger-than-life world that is Wilson's novel forever. I'll settle for knowing that I can visit anytime I like.
Rarely has a book so impressed me with its ambition and scope, on both a large and small scale, as The Fortunes. Davies takes on the literal fiction that is “Asian America,” and then shatters this concept by precisely painting his Chinese-American characters with real and human desires, tragedies, and idiosyncrasies. Davies’s characters are historically significant, either at the fore of humongous social change or emblematic of an American era, and yet they never feel like sepia-tinted, two-dimensional photographs, due to the care and empathy with which the author has rendered them. Most importantly, as proven by how quickly I blew through the pages, this book proves that the Chinese American story is one we not only need, but also one we really, really want.
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.
This book made all kinds of sounds come out of my mouth, none quite appropriate for the public spaces I happened to be in. Certain passages made me bark with laughter, others produced a wry chuckle, still others made a deep cackle rise out of my diaphragm in a way that delighted me and terrified bystanders. But the noise that I made the most, and loved making the most, was an, “Ohhhhahaha.” Ohhhhahaha to Klein discovering the mundanely sexy secrets of womanhood, ohhhhahaha to her slow dance from hell with Dale the Chipmunk, and ohhhhahaha to the tyranny of baths! Part recognition, part cringe, and part relief at finally being able to laugh at what used to make me cringe, Ohhhhahaha and I became good friends as I ripped my way through Klein’s essays. I’d rather be friends with Klein, but I’ll settle for knowing, if her essays are any indicator, that in another, better universe I would be.
Derek Palacio’s The Mortifications is a swirling, transformative novel, possessing a narrative ground that shifts under my feet with every step I take further into the story. I love a novel that can make five years pass by in a few pages, that can make me taste both the sweetness of a tomato and the grunge of unwashed skin in the same paragraph, that transplants ghosts into tobacco leaves. That, in other words, reveals the magic and chaos of good fiction, and which, in turn, becomes the perfect vehicle to describe what is indescribable. Trauma, like the people it touches, is impossible to pin down, as is parenthood, religion, love, and death. It is lucky for us, then, that Palacio leans into this world of unknowable and uncontrollable forces like a translator who can convey even what is lost in translation.
I have a hard time getting immersed in nonfiction books, but Collins’s debut pulled me in and charmed the pants off me. Part memoir, part meditation on language and love, this seemingly slim book is dense with knowledge and heart. While living abroad in London, Collins falls in love with a Frenchman, and together they move to Switzerland, where she finally learns to speak her husband’s language. Though her personal story is deeply romantic and envy-inducing, Collins keeps her retelling grounded and wry (she decides to learn French after hearing Bradley Cooper speak it fluently on a talk show). Interspersed throughout are gems about the way language shapes our perspectives, from the way we see color to the ease with which we learn math. Collins draws the threads between intimacy and fluency so taut and fine that by the end of the book I felt like no matter what language she was speaking, I’d want to listen and understand.
I was so burnt out on think pieces and novels about the "millenial generation" that I nearly didn't read Private Citizens, which would have been a big mistake because this book takes the traditional millenial story and ramps it up to level 9000. Will, Cory, Linda, and Henrik are college friends/roommates/exes who after Stanford graduation have found themselves typically afloat in bad jobs, relationships, and apartments. But this is where the story leaves the beaten path as Tulathimutte’s virtuosic prose and evil genius imagination (think David Foster Wallace) throws our compellingly crappy protagonists into crazier and more unbelievable situations, often of their own making. Reading this book was like hanging out with my smartest, meanest, funniest friend, who thinks I am just as smart, mean, and funny. Whether you hate millennials, want to understand them, or are one, this book will not disappoint as it skewers, demystifies, and, ultimately, empathizes with the most misunderstood (by themselves) generation.
Fans of Michael Ian Black’s brand of acid-tongued comedy will certainly enjoy his latest collection of essays about aging, health, family, and the ever-pleasant topic of DEATH. But even non-fans, like myself, will laugh, wince, and occasionally tear up at Black’s honest, irreverent, and yet surprisingly sincere essays. I don’t know how he does it, but Black manages to write about his expanding (sort of) waistline, growing up with his mother’s “rage addict” partner Elaine, and the harrowing aftereffects of his mother’s cancer treatment with candor and pitch-perfect emotion. Another writer could easily lose control of such tonally different topics. But a stand-up comedy veteran to the end, Black has the confidence and skill to guide his audience down even the most unexpected paths.
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.
John Freeman, former editor of Granta, is known for having some of the best literary taste in America, and Freeman’s, his new biannual anthology, only reaffirms his dedication to publishing the greatest contemporary writers, and debuting the “next big things.” I read a handful of literary magazines, and Freeman’s is my new favorite. The talent of the writers is already overwhelming (just look at the last names on the front cover), but the pleasure comes also from the placement of the pieces, which, like an arrangement of flowers, enhances the parts that make up the whole.
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.
By title alone, I assumed Hannah Tinti’s latest would be a swashbuckling adventure story, one with an invincible, perhaps debonair man at its center. But as soon as I opened the book to its first page, I realized I had gotten it all wrong. And by the time I closed the book on its last page, heart ringing in my chest, I was grateful to have made the mistake. Because Twelve Bullets explores not the bullets themselves, but the holes they leave, and how these are merely the visible ones the world can carve into our bodies. Violence and love are entangled from the first sentence; to read this book is to watch characters you care for struggle and yet, a rare thing, to not wish for their struggles to end. You watch them fight and fall, over and over again, not because you want them to suffer. But because you know, without a doubt, that they will punch through to the other side. Tinti imbues Hawley and his daughter Loo, as well as the various rough-and-tumble characters that run through their lives, with such vulnerability and strength. They never break, even when they’ve literally been broken. I could never rob any of them of their eventual victories over their enemies, their families, themselves. I'd rather shoot myself in the foot.
Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike, but what about happy marriages? Shapiro’s Hourglass is an intimate, impressionistic meditation on her own happy marriage, and the fault lines of luck and love that run through it. The near-miss at the party where she meets her husband; her infant son’s near-fatal fall that leads to a near-fatal diagnosis; the near-constant financial scramble that defines any partnership between two working artists. “Write about what could have happened,” Shapiro tells her students. “What could have happened, but didn’t.” We’ve all experienced that feeling, and reading this memoir was like ever-waking from a dream. The burden of happiness is knowing of how impossibly fortunate you have been, and how little guarantee there is that you will always be. Shapiro asks, how do you move forward without fear? By moving forward regardless, knowing that the years you have lived, even the happiest ones, still prepare you for its tragedies.
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!
There is so much density of thought and feeling contained in this beautiful tiny book about new motherhood that it feels like holding a collapsed star. Each essay, some only a sentence long, reads like traveling through a winding tunnel of light—Galchen telegraphs with utter clarity the total chaos of her mind, grown more chaotic now that she’s caring for a baby girl (“a puma moved into my apartment, a near-mute force”). The tension between being a writer and being a new mother, of having an identity once wrapped around the deepness of one’s thoughts now wrapped around the deepness of one’s maternal love, is present throughout, but the book resists being defined, just as it resists coasting on its own intelligence. “The theory may not hold water, but has at least a dense enough weave to keep in place a few oversized bouncy balls.” This might as well be Galchen’s mission statement, though I think it too modest. Just about every one of her lines in this marvelous book contains the esoteric, yet playful wisdom of an aphorism.
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.