This summer has been jam-packed full of fantastic new books by some pretty awesome writers that are relatively new on the scene. I have enjoyed getting to know them through their work, and just when I think I find a book that can’t be topped, BAM. My mind blows again. With my TBR piles (yes, plural) growing exponentially by the hour, I wasn’t sure what to pick up next and needed guidance. There is such a thing as too many choices.
What’s the best way to find your next great read? Ask some authors of books you’ve loved what they’ve been loving. LOGIC. Y’all, get your Muppet arms ready for some serious Wocka Wocka Wocka! I could slap some peanut butter on a book and eat it for breakfast, so I’m all about acquiring a few more. (Completely unrelated note: is there such a thing as “book rehab?”)
Katy Simpson Smith, The Story of Land and Sea (Harper, August 26)
Right now I’m about fifty pages into Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek — the language keeps slowing me down because of its sheer awesomeness. Everything is so unusually precise, and it’s dark and funny in just the same ratio that real life is. (Okay, maybe it’s a little darker.) The books I’ve read in the past month that I’ve really loved: Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, a collection of D.C. stories where the characters walked right off the page and made me cry; Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split, a book of beautiful poems that are political in the most immediate and non-didactic way; Joan Didion’s The White Album, a classic essay collection I just got around to; and Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, which is less poetry than it is a trip into someone else’s perfectly phrased hallucination. I loved it. The book I’m most looking forward to reading this fall is Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, the Irish-American epic that sounds like one of the rare books that deserves its length.
Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing (FSG Originals)
I’m reading Green Girl by Kate Zambreno and loving it. Also looking forward to Man V. Nature by Diane Cook, a debut collection of short stories out this October, and Shelly Oria’s New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, another collection coming this fall.
Mira Jacob, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House)
Just finished reading: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, am reading The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Next up are Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits and Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas!
Will Chancellor, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper)
I just finished Green Girl by Kate Zambreno. I try to hold off from saying hyperbolic shit about a book until I have at least a few months perspective, but…this novel is astoundingly good. James Joyce good. Reminds me of the Stephen Dedalus sections of Ulysses. I’m in the middle of The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson. You know how pebbles of shattered glass from a car window have an unexpected smoothness and this beautiful blue on the edges that you swear you’ve never seen before? That. I read 2/3 of this last night and woke up with glass pebbles under my pillow. I’m also reading High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire. This book begins with the boldest step I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever. Picture Indiana Jones standing on the edge of a yawning canyon. He reads: “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.” There’s nothing there, just vastness, but he kicks his leg high and trusts that an invisible bridge, The Path of God, will be there to catch him. That’s the first step of Cheshire’s novel. I promise your jaw will drop. Every day this summer, I’m rereading Memorial by Alice Oswald. I was staying with an Irish friend who loves this book and I ended up copying the whole thing into a Moleskine. Technically, the poem is a lament. I keep rereading it, however, because it is so shatteringly beautiful on life. It’s structured around the Iliad, but reminds me most of Malick’s Thin Red Line. Here’s a soul, one of many, leaving a body:
Like fire with its loose hair flying rushes through the city
The look of unmasked light shocks everything to rubble
And flames howl through the gaps
Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf)
I read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill a few months ago and adored it. It was so fresh and brisk that I, who usually read slowly, gobbled up the whole thing in two sittings. I loved Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, too. It had such a natural novelistic stride, which I admired greatly, and I have to admit that I teared up at the end. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement might have ruined me forever. The premise of the book, about trying to be a girl in certain Mexican towns, and the way it was written, so crisply, so poetically — I thought it was perfect. Right now I’m reading lots of things at once, including The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour, Life Drawing by Robin Black, and The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham, all very different, and all very great. I read two galleys recently, also, that I am hugely excited about: Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, which has the most unassuming plot – it’s about a waitress bouncing around to different jobs — but which acquires so much power by the time you get to the end that you feel you almost can’t breathe. Or at least, I felt that way. And the other is Ugly Girls by Linsday Hunter, which is spectacular. The voices, in particular, and the subtle shifts of language she uses to embody each character, left me in awe.
Edan Lepucki, California (Little, Brown and Company)
I just talked about Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark on Colbert. It’s a wonderful novel coming out in August that’s kind of like Don DeLillo crossed with AM Homes–but also a bit more earnest than either of those writers. It’s a dark and funny novel about the food industry (its narrator is a food flavorist!) and family and, on a larger level, what it means to be an American. It’s so smart and compelling! I highly recommend it.
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (The Penguin Press)
I recently read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra – I picked this up in my local indie (Porter Square Books) on a bookseller’s enthusiastic recommendation. I always trust their recs–who reads more books than a bookseller? Loved it–one of the best books I’ve read in years. Just masterfully done. Then Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – I’ve always been interested in issues of race and cultural clash, both personally and in my work. Many people recommended this to me, including a friend who said it was one of the few books she’d read that looked at interracial relationships. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang – My sister gave this to me–she’s particularly interested in Chinese American culture. So glad she did–it’s introduced me to Yang’s work. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia – The description of the book reminded me of The Westing Game, one of my favorite novels from childhood–plus, it takes place in the ’90s, when I was also a teenager, so how could I not be intrigued? It was darkly funny and I raced through it in about four days, then immediately recommended it to my husband. Kate is also a fellow instructor at Grub Street in Boston, but we only met for the first time recently. I’m currently reading Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg – Brit and I are friends–we met in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since–but I’d have picked this up even if I didn’t know her, as it touches on many themes dear to my heart: existing between cultures, alienation, how family relationships weather loss. Also, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – I loved Wolf Hall and have *finally* gotten around to starting book 2!
Merritt Tierce, Love Me Back (Doubleday, September 16)
Heavy Petting by Gregory Sherl — Greg’s poems are raw and real and hilarious and sad, a Song of Myself for the I Google Myself generation. He’s wise and playful and sexy and broken and true, and all that in a poem is magic. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit — Because they do, and they will, until we (meaning anyone who’s not a mansplainer) can stop writing books claiming and proclaiming our humanity. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like we’re all that close to such a reality, but in the meantime at least we have Solnit’s brilliance to keep us sane. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden is the true story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born inside a North Korean prison camp to have ever escaped, tells of a life made of one inhumane horror after another. To read the story of the human for whom death, starvation, torture, and hate are so routine—from birth—as to be perceived as the normal order is to touch the worth of writing, of calibrating life through storytelling.
Josh Weil, The Great Glass Sea (Grove Press)
I’m currently reading Johanna Lane’s Black Lake. I read it many years ago, as a rough draft, but am only now getting a chance to read the final thing (it was published this past May). It’s a rare joy to see a book grow like that, experience it early on and then see what it turned into after so much work, many years, many drafts, the assistance of editors…etc. In this case the qualities that were there from the start—careful attention to subtle nuances, a patience with unfolding moments so that they slowly gather weight and significance without seeming forced, that wonderful richness that comes from writing about deeply dramatic events with great control and restraint—have been fine-tuned while some wholly new elements of storyline have been added that make the book even more powerful, and the characters have become more real on the page, more astutely observed and thoroughly explored. I read the last pages sitting on a park bench in a misting rain, not wanting to get up until I was done. The ending is moving in the way that only deeply explored character fiction can be, and only when there’s stuff going on down deep. It’s quiet, contemplative, meaningful fiction at its best. A jewel of a book.
RECENTLY READ: Maybe a month and a half ago I finished Tom Barbash’s tremendous story collection, Stay Up With Me, and it has stuck with me ever since. The stories in it are frank and honest and totally unpretentious even as they tackle fiction with as much subtlety and insight and sharply honed skill as any I’ve recently read. More than anything, though, the characters that Barbash peels open (and sometimes begins to heal back up) feel real. They feel alive. And they feel like they are built from the particulars of their lives in a way that makes me close to them by each story’s end. They’re people going through crises — crumbling in many ways — but doing so with a kind of integrity and effort to deal with it that makes them deeply sympathetic. Barbash clearly feels for them and never, ever, mocks them, and that caring comes through in a way that makes these stories so moving and rewarding.
WANT TO READ: Oh, man — so many. But I’m most eager to crack open Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston, because I read his first book years ago and it was one of the most tender and big-hearted things I’ve ever read. And Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, because he’s one of the writers I most admire of anyone writing today. And I’ve been wanting to read Tony Morrison’s A Mercy for years — and pretty dang soon I’m gonna clear the decks and just do it, dammit.
How much did your TBR pile just grow?
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