"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.
A smorgasbord of history, reportage, and memoir, Pollan’s riveting account of psychedelic research gave me a strange sort of contact high. Learning how therapist-guided trips have made their subjects (including folks struggling with addiction, depression and terminal illness) happier and more open-minded, I felt my own mood lifting, my own curiosity about our species’ great mysteries—what, exactly, is a self? and what, for that matter, is consciousness?--growing with every page. Buckle up for a wild, enlightening ride!
I have never—may the book gods forgive me!—read Jane Austen, yet I loved every page of this hilarious, tenderhearted novel, in which a group of Janeites wrestle with familiar Austenian dilemmas: the pitfalls of matchmaking, the heartbreak of love lost, the unexpectedness of love gained. Full of sparkling dialogue, incisive wit, and compassionately drawn characters, The Jane Austen Book Club is a wonderful love letter not only to its namesake, but also the myriad ways literature reflects and enriches our lives.
Plenty of things make Dazed and Confused good: the performances, the period detail, the soundtrack. But what makes Dazed great is its plotlessness, its understanding that just being a teenager is drama enough. As this tremendous oral history attests, that teenaged intensity thrived behind the scenes, too, from cast cliques and hookups to Richard Linklater’s rebellious showdowns with Universal. A no-brainer for Dazed diehards, film buffs, or those of us still reflecting on our complicated youths—which is to say, anybody.
Early on in Six of Crows, when I learned I'd be following the exploits of a teenage criminal mastermind nicknamed Dirtyhands, I knew I was in for a treat. But I was ill-prepared for just how much FUN awaited me: daring heists, heart-pounding brawls, magic out the wazoo. Bardugo keeps the excitement at a fever pitch, but she also knows that none of her breathless plotting matters without characters you care about. By the end of this enthralling duology, I cherished Dirtyhands and every member of his wicked, winsome gang. (Word to the wise: have Crooked Kingdom handy as soon as you finish Six of Crows. You won't want to waste any time seeing what happens next!)
In a year when routine has felt so difficult yet so vital, Daily Rituals* has been a godsend. These brief sketches highlight the disciplines and eccentricities that kept some of our most celebrated creatives working (and returning to work) every day. From guzzling amphetamine like Sartre (20 tablets daily) to cranking out prose like Trollope (250 words every 15 minutes), Currey reminds us there’s no one way to make art, but there is always a way.
*If you enjoy this book (or crave a less male-centric sampling), try Daily Rituals: Women at Work!
I can’t tell the difference between a Monet and a Manet, yet I was utterly captivated by The Art of Rivalry. In these twinned portraits, Sebastian Smee reveals how some of our most revered painters arrived at their masterworks by admiring, encouraging, imitating, and envying their contemporaries. Smee’s exacting descriptions bring paintings to vivid life, and likewise animate the riveting personalities––Degas the misanthropic bachelor, Matisse the tender papa, Picasso the complicated creep––of their determined creators.
I was utterly charmed by this novel, a midwestern-western about a blocked novelist who accompanies an ex-train robber on his quest to make amends with the wife he abandoned. Along the way they encounter cowboys, sharpshooters, Pinkertons, and the greatest snapping turtle in all of literature. Why Leif Enger isn’t regularly cited as one of our best prose stylists I can’t fathom—his every page boasts sentences that astonish, illuminate, and delight. Few writers, moreover, keep your heart pounding and breaking simultaneously, but Enger makes it seem effortless.
This riveting history returns us 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 kept me turning pages, what gripped me most were Freeman’s compassionate portraits of legislators torn between preserving their Union and defending their beliefs. A thrilling and sobering read that shows no sign of losing relevance any time soon.
The figure who emerges from Sontag is not only as erudite and glamorous as her reputation suggests, but aloof, cruel, insecure, frightened—that is, every bit a person. Here is a woman who transformed her biggest conundrums into great literature, who replicated an emotionally fraught childhood in all her adult relationships, who kept striving (and failing) to perfect herself. By the end of Sontag I could have 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, 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, but utterly convinced by them. Here were people whose grace and humor, stubbornness and sadness I recognized from my own life, all rendered without a hint of judgement or sentimentality. Yes, there is nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks, but that’s Tyler’s genius: to remind us that even the most “unremarkable” lives deserve our attention, compassion, and 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!
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 told him, “Readers will revolt.” Little did Shawn realize that McPhee’s attentiveness and awe make any subject—rocks, canoes, oranges—instantly fascinating. With this terrific book McPhee applies that attentiveness and awe to his own process. Alongside charming anecdotes from the author’s more than fifty-year career, Draft No. 4 overflows with crucial advice (and reminders) for writers of all genres.
For Theodore Roosevelt, the best way to combat emotional hardships was by embracing physical hardships. So how did he cope with losing the 1912 election? By voyaging down an uncharted river in the Amazon, of course! Little did the ex-president realize this epic journey would bring him face-to-face with fierce rapids, fiercer piranha, and (perhaps fiercest of all) his own mortality. Chockfull of rollicking adventure, Candice Millard’s exquisite book is also a moving meditation on loss, limits, and love.
“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. If you devour this novel as fast as I did, fear not: three wonderful sequels await!
This meditation on fidelity, sexism, and the writing life comes laced with a dagger-sharp wit that won me over immediately. (For my money Meg Wolitzer writes the best similes ever. Flip to page 21 for an incredible one about “Mongolian sexual acrobats” I’m too sheepish to quote here.) You’ll find yourself crying from laughter until the end, when you’ll just be straight-up crying. That Wolitzer fits so much humor and heartbreak into 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 high praise. I read Bynum’s book as slowly as possible, savoring the gentle humor and rich emotion she threads into every sentence. Anchored by their titular heroine––a middle-school English teacher who, like her pupils, daily navigates the perilous in-between of youth and maturity––these stories never treat the absurdities and sorrows of life with irony. Instead, Bynum infuses even the smallest, most recognizable encounters with 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.
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 book full of serial killings and drug addiction and Satanic cults––is one of the most pleasurable reads of my life? Few novels are as gleefully creepy (just try sleeping after you read the opening pages); fewer still are as honest about our struggles to live with grief, be present, and know who we truly are. This is a rare thriller that gets better the more you read it––Chaon's prose is that hypnotic, his characters that compelling.
“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.
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.