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"Love came slowly," Lillian Li writes, "as weaknesses in the body often do." Reader, I have a feeling you'll grow as weak for this book and its characters as I did. Here are people who drive drunk, commit arson, have affairs both physical and emotional. They also wash one another's feet, chide themselves for forgetting the name of a friend's favorite candy, save each other food after grueling shifts. Throughout this magnificent novel, Li uncovers lives that are wedged between competing truths: that cruelty often arises from the same impulse as kindness, that family is as much a burden as it is a blessing. Uncovers, in other words, the ugly, merciful truths of being human.
Even if––like me!––you know next to nothing about art history, chances are Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry will captivate you anyway. In these twinned portraits, Smee reveals how some of our most revered painters arrived at their masterworks by admiring, encouraging, imitating, and envying their contemporaries. Along the way Smee brings the past to life with a novelist’s eye for stunning details and anecdotes, like twenty-two-year-old Willem de Kooning’s decision to emigrate to America as a stowaway…and never tell his family. Yet underneath the betrayals and breakthroughs promised by its subtitle, The Art of Rivalry is ultimately a poignant meditation on what Smee calls “the struggle of intimacy itself: the restless, twitching battle to get closer to someone, which must somehow be balanced with the battle to remain unique.”
I was utterly charmed by this book, a midwestern-western about a blocked novelist who accompanies his new friend (a boatbuilder and former train robber) on a journey to make amends with the wife he abandoned decades ago. Along the way they encounter cowboys, sharpshooters, Pinkerton agents, German movie stars, and the greatest snapping turtle in all of literature. Why Enger isn’t celebrated as one of our best prose stylists I can’t fathom—every page of So Brave, Young, and Handsome boasts sentences that astonish, illuminate, and delight. Few writers, moreover, know how to keep your heart pounding and breaking in equal measure, but with this gem of a novel Enger makes it seem effortless.
Lest we think today’s divisive political situation has no precedent, Freeman’s riveting history reminds us just how turbulent America’s past has really been. Covering three decades before the Battle of Fort Sumter, The Field of Blood returns readers to a time when boozing congressmen hurled insults and fists in front of rapt audiences, when words like coward, liar, and––my personal favorite––doughface were practically invitations to beatings, canings, and duels. Though these spectacles certainly kept me turning pages, what gripped me most were Freeman’s compassionate portraits of legislators torn between preserving their Union and defending their beliefs. The Field of Blood is an equally thrilling and sobering read that shows no sign of loosing relevance any time soon.
Anyone hoping for a highlight reel should steer clear of Sontag, whose heroine doesn’t publish her career-making “Notes on Camp” until page 228. Indeed, the subtitle of Benjamin Moser’s hypnotizing biography––Her Life and Work––makes clear its author’s priorities. And thank God those are his priorities, because the Susan who emerges from Sontag is not only as erudite and glamorous as her image suggests, but aloof, cruel, insecure, and frightened––that is, every bit a person. Here is a woman who transformed the great emotional conundrums of her life (how do I know what’s real? how can I be comfortable with my body and my sexuality?) into great literature; who replicated an emotionally fraught childhood in her every adult relationship; who kept striving (and kept failing) to become a perfect version of herself. By the end of Sontag I could have read 700 more pages, so close did I feel to the Susan Moser has given us.
How long I've waited for my path to cross with a book like this! How long, moreover, I've begun creative endeavors only to start fighting with my Inner Critic, that finger-wagging gloomy Gus who seems impossible to please. But since reading Big Magic, I've found that critic duetting with Elizabeth Gilbert as she sings her urgent, gratifying reminders that permission and suffering needn't play any roles in our desire to make things; that genius is something we're blessed to encounter, not something we're born with. Drawing on her own experiences, as well as those of folks like Marcus Aurelius and Ann Patchett, Gilbert reminds us curiosity, doggedness, and trust lend far more to our creativity--and our lives--than mere talent ever can.
“There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks.” So Anne Tyler claims early on in A Spool of Blue Thread, though the same cannot be said of this warm-hearted, marvelous novel. From its very first pages I was not only charmed by the Whitshank family––longtime spouses Red and Abby and their quartet of grown children––but utterly convinced by them. Here were people whose grace and humor, stubbornness and sadness I recognized from my own life, all rendered without an inch of judgement or sentimentality. Yes, there is nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks, but that’s Anne Tyler’s genius: to remind us that even the most “unremarkable” lives deserve our attention, our compassion, our love.
My heart breaks every time I read the word "nearing" on the cover of this book and remember poet Donald Hall's death on June 23, 2018, just three months shy of his ninetieth birthday. Though heartbreak was something I rarely felt reading A Carnival of Losses, whose reminiscences and observations pulse with passionate, rascally life. Here are Hall's thoughts on (among other things) baseball, vaping, solitude, sex, dentures, Ann Arbor cocktail parties, and, of course, poetry and poets, chief among them his late wife Jane Kenyon. I devoured this book in a couple days, though if I were you I'd take my time--you won't want to part with Hall's company anytime soon.
On the morning of my thirtieth birthday, a friend and I chanced upon Press Here in a Portland boutique. While the rest of our crew shopped, we just stood there, tapping, tilting, and shaking Tullet's book from beginning to end. "This," we said to each other, "is DELIGHTFUL." That evening, when I saw my friend again, she handed me a gift. I yelped a grown man's yelp. "What's that?" asked the person beside me. I handed him Press Here and said, "Follow the instructions." As he did his own tapping, tilting, and shaking, I watched his face light up just as mine had earlier that day.
For the boys in Tobias Wolff's Old School, winning the school writing contest also wins them a one-on-one meeting with an acclaimed visiting author. Put another way: if you've ever wondered what Robert Frost or Ayn Rand(!) would sound like filtered through the precise, generous language that's made Wolff one of our all-time great short-story writers, this is the book for you. Though Old School is also the book for you if you've ever felt like an outsider, or acted shamefully, or struggled to be honest with yourself. If you have ever, that is, had difficulty being a person. In Wolff's hands, even our most foolish or harmful decisions carry with them the possibility of forgiveness, the reminder that we can be better next time, if only we choose to.
"Attention," writes Mary Oliver, "is the beginning of devotion." If that's so, I spent last summer devoted to this collection of essays, which encompasses all the Oliver touchstones we've come to expect: literature (insightful meditations on Poe and Whitman abound), work ("Of Power and Time" is among the loveliest descriptions of the artistic process I've come across), nature (you better believe this book has all the trilliums, bloodroots, and dark ferns you could ask for--and that's just in the first essay), and wildlife (just thinking about "Bird" gets me misty-eyed). I finished Upstream not only with new ideas about writing and the natural world, but, more importantly, a renewed urgency to step outside and take in as much as I can while I still have my "one wild and precious life."
Twelve-year-old Milo can’t wait to spend a quiet Christmas vacation at Greenglass House, the inn his adoptive parents own. But then peculiar guest after peculiar guest arrives, and Milo soon finds himself investigating a slew of mysteries whose common thread may just be the inn’s shadowy past….
I adored everything about this book: its bountiful twists and turns, its charming and sympathetic characters, its moving message about adoption and identity (I certainly shed a tear or twelve during the final pages). Most of all, though, I loved how Greenglass House made me read like a kid again: curiously, earnestly, breathlessly.
Fifty pages into What I Loved, still absolutely clueless about where Siri Hustvedt was taking me, I stripped my copy of its jacket and surrendered to the ride. The outcome? One of the most gripping and unsettling books I’ve ever read. That discarded jacket describes her novel as “the epic story of two families, two sons, and two marriages,” which is as much plot as I’m willing to give away. What I can say is that What I Loved made me confront fears about the future I didn't even realize I had, but it also reassured me that, even under the gravest circumstances, the most nourishing forces in my life--friendship, work, art--will remain.
I had never heard of Flaubert’s Parrot or Julian Barnes (let alone Flaubert) when a teacher assigned this novel my senior year of high school. More than a decade later it remains one of the best and most influential books I’ve ever read, the novel that exploded my ideas of what fiction was able--was even allowed--to do. Ostensibly the story of a scholar searching for the stuffed parrot Flaubert kept on his desk, Flaubert's Parrot is actually a Frankenstein's monster of fiction, biography, and essay, a book that taught me postmodern playfulness and affecting storytelling (that is, my inner smartypants and my inner sap) can work wonders together.
Set inside the acting program of an elite high school, Susan Choi’s latest novel seems to consider every major preoccupation of our moment––class, gender, sexuality, race, power, predation, authenticity, “genius”––with language that’s both uproarious and frothing with vital rage. To describe the plot in any detail, though, would reveal too much of Trust Exercise’s inventive, audacious form. Best let this novel sink into your bones with as few spoilers as possible before its final scene seizes your heart. And it will seize your heart. Trust me.
Two federal agents––one a by-the-books stiff, the other a snarky, hard-drinking wildcard––must stop terrorists from destroying a major American city. Familiar terrain for a thriller, only in Seth Fried’s The Municipalists the agents hail from the United States Municipal Survey, the major American city is called Metropolis, and the wildcard is a supercomputer named OWEN. (Exactly how a supercomputer manages to be hard-drinking I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.) Fried’s debut novel felt customized for my enjoyment––it had me laughing throughout, breathlessly turning pages, and dwelling on essential questions about American prosperity and idealism. Highly recommended!
"Where else," Yiyun Li wonders, "can we meet but in stories now?" The we is Li and her sixteen-year-old son, whom the author recently lost to suicide. It's difficult to resist the cliche and not call this tragedy unspeakable, yet what Where Reasons End does so beautifully, and so bravely, is remind us that speech is sometimes our only recourse in the face of loss. By arguing with him in her mind, by recording her memories of him (those that comfort, yes, but also those that sting), by telling stories Li ensures that her son––some part of him, any part of him––will abide. I was already awed by Li, but Where Reasons End leaves no doubt that she's among our most courageous, most generous writers.
I spent a lot of 2018 thinking about my attention: how sporadically I felt absorbed by writing or reading, how often I lost time scrolling away on my phone or plummeting down a YouTube hole. For help reassessing and refocusing, I turned to Wu’s remarkable history, which traces the ways our most influential media (newspapers, radio, television, the Internet) have consistently sold our attention to advertisers. Equal parts fascinating and infuriating (if you’re like me you’ll need a much happier book to read in tandem with this one), Wu’s account is a rousing reminder that our lives consist of “what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default.” I’m very grateful I chose The Attention Merchants as part of mine.
When John McPhee first pitched a story on geology, New Yorker editor William Shawn allegedly told him, “Readers will revolt.” Little did he realize that the attentiveness and awe McPhee brings to his work makes any subject—rocks, canoes, oranges—instantly and utterly fascinating. In the delightful Draft No. 4, McPhee applies that attentiveness and awe to his own process. Not only useful for aspiring writers of all stripes (though it is wildly useful on everything from structure and tone to the joys and pains of revision), Draft No. 4 also overflows with charming anecdotes from McPhee’s more than fifty-year career. I read these eight essays with a big, grateful smile on my face, and I have a feeling you will, too.
For Theodore Roosevelt, the best way to combat emotional hardships was by embracing physical hardships. So how did the Bull Moose candidate cope with losing the 1912 presidential election to Woodrow Wilson? By embarking on a scientific expedition down an uncharted river in the Amazon, of course! Little did the ex-president realize this epic voyage would bring him face-to-face with fierce rapids, fiercer piranha, and (perhaps fiercest of all) his own mortality....As exquisitely researched as it is written, The River of Doubt offers not only rollicking adventure, but also moving meditations on loss, limits, and love. A terrific book.
“Do you know what a cliche is?” asks the wry heroine of French Exit. “It’s a story so fine and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling.” What a perfect description of Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, which follows the self-destructive journey of said heroine––the endearingly morbid Frances Price––after she learns of her impending bankruptcy. As in his Booker-shortlisted western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt reworks a classic genre––here the comedy of manners––in ways both familiar and singular. Yet for all his playfulness, deWitt also ponders how we fail those we love (our spouses and friends, our children and parents) and how we might do better. Reading French Exit made me feel not unlike Frances after one of her many benders––giddy, but with a persistent ache. The only difference is deWitt spares your head and goes straight for your heart.
The great-great-great grandson of John Watson and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes discover they're attending the same Connecticut boarding school. And then a classmate they hold in mutual contempt winds up murdered. Coincidences? HA! The game’s very much afoot in this delightful spin on the Holmes mythos, which strikes an ideal balance between replicating and reimagining the Holmes–Watson dynamic. I devoured this novel, and was on the verge of despair until I realized that Cavallaro's written (at least!) two more in the series.
The heroine of Meg Wolitzer’s dagger-sharp novel is on a flight to Helsinki with her novelist husband when she decides to leave him. What follows is an equally gorgeous and grim meditation on fidelity, sexism, and the writing life, all spiked with a delicious wit that won me over immediately. Who else but Wolitzer would notice that writers complain about needing light "as though they're plants," or characterize a traffic jam as "long [and] fossilized"? And who else, after making me laugh so hard, would suddenly leave me sobbing with such a heartbreaking final act? That Wolitzer achieves all this in just over 200 pages is one more marvel in a book already overflowing with them.
Labels abound in Stray City: gay, straight, feminine, masculine, daughter, parent. But it is the deeply recognizable characters who use those labels as both shields and solace that ground Chelsey Johnson’s captivating debut. Centered on Andrea Morales––a twenty-something who grows estranged from her strict Catholic family after coming out, only to later jeopardize her standing in the Portland lesbian scene after sleeping with a man and deciding to have his baby––Stray City interrogates the very meaning of sexual orientation, of family, of community. Johnson reminds us how every label, every grasp toward identity, carries with it the possibility of individuality, but also groupthink; of liberation, but also restriction. Thankfully, though, there seem to be no restrictions to Johnson’s talent: Stray City’s every page offers sly humor, spot-on detail, unceasing empathy. Reading this novel is not unlike the experience Andrea describes of playing a new album while lying on the floor: “You don’t just hear the music, you feel it. Your whole body listens.”
It may sound insulting to call Ms. Hempel Chronicles an anti-page-turner, but I mean this as the highest praise. I found myself reading Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s novel-in-stories as slowly as possible, lest I miss any of the delightful, devastating twists of language and emotion she so elegantly threads into each sentence. Anchored by their titular heroine––a middle-school English teacher who, not unlike her pupils, must daily navigate the perilous in-between of youth and maturity––the eight stories in Ms. Hempel Chronicles never treat the absurdities and sorrows of adolescence and adulthood with irony. Instead, Bynum infuses even the smallest, most recognizable encounters with a genuine sense of grace, concern, and wonder.
The Susan Sontag who sat third row center at every movie, the Susan Sontag who was terrible at telling jokes, the Susan Sontag who always recommended the best (European) books, the Susan Sontag who was so uninterested in nature she'd never heard of dragonflies, the Susan Sontag who loved mentoring but loathed teaching, the Susan Sontag who couldn't bear to be alone (especially when writing)....In the exquisite Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nunez (who lived with Sontag in the late seventies while dating her son, David Rieff) re-mythologizes Sontag's exuberant genius while also reminding us how petty, obtuse, and lonesome (i.e., how human) that genius could be. At 118 pages, Sempre Susan only requires an afternoon--but, if you’re like me, you’ll be returning to this memoir time and time again.
Here’s how Yiyun Li praises a memoir by the Irish writer John McGahern: “No one’s vulnerability is more devastating than the next person’s, no one’s joy more deserving. What happens to McGahern is only life, what happens to us all.” Li recounts her own experiences—her upbringing in China, her year in the army, her arrival in America, her time in psychiatric hospitals after two suicide attempts—with a similar “only life” attitude. Weaving literary criticism and personal narrative, these essays not only interrogate painful memories with bluntness and grace, but also the role reading can play in offering respite from such pain. For Li, the pleasure of reading stems from being "with people who...do not notice one's existence." Reading Dear Friend, however, I felt mercifully noticed on page after page.
Jon Stewart always claimed nobody should get news from him. I, however, was one of those nobodies who relied on The Daily Show during the Bush and Obama years not only for headlines, but synthesis, analysis, catharsis. What The Daily Show (The Book) made me realize is that the creation of Stewart’s late-night landmark—which slowly, fascinatingly evolved from just another late-night show to the form’s gold standard—looked not unlike (an ideal) democracy itself, full of passion, difference, and debate. Plus every chapter’s packed with all the juicy backstage spats, scrapes, and hijinks you could ask for.
After gifting thriller lovers with some of the best noir-tinged sci-fi I’ve ever read, Adam Sternbergh has delivered The Blinds, an equally riveting take on the western. Though western is too narrow a term for what Sternbergh’s up to in this novel, which centers on an isolated Texas town filled with murderers who have the memories of their crimes wiped away so they can start new lives. (Guess how that turns out.) Once again Sternbergh proves himself a master of I–need–to–know–what–happens–next–this–instant–or–I’ll–go–crazy plotting, but The Blinds also proves him master of moral murkiness, of raising fascinating questions about selfhood and forgiveness that linger long after the last page. To say any more would spoil the exhilarating sense of discovery I felt reading this novel––it’s best to go in…well, blind.
As a huge fan of his Sherlock Holmes homage Moriarty, I wasn’t surprised that Anthony Horowitz managed to create his own, instantly iconic version of an Agatha Christie detective in Magpie Murders. What did surprise me was discovering that novel stuffed, like a Russian nesting doll, into a second novel concerning a book editor convinced that the suicide of her most lucrative client––the arrogant mystery writer responsible for the Christie homage––was really murder. Yes, this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach is deliciously clever, but Horowitz knows that the best whodunits are more than puzzles to be solved. I relished every plot twist, but it's the novel's insights into fame, privacy, and fiction-making itself that kept me turning pages.
Is it perverse that Ill Will––a terrifying odyssey replete with serial killers, unsolved murders, and Satanic cults––is one of the most pleasurable reads of my life? Chaon himself said he “chortled” his way through writing this novel, which deploys each uncompromising plot twist with a giddy gallows humor. Yet Ill Will is also a gorgeous meditation on questions that have long obsessed this author: Do we ever truly recover from loss? Are we ever truly present? Will we ever truly know ourselves? In lieu of answers, Chaon reminds us that “we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden.” Bleak? Sure. But I take an eerie sense of solace in this, for good or ill.
“I’m trying to speak cinema in a language all its own.”
The lively, moving conversations collected here, which span the auteur’s fifty-year career, chronicle the ways Bresson forged that language: by rejecting conventional narrative; by only hiring non-professional actors; by focusing not on images, but on the “relationships between images.” From these interviews emerges a man dedicated (for better or worse) to the restrictions and convictions he felt he needed to make something truthful. At a moment when the best visual storytelling has migrated from film to television (a trend Bresson predicted almost sixty years ago!), it is heartening to spend time with someone who believed, even during filmmaking's artistic peak, that there was still so much left to discover: “The cinema is immense," Bresson reminds us. "We haven’t done a thing.”
“The meaning of the city,” Gornick writes early in this sharp, sensitive memoir, “was that it made…loneliness bearable.” She more than proves her point with these snapshots of friendships personal and historical, (brief) romance, and the emotional sustenance that comes from inhabiting the streets of New York City, of interacting with everyone from homeless people and grocers to actors and strangers on the bus. Hilarious and heartbreaking, often in the same breath, these pages kept me welcome company over the two late nights I spent turning them a touch slower than usual, in the hope they might last just a little bit longer.
Is there anything Siri Hustvedt can't do? One minute she's effortlessly breaking down German philosophy, the next she's effortlessly breaking your heart. A fixture on tons of 2014 best-of lists yet somehow still overlooked, The Blazing World uses diary entries, interviews, and other texts to tell the story of Harriet Burden--a frustrated artist who enlists three men to present her work as their own--and the people who pity, dismiss, defend, and love her. Think the formal playfulness of Nabokov crossed with the blood-boiling rage of Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, all with a swagger and sensitivity only Hustvedt can pull off.
For a fellow “sprocket fiend”—someone who loves not only movies but the movies (the popcorn, the kitsch, the dark)—there is no better company than Patton Oswalt. I expected to love this book for his encyclopedic film knowledge and grim wit, but what I appreciated most was the self-deprecating, self-forgiving way Oswalt writes about overcoming the bitterness and laziness of his 20s to become a (relatively) confident artist and (relatively) happier person.
Whenever I thought "Oh, I know where this is going," Dan Chaon's interwoven narratives--a man searching for his missing twin; a recent high-school grad fleeing home with her history teacher; a young man faking his own death-- took me to far stranger, scarier, and sadder places. Few writers are as gleefully creepy (just try sleeping after you read this novel's first two pages); fewer still are as sympathetic to the often flawed, misguided ways we try to reinvent ourselves.
Tinti’s debut novel, a loving homage to 19th-century adventure stories (think Robert Louis Stevenson), is one of those let-me-just-read-a-few-pages-before-bed-oh-my-god-how-is-it-already-2am books. Our protagonist is Ren, a one-handed orphan reunited with his long-lost brother and thrust into an underworld of assassins, scammers, and grave robbers. Tinti keeps Ren’s saga rolling along at an expert pace, but what makes The Good Thief truly special is its cast of misfits, each rendered so compassionately that I was heartbroken to watch them all go.
Klosterfans rejoice! Here is the book Gen X’s philosopher king has been building toward, one that combines his love of hypotheticals, his contrarianism, and his unparalleled pop-culture analysis to tackle the question that has nagged him throughout his career: why do we perceive the world the way we do? What about the possibility “that we are unable to isolate or imagine something fundamental about the construction of reality, and that the eventual realization of whatever that fundamental thing is will necessitate a rewrite of everything else?” As in: What if we don’t actually understand gravity? What if America’s commitment to democracy winds up being its downfall? What if Roseanne comes to be seen as “the most accidentally realistic TV show there ever was?” In trying (and, by his own admittance, likely failing) to predict what will matter to people in the future, Klosterman reminded me that empathy, even more than accuracy or insight, inspires the best criticism.