The target audience for this lovely little number is ages eight to twelve, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same. Drawn from the Irish tradition of hanging one's wishes on a particular tree on a particular day once every year, Wishtree is narrated by Red, a several-hundred year-old (you guessed it) Wishtree with a knack for storytelling. According to Red, trees are not only very much alive, but are able to communicate verbally with non-tree beings. While it's expressly forbidden for trees to talk to people, Red has no problem conversing with the delightful cast of creatures living in her nooks, crannies, and branches. But when a boy carves into Red's trunk a hateful message directed at the Muslim family that just moved to her suburban American neighborhood, Red becomes fed up with all of the intolerance she's witnessed over the years and begins struggle with her role as observer, silently standing by.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang isn't your typical fantasy/coming of age novel. Drawing heavily from Chinese history and lore, this first of a trilogy follows the story of a young, peasant, war orphan named Rin who tests into a prestigious military academy where she's trained in combat, strategy, and ultimately learns to commune with the "Nikaran" (read "Chinese") pantheon, affording her mystical powers. The basic conceit, as best I can tell it, is what if Mao were born one-hundred years prior as a peasant girl and had the ability to manipulate fire? The first book loosely follows the events of the Opium Wars with Britain and the Second Sino-Japanese war between China and Japan, examining the horrors of war and the pitfalls of blind obedience to the powers that be. I'm not typically one for fantasy, but this is one I would highly recommend.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: I've always had a particular attraction to novels written by poets, and this one is no different. Patricia Lockwood found her fame in writing brutally honest depictions of 21st century pop and internet culture with the unapologetic voice of a disillusioned millenial. In her second novel, No One is Talking About This, Lockwood gives us the disjointed ruminations of an internet celebrity struggling with identity and internet (mainly social media) addiction. Lockwood holds a mirror up to collective meme culture and social media obsession in an incredibly poignant, but unwaveringly hilarious journey into a mind defined by a fragmented attention and ever-present existenial crisis. I couldn't put it down.
Through a series of essays originally published in The Atlantic (among them "A Case for Reparations" and "The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration"), Coates established himself as one of the most important commentators on race in the United States. We Were Eight years in Power provides us those eight essays - one for each year of the Obama administration - along with an additional eight previously unpublished personal essays in which Coates reflects on his experiences from each of those years. Culminating in an innovative and profoundly sobering piece written about the 2016 election, We Were Eight Years in Power is not one to miss.
For some, reading this book would be tantamount to having teeth pulled or listening to someone recount their most recent dream at length and in great detail. That being said, I love everything about it.
This was easily my number one pick of books I read in the year 2014. The Wake is an utterly unique and imaginative debut novel wherein Kingsnorth crafted a language with his own vocabulary and set of rules, much in the tradition of books like Finnegan’s Wake, Trainspotting, and A Clockwork Orange. Balking at the thought of writing a historical novel using contemporary language, Kingsnorth opted to create what he calls a “shadow tongue” that uses a combination of a phonetic dialect, Middle and Old English, and selective exclusion of words that didn’t enter the English language until after the time-period in which the story took place. The Wake is set in 1066 immediately following the Norman invasion and conquest of England. The story is narrated by and follows an English farmer from the rural North of the country who takes to the forests and swamps of his countryside in hopes of joining the fight in the underground resistance against the Normans. The story itself is an excellent one, but Kingsnorth’s adaptation, modification and mastery of the language in telling this story is what makes this book incredible. At first glance, this “ghost language” can admittedly be daunting to new readers, but with the aid of the brief “Note on Language” and the partial glossary found at the back of the book, the rules and rhythms of the text are remarkably easy to pick up, and it’s profoundly rewarding to find oneself gliding through the sentences without pause – even to the point of hearing the cadence and brogue of the narrator, Buccmaster of Holland. While I fully understand that this kind of book isn’t for everyone, if this sounds like something that remotely appeals to you as a reader, I would strongly encourage you to give it a try; I can’t overstate what a joy this was to read.
Fans of The Wake will understand the excitement with which I announce that Paul Kingsnorth is back with the second installment of the Buckmaster Trilogy, and he didn't disappoint. Set a thousand years after the events in The Wake, The Beast comes from the mind of Edward Buckmaster (a modern-day 'buccmaster of holland') who has walked away from society, technology and modernity to seek peace and wisdom in the isolation of an empty moor in the west of England. Starting out, Buckmaster harbors romantic notions of himself as some kind of noble hermit-martyr (as opposed to, say, a deadbeat husband and father who couldn't deal) but there's nothing quite like a good and brutal mauling from an unseen (dare I say it?) beast to pull a dreamer out of the clouds. Buckmaster awakens, mangled and confused, his world suddenly one of immediacy and survival. The rest of the world, beyond the moor, fades into mist as Buckmaster embarks on a slow descent into madness or, perhaps, enlightenment. With brilliant demonstration of craft and a narrative intensity that unapologetically demands your attention, Kingsnorth continues to push the boundaries of conventional fiction with resounding success.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut is everything I want from a modern collection of short stories; it’s immersive, explosive, surprising, lovely and terrifying. Machado grabs you by the heartstrings from the first and refuses to relax her grip until the very last, and even then her stories stick with you, come to you at night and rehash their darkness and delight. The stories in Her Body and Other Parties are utterly and brazenly unique, never asking that you suspend disbelief, instead suffusing you with their urgent and overwhelming reality. While each story exists independently from the others, narratives involving the lives and bodies of women operate as the thematic thread pulling them all together.
I have to give a shout-out to Bloomington's own Adrian Matejka and his fantastic fourth book of poetry, Map to the Stars. Oft-nominated, award-winning Matejka knocked a home-run into outer space with his most recent collection, in which he constructs the narrative of a young black man growing up in poverty and uncertainty in Reagan-Era Indianapolis. These poems interweave depictions of the harsh realities of 1980's midwestern poverty, racism and classism with historical events, and the escapism afforded by (1980's) pop culture and looking to the stars. Within even single stanzas Matejka seamlessly combines the hard city street imagery of concrete and steel with evocations of the other-wordly, celestial and ethereal. This is the kind of poetry we need in this world - the kind that's conscious, bold, and unwilling to look the other way.
She Would Be King is a rich and enchanting tale, a strikingly original and perfectly executed blend of historical fiction and magical realism. Through an utterly unique narrative perspective, Wayétu Moore presents us with a far-reaching and multifacted story revolving around the Transatlantic slave trade and the formation of Liberia. Yet another excellent, boundary-pushing, bar-raising debut from Graywolf Press.
Winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize(only the second time an American has received the award), the debut novel from acclaimed short-fiction writer George Saunders is a unique, inventive work of fiction unlike any fiction you've ever encountered. Deriving the premise from the Tibetan belief regarding the state of one's existence following death and awaiting rebirth, Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a multitude of disparate voices - mostly comprised of spirits lingering in a D.C. graveyard, but also passages from newspaper articles, personal accounts, memoirs, and letters - pieced together to create a startingly original yet eminently readable narrative. The story begins several years into the American Civil War with ten-year-old Willie Lincoln, the eldest son of President Abraham Lincoln, dying of a fever. Unable to leave Washington, Lincoln temporarily entombs his dead son in a mausoleum in a nearby cemetary, a place he begins to visit late at night. Unwilling to pass over to whatever awaits beyond, the spirit of Willie Lincoln opts to stay in the cemetary, where he meets a slew of other obstinate spirits from various periods of time and walks of life who also (for one reason or another) prefer to remain in limbo - in the Bardo - instead of facing whatever awaits them in the great beyond.
As far as collected works go, this new volume of (my favorite Hoosier) Kurt Vonnegut's short stories reaches borderline perfection. Edited by longtime friends of and experts on Vonnegut, Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield, and with a thoughtful forward by Dave Eggers, this collection is clearly a labor of love. The 97 stories - including five previously unpublished works unearthed not long before the book went to the presses - are organized thematically ("War," "Women," "Science," "Romance," "Work Ethic vs. Fame and Fortune," "Behavior," "The Band Director" and "Futuristic"), each section given a brief introduction by one of the two editors, providing some background and context on Vonnegut's relationship to the theme. Even the book as an object (masterfully constructed by Seven Stories Press) is a wonder to behold.
A collection of short stories by Alexander Weinstein exploring humanity in the technological age. These stories occupy various iterations of our world in the near future; dystopian worlds eerily familiar to present day wherein new technologies have fundamentally impacted the way people live and relate. In one people never leave their homes, and all social interaction occurs in a virtual world populated by avatars and accessed via full-body suits and electrical wires. In another, the internet, computers, and the human mind have synched to the point that our fields of vision are set up like a desktop and with click and scroll with our eyes. We don't know what direction the technological revolution is going to take us, but these stories act as a sobering reminder that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.
There isn't anything I can say about this that hasn't already been said more eloquently by someone else. Profoundly thoughtful, this may be the most important book to come out in the last two years. Presented as a letter written from Coates to his sixteen year-old son, Between the World and Me is a meditation on race in America.Invoking the writing of James Baldwin, Coates is candid and clear, and provides a level of perspective and understanding that we need to hear.
Short and sweet, this is a meditation on the process of grief and where it can take us. This little book is weird as hell. In a combination of prose, poetry, narrative, and drama, we're shown a man and his two sons shortly after the death of his wife and their mother. Grief comes to them as a strange and powerful crow to aid them in their process of mourning, albeit in occasionally unconventional ways. Moving, resonant, disturbing, and unique, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a quick read that will stay with you long after you close the cover.
I'm a tiny bit smitten with Ottessa Moshfegh. Her writing is dark and unforgiving, a gritty and unwashed place of moral ambiguity interspersed with glimpses of humanity and an occasional image or turn of phrase so stunning or beautifully crafted as to give us pause. Her first novel, McGlue was a skinny little thing, but fantastic and packing a punch. Eileen is longer, and more of a slow-burn; the title character is a twenty-something wallflower who works at a youth correctional facility in Massachusetts. Quiet, sort-of pretty and unassuming, Eileen is a pretty unremarkable individual. Under the surface, however, she's strange and sinister as hell. There's some action, sure, a bit of violence, but Moshfegh makes you work for it. The entire novel is one of anticipation, but in waiting for the gun to fire, the blade to drop, we're drawn under the spell of a narrator we're cheering for without knowing why, a character we want to like but are repulsed by, a fate we believe in but know we shouldn't. Keep an eye out for Ottessa Moshfegh's forthcoming collection of short stories.
This book cannot be returned.
This year’s winner of the Man-Booker prize, and the first American author to receive the award, Paul Beatty has presents us with some of the finest satire ever written. In this hilarious, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, and incredibly timeless novel, we're told the story of a man who, through a series of strange events and dire circumstances, reinstitutes slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, a suburb of Los Angeles. While I know that doesn't sound even remotely funny, I found myself laughing out loud with tears in my eyes. The humor of Beatty's work lies in his approach to reality and the way he uses the ridiculous aspects of our lives and our society to lambast the status quo, our history, and the things we accept as normative or true.
In her last book, Just Kids, Patti Smith chronicled her beginnings in New York City as a 20-year-old with no money and no contacts trying to figure out her place in the counter-culture of the sixties. M Train picks up on the other end of her long career, sitting in a coffee shop and musing on a life of creativity and love. The title is ironic, as the progression of M Train isn't remotely straightfoward or consistent, but is rather meanders through personal history, insight and revelation. That being said, it is a lovely meditation on art, the creative process, love, relationships, and the passage of time.
This one took me by surprise, had me laughing out loud one minute and suppressing a sob the next, all the while hanging on every word. Fowler here successfully takes some intellectual risks, operating on the outskirts of the comfortable confines of the stylistic and structural norms she established in her previous work; the result is an emotionally complex, pseudo-sibling story within which Fowler dissects and inspects the fragility of the human condition, the nature of familial love, and the ethical ambiguity of scientific research that requires living, breathing subjects. This is one of those books has the capability to renew and reinforce one’s love of reading.
“You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.” This revelation is the impetus for one young Japanese man’s attempt to confront his painful past in the hope of attaining some measure of enlightenment and redemption. Newcomers to Murakami and long-time fans alike won’t be disappointed with the excellent addition to the celebrated writer’s remarkable oeuvre.
Master of the morally ambiguous, our prolific author Denis Johnson is back to deliver us another sock in the gut. Set adrift in the chaotic and labyrinthine society and politics of Western Africa, a jaded ex-CIA operative in a post-9/11 world attempts to navigate a whiplash-inducing thrill ride of cynicism, deceit, absurdity and humanity. Johnson fans think: Tree of Smoke meets Nobody Move.
The debut novel by Kentucky writer and short story virtuoso Alex Taylor. Here Taylor presents us with some Grit Lit at its finest – a ravaged landscape, an all-but-forgotten element of rural Kentucky, and no shortage of violence and vigilantism. Try it out!
Paris, 1941. Nazis have conscripted demons from hell, Surrealist artworks have manifested as corporeal, sentient, violent combatants and adrift in it all is a lone resistance fighter staggering through the nightmarish hellscape of his crumbling city just trying to make it through the occupation with his sanity and body intact.
A spellbinding debut novel about a boy whose typical coming-of-age narrative is abruptly derailed by the death by suicide of his father. In the wake of his father’s wake, our young narrator is must learn to navigate puberty, sexuality, and his burgeoning adulthood under the specter of tragedy and a hazy surreality while what remains of his family dissolves around him.
This book cannot be returned.
Down an unlikely side street in an underlit part of San Francisco, Sloan presents us with an intriguing crossroads where collides the last gasp of the printed word, the technological overhaul of the 21st Century, a centuries-old secret society and an unlikely cast of oddball characters. Fittingly, a hapless of hopeful (and fairly resourceful) bookseller leads us through this delightful tale of mystery, wit, wonder, wisdom, and no small amount of snark.
Latin-American literary legend Roberto Bolaño delivers a searing, intriguing, thought-igniting treatise on church and state as told from the deathbed of a Chilean Jesuit priest. Although objectively little happens by way of action throughout this tale, the story is driven by remembrances of fast-paced dialogues held between various intellectuals, thinkers and artists of differing backgrounds and opinions and sporadically broken up by alternatively poignant and profound reflections from the dying man on his long and tumultuous life. Chris Andrews’ translation from the original Spanish does well to retain and do justice to Bolaño’s wit and poeticism and renders the text universally accessible – which is to say the reader needn’t have real prior knowledge of the Chilean cultural and historical background to still thoroughly enjoy this work. If you haven’t read Bolaño yet, fix that, and start here.
Thoughtful, poignant, transportive, artful, exquisite…this book may be flawless. Duras is careful with her words; her story unfolds in paragraphs that almost seem like photographs being spilled out of a near-empty album. This is a story of a place and time told through the bittersweet glimpses of a passionate and tumultuous love affair.
A remarkable short-fiction cycle telling the stories of characters from the fringes of the Bible – soldiers, prostitutes, thieves and more – weaving a harrowing and entrancing tale of good and evil.
A gripping coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of Ireland’s Troubles. A young man navigates his own sexuality and his single mother’s shame within the staunchly Catholic Irish society. One of the best books of 2017.
If you aren’t familiar with the work of Don Delillo, you ought to be. In the last forty years, he’s published seventeen novels and a collection of stories, establishing an incredible oeuvre of criticism and observation regarding modern American life and culture. His innate understanding of the human condition renders his work haunting, hilarious, and everything in between.
A boundary-pushing thrill ride, a fantastical story that manages to go beyond itself, questioning the very nature of storytelling and the role of the reader as “impartial observer”
A sailor sobering up in the hold of a ship, suffering from a head injury and the DTs and grappling with the possibility that he may have killed a man. Equal parts poetry and brutality, quick and succinct like a knife to the gut, leaving you long after to ponder the wound. I love this book.
From the author of Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz is at his best in this exciting exploration of early American history, chronicling the ill-fated European forays into the “new world” prior to the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth. Witty and thorough, Horwitz retraces the steps of Vikings, conquistadors, French and Spanish explorers, and even one Genoan through the modern American landscape.
This book turned out to be so much better, so much more than I had hoped for. Gripping, enchanting, thrilling and thought-provoking. An alternate history for our time.
Impossibly, Whitehead has managed to imagine an antebellum South even more dystopian than the real thing. Exceptional, phenomenal, exquisite, flawless. Whitehead has demonstrated the art and craft of fiction at its finest. This book is perfect, and I don’t say that lightly.
A darkly comic fable in which a fox’s pack is endangered by the construction of a shopping mall, leading him to pen a letter to the “Yumans” asking them to explain their cruelty. Utterly delightful.
The last collection of fiction from one of America’s greatest short fiction writers of all time. His America is sad and beautiful, full of ghosts and dreams deferred.
A debut collection of stories from an absolute powerhouse of a young writer, Adjei-Brenyah puts American racism and consumerism under a microscope, then ties them to a chair and doesn’t pull a single punch. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK.
One of my all-time favorite books. Bolaño here presents us with two young poets adrift in Mexico, isolated in their idealism. While his characters seek to revert Literature from an institution to a discussion, Bolaño himself simply asks that we reevaluate our understanding of how great novels are written.
City on Fire is a panoramic view of New York City in the 1970s. The birth of punk rock, the heroin epidemic, the subsequent AIDS epidemic, the top-down corruption, growing unrest in the city and the disparity between those with and those without, all culminating in the city-wide blackout. It follows the interwining and overlapping stories of a handful of diverse characters, from a teenage anarchist squatting in a run-down tenement to one of the wealthiest families in the city. Reminiscent of Bonfire of the Vanities, this novel goes a lot of different places and strikes a lot of different chords. It's a big one (700-some odd pages) but well worth it.
If you’re looking for a near-perfect collection of shot stories, look no further. Moshfegh here puts her astounding ability on full display.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry is a very bleak, very Irish, melancholy and brilliant sort of Waiting for Godot crime novel. Set in a ferry terminal in a Spanish port city, we see two elderly, world-wizened, world-weary career criminals conversing and reminiscing while waiting for the one of their wayward daughters. Barry gives us a slow-burning, sometimes meandering story of love, crime, betrayal, redemption, loyalty and family, traversing the lives of these two men without ever setting foot outside of the ferry terminal. Barry is a master of his craft and thoroughly adept at making us care about the most seemingly unlikeable people. An exercise in the human condition, this was a great read.
Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong is a harrowing journey through the history of religion and violence - albeit an incomplete one, as it primarily focuses on western religious traditions - spanning from Gilgamesh and the Sumerians up through the religious fundamentalism of the 20th and 21st century. Through a meticulously detailed and well-considered account, Armstrong provides us with a remarkably readable treatise on how religion had been used by people in positions of power for centuries to motivate the hoi polloi into sanctioning and fighting wars of greed, territory, and the consolidation of power. A must-read for anyone struggling to reconcile the violent legacy of religious traditions with the messages of hope, peace, and love their doctrines espouse.