Thinking about my reading habits, I'm really not sure what draws me to a particular book - just a gut sense that we'll get along. Lately I've been drawn to narrative nonfiction and short stories. I like novels with a strong voice--if they make me laugh, even better.
This collection is only 146 pages long (plus notes) and there are no bad sentences in it. The shortest of these stories, including the title story, achieve a prose poem-like compression, but the amazing thing is that none of them feel overworked--and they're funny. If you can get through the one about people who work in a New York City dog shelter without crying, you're tougher than I am. This is a book to sit with and to savor.
Damon Young is a co-founder of verysmartbrothas.com. You might be thinking that lots of people write personal-political stuff for publication online, so what makes this collection stand out? It's all about the voice. Every single one of these essays, even when addressing the hardest stuff, contains a bunch of witty aperçus that will forever change how you see certain people and things. (There are several politicians who I'll forever associate with their Youngian nicknames.) Young's riffs on things he particularly dislikes, where he really lets it rip, bring me a lot of joy.
This extremely readable book is half true-crime story, half history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The main narrative concerns a horrifying crime: a mother of ten was taken from her apartment in a Belfast public housing complex that served as a flashpoint during the height of the Troubles and never heard from again. The stories of several prominent Provisional IRA families are also told in detail. (Check out the massive "notes" section to understand the depth of research that went into this book). Patrick Radden Keefe is a New Yorker staff writer and this reads like a New Yorker article in the best possible way.
This short, sharp satirical novel might be for you if, like me, you're so over earnest realism right now. Korede, the plain, responsible one, is compelled to clean up the literal and figurative messes left by her beautiful, murderous sister Ayoola (who has a social media addiction that undermines her half-hearted attempts to present herself as the grieving girlfriend of her deceased boyfriends). I don't have a sibling, but I loved how the author explores the bond between sisters.
The "last pass" of the title concerns Bob Cousy's late-in-life letter to his Celtics teammate and friend, Bill Russell. While Cousy was enlightened for his time on matters of race -- the product of a difficult childhood, he empathized with those who felt like outsiders -- he wishes he'd done more to publicly and privately support Russell during a particularly racist era in Boston history. The coming-of-age of basketball as a professional sport, the Red Auerbach Celtics, the racial strife surrounding Boston's attempt to integrate its public schools, and the national Civil Rights movement are all sensitively woven into the story of the partnership between these two men.
A delightful, endlessly browseable history that explores the culture that the Beastie Boys came from as well as their creations and legacy. It's mostly written by Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz -- the loss of Adam Yauch in 2012 and the surviving members' evident love for him lend this project weight and poignancy -- with some excellent contributions from pals & associates including Luc Sante, Amy Poehler and Andre Leon Talley (who hilariously eviscerates the group's many "interesting" fashion moments).
This is a complicated, intense reckoning with family and personal history by one of the sharpest writers out there. Of his mother, Laymon writes: "You gave me a black southern laboratory to work with words. In that space, I learned how to assemble memory and imagination when I most wanted to die."
The protagonist -- a writing teacher and a cat person -- inherits a Great Dane after the death of her friend and mentor with whom she shares a long and complicated history. Fans of pared-down writing and sensitive explorations of human/animal (and human/human) bonds will love this novel. It has also been nominated for a National Book Award.
Tamara Shopsin is the daughter of Kenny Shopsin, the famously cantankerous chef/owner of a general-store-turned-restaurant made famous by Calvin Trillin, among many other loyal patrons. In charmingly episodic fashion, Tamara tells stories from her childhood in pre-corporate Greenwich Village, when the rents were low and the food-safety regulations were, uh, lax. A worthy addition to the Old New York City genre.
Reading How to be Famous is like lingering in the pub with your smartest friend and getting buzzed off of the conversation as much as whatever's in your pint glasses. This is a sequel of sorts to How to Build a Girl, but the story's more polished and the politics feel more urgent. Queue up the Britpop playlist and throw this one in your beach bag.
It's been years since I've been this excited about a new novel. Tommy Orange weaves together the stories of many individuals meeting at a large Oakland pow-wow, examining what it means to be an "Urban Indian" (his term) existing off the reservation. Whenever something gets pre-publication comparisons to both Gertrude Stein and George Saunders, the seasoned bookseller might be forgiven for rolling his or her eyes, but the comparison turns out to be weirdly appropriate in this case--though neither reference prepares you for the emotional experience of reading this novel.
George Booth's understated illustrations pair perfectly with Sandra Boynton's wry humor. For those of us who've ever wondered what our slow old dogs get up to when we're not at home -- we finally have our answer.
Man, is this book weird -- my kind of weird. Beautiful illustrations pair with loopy text about a literal baby monkey-turned-detective whose only shortcoming as a private eye is his inability to get dressed properly. (Let's face it, putting on your pants is kind of the worst.) Great for beginning readers who want a big-kid book.
The beauties of the title are the young queer and trans New Yorkers who find family and community in the 1980s Harlem ball scene. (Remember the documentary Paris is Burning?) Despite the potentially heavy subject matter -- abuse, sex work, addiction, and lives that burn hot and fast -- this novel's exuberance, defiance and lightness of touch make it a joy to read.
I love the art; I love the text, and I need to quote another reviewer who called it "the ultimate black boy joy book." Whether going to the barbershop is a regular feature of their lives or not, kids everywhere will love the fun, heart and sense of pride in this book.
I discovered Lauren Greenfield's landmark photography book "Girl Culture" when I was an uncomfortable 15-year-old library page, and it immediately grabbed me by depicting many of the issues that troubled me most. Here, her scope is larger but her eye is just as precise. This book impressively manages to indict a culture without necessarily shaming the individuals who tell stories of addiction or excess or foreclosure. A slightly nauseating look at our present-day woes.
Known as both a solo singer/songwriter and as the pioneering force behind the bands Throwing Muses and 50FootWave, Kristin Hersh's writing is as startling, expectation-defying and fresh as her music. Here, she chronicles her friendship with the brilliant and frustrating Vic Chesnutt and the end of her own long marriage.
This immediately appealing New England noir is set in a small coastal Massachusetts town in the sleepy, early 1960s. With shades of Patricia Highsmith, Ottessa Moshfegh takes us into the mind of a repressed, self-effacing young woman who is ready to snap.
As an experiment in "immersive attention," Ruth Ozeki observes her face for three hours while recording her thoughts and feelings. This probably sounds pretentious, but she brings to this project her knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Japanese-American history, and her general curiosity and brilliance. A chapter on the effort involved in creating Noh theater masks is particularly delightful. A gem!
Matthew Desmond tells an urgent story of landlords and renters in several present-day Milwaukee neighborhoods. He follows families over the course of multiple forced moves, often from bad apartments to even worse ones, while analyzing the complicated relationship between poverty and eviction. This is a complex tale of anguish, ingenuity, and sacrifices made of necessity.
Every page of this graphic memoir radiates love and sorrow. The author and his wife escape an increasingly stressful life in New York City in search of a slower, more peaceful home for their young family. But their two-year-old daughter passes away suddenly, and their grief is overwhelming. This is a hard book to read, but it's a beautiful tribute to their little girl and a lifeline to anyone who is grieving.
Prepare to become totally immersed in the story of two best friends, Lila and Elena, growing up in a provincial 1950s Naples neighborhood. The children of "the neighborhood" experience hardship; there's a pretty high body count for a relatively quiet book. Stasis reigns; one family's departure from the neighborhood later becomes mythic. Electricity flows between the two girls as they recognize in each other an intelligence that is underappreciated by everyone else. Elena studies and wins praise from from her teachers; Lila must leave school to work at her father's shoe factory, but meanwhile she's devising her own plan of escape, so she hopes. This is the first of four books. (yay!)
These ten stories are funny, plain-spoken tales about people out of their depth. My favorites are "Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love".and "Desert Hearts," but they're all good!
This funny, highly quotable, charmingly digressive memoir tells the story of Stephen Fry's school years. He conveys the texture of private-school life in late '60s England -- he repeatedly gets into trouble and begins to realize he's gay, in a time and place where "gay" is barely even a word. I read this years ago and am thrilled it's finally back in print in the US.
A book about Céline Dion, you may ask? Yup, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of taste, French-Canadian pop music history, the felicities of music criticism, as well as a jargon-free introduction to various types of critical theory. Carl Wilson, not a Dion fan at the start of this book, makes a sincere and enlightening attempt to both examine what's really behind his musical preferences and to change them.
Detail by detail, slowly and patiently, Tessa Hadley builds a life so rich and so ordinary, it's easy to forget you're reading fiction. The protagonist, Stella, observes everything at a calm remove, even when she's describing chaos. The result feels like a kind of reckoning with how much control we really have over our lives. Subtly different from anything else I've read.
These laugh-out-loud funny stories are mostly set in a disquieting future that isn't so different from our present. Pretty much any adjectives you can think of to describe these stories sound po-faced ("surreal," "deadpan," etc.) so I'll just say that his writing is sort of your-brain-but-smarter. Saunders also has a real knack for satirical brand names.
If you've read a Colette novel, you've met women like the three profiled in this biography. Mercedes de Acosta, Madge Garland and Esther Murphy moved in their respective, largely queer intellectual circles during the first half of the 20th century but also crossed paths in this simultaneously influential and insular world. Brilliant in their own ways - one edited British Vogue, one was a "failed" writer and one famously tried to romance Greta Garbo - they all undermined themselves to various degrees.
This is one of the best novels I'll read this year - it has the dark pull of a really great mystery and a raunchy, heartbreaking narrator in 13-year-old Joe Coutts, who's growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in the 1980s. Joe's mother survives a violent assault on her way to work at the tribal offices. Her subsequent depression renders her unable to help the police investigation, and the other adults seem frustratingly ineffectual, so Joe decides to pursue justice on his own.
Junot Diaz returns to writing about his character Yunior from Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This time his themes are machismo, the legacy of racial/colonial violence and the possibility of finding what he calls "decolonial love." Because this is Junot Diaz, though, the delightful writing manages to carry all this heavy stuff lightly. This story collection is quieter than Oscar Wao and a little more unified than Drown - but, like Drown, has an amazing final story that seems to sum up the rest of the book while going beyond.
Since there was no Pulitzer for fiction this year, it seemed like a good time to look at past winners who may be less widely read today. Halfway through this rich collection of stories I'm amazed at how easily Jean Stafford switches between settings and moods. You can listen to one of her most unnverving stories, "The Interior Castle," at Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast. In contrast, all of the stories about young Americans in Europe had me laughing out loud. She has to be one of the most versatile short story writers ever.
Margaret Atwood really takes you for a ride with this book, but in a good way. The lives of three women are revealed through their interactions with a mysterious fourth woman who acts as a transformative force. I love the structure of this novel, with all of its layers and echoes. Why didn't I read this sooner?!
Robison falls somewhere between Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel but is funnier than either. In this post-Hurricane Katrina tale, she packs tons of funny/heartbreaking insights into her signature short, fragmented chapters.
The author's love of words makes these stories exceptionally powerful - read Pink (page 39) and you'll understand. Despite the difficult subject, this collection is a delight!
Eliza Griswold spent seven years traveling throughout Africa and Asia at ten degrees north - a region that is home to more than half of the world's population of both Christians and Muslims. This culmination of her work and travels serves as a captivating, detailed primer on the complicated relationship between these two faiths and their adherents. I went into this book with little background knowledge and found it very approachable.
Get out your pen and notepad, because you will want to make a list of writers to investigate as you're reading. This is a very amiable book that should appeal to fans of Anne Fadiman's essays. Elaine Showalter is opinionated and manages to cut certain book down to size without seeming mean-spirited -- but the real pleasure lies in her evaluations of lesser-known women writers. I think she intends this book to be partly an invitation to talk about these writers, and in that she is successful. It would be a great choice for a book group.
This novel requires a bit of patience at first, but ultimately there are many reasons why it's my favorite book of the last ten years: beautiful writing, full of readable detail; layers od psychological complication; and slow building tension. Leo, who is the young narrator of the book, spends the summer of 1900 at his upper-class school friend's estate. He becomes smitten with both his friend's older sister and the man she loves, who works nearby as a tenant farmer. This is, of course, a socially unacceptable love, which naive Leo unwittingly facilitates by serving as a secret "go-between"for the couple. This is a quiet novel that sneaks up on you with its emotional impact.
This novel is a pleasure to read, can be read on many levels, and will linger in your thoughts for a long time. Lea de Lonval is an older courtesan and Fred Peloux (Cheri) is her beautiful and haughty young lover. Their liason of six years ends as the scales begin to fall from Cheri's eyes. When they meet again in the second novel, the france of the first book has been radically changed by WWII and Lea and Cheri themselves have been altered by time. Maybe not the most consoling of novels, but a wonderful and satisfying one.
This is such a fun book! Set in Paris in the 1950's, it features assorted Americans, Parisians and our protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce, a perceptive, funny 21-year-old who tells of her misadventures there in a tart, deadpan voice.
This is the first in a trilogy of crime novels anchored by Maureen O'Donnell, the young woman at the center of the chaos. She's tough and fascinating, one of the few fictional characters I wish I could meet. She has survived a hellish family life, a breakdown and a subsequent stay in a hospital and wakes up a year or so after being released to find her married therapist boyfriend murdered in her living room. Maureen isn't what anyone could call "well" or "stable" but the damaged and vulnerable bits of her are just that - aspects of a complex personality. She's not a female super-sleuth; instead she's fueled by vengeance, a desire to clear her name and an increasing fear that she may have had something to do with the murder after all. Furthermore, she's not entirely trustworthy, but neither is any other character, subjectivity (particularly as is concerns experiences of abuse, mental illness and relationships between family members) being one of the big themes of this book. The trilogy is set in Glasgow - Garnethill is one of its neighborhoods - and the city is as fully drawn and authentic as Denise Mina's characters. Despite the frequently grim themes, this is not another miserablist novel; its ironic humor makes it pretty darn exhilarating to read. Amazing book, the best I've read in months. (Be aware, though, that there are some passages dealing with sexual abuse that are as disturbing as they should be. It's an unsettling book, but worth your being unsettled.)
Anne Fadiman revives a neglected genre - the familiar essay - in this collection. Familiar essays combine the personal and the scholarly in a way that is completely winning in this case. I defy you to read her essay on Charles Lamb (on whom she has a "monumental crush") and not develop an intellectual crush of your own, on both author and subject.