Claire Vaye Watkins has established herself as a writer to watch with her novel debut Gold Fame Citrus. I read this book as extreme devastation was ravishing California with wildfire, which feels dangerously close to the future Watkins offers here–the novel is set in a California scorched by extreme drought, fire, and an encroaching sea of sand. The writing is extraordinarily bold, and I admired it for that–it’s very free and very incisive all at once, and there are so many scenes that are just razor sharp. The social criticism here is definitely on point, though it’s truly devoid of hope. The more imperiled the environment becomes in Gold Fame Citrus, the more morally bankrupt its people, the more willing to believe in lies to preserve their own sense of comfort. This book, at its most basic level–even for all of Watkins’ play–is terrifying.
This is my second read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I first read it the year that it came out, just a few short years after 9/11. I remember being astounded by Foer’s work, and how it stumbled through the rubble of that tragedy and tried to tell the story of America. Returning to it now, it feels different, but still brilliant. I particularly noticed how deftly Foer layers the generational experiences of loss, of war, of fathers and sons, of wives and husbands–history repeats but never reverses. In this story, we learn along with the remarkable young protagonist that there are always new inventions of love and terror, regrets that frame our identities, and ways to hold what we have while it’s in front of us. It’s one of the most human books I’ve ever read.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors is steeped in place in the best kind of way. Kawai Strong Washburn’s jaw-dropping prose gives an intimate family portrait of a working-class family strung tensely between Hawaii and the mainland. Washburn blends Hawaiian mythology, tensions related to class and race, and the perennial struggle of finding how to belong in a family. The natural world is a character in and of itself that pulls on the characters’ destinies, making the novel immersively Hawaiian through and through. The multiple perspectives of the novel create a revolving door that provides different paths to understanding the sacred energy that permeates the modern setting of the book in surprising and irreversible ways.
This volume of short stories has been on my to-read list for over a year–I added it when a close friend of mine told me, in no uncertain terms, to read it. Since then, it’s been recommended several more times. Now that I’ve read it, I understand why. Gutsy and gutting, structurally fascinating, and observant about all the unspoken things just beyond the edge of comfortable, Carmen Maria Machado’s prose is here whether you like it or not. This is quite a book. It’s a master class in style and somehow remains literary and poignant while spinning off of 90’s kid horror Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and including a sex scene on every other page. How does Machado do it? I have no idea, but I deeply enjoyed it.
Favorite Stories in this Collection: -The Husband Stitch -Real Women Have Bodies* -Eight Bites -Difficult at Parties
Margaret Atwood is a writer who we need, for so many reasons, and she proves that yet again in The Testaments. Both satisfying and unnerving, true and false, saccharine and scathing, this book gives fans of The Handmaid’s Tale a little more time to look around Gilead and to imagine how we might act were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. There’s a veil between this dystopian reality and our own which, at times, can feel quite thin. We’re lucky that Atwood is the one pulling the curtain back for us. She is a consummate storyteller, one of the finest of our age.
Anytime science fiction and literary fiction become one, I lose all sense of time and spin in, captivated. That’s exactly what happened when I read this stunningly beautiful novella. It feels so old and so new at once. It is a war story and a love story. It is about the parallels and tension between nature and machine. It is a philosophical treatise. It is funny, fresh, and packed with lyrical language. But most of all it feels like longing and honors a gentle way of seeing the reality, time, and the role we play within it. It’s a story that honors reckless hope.
As soon as I finished, I handed it off to someone I knew would love it. He gave it back the next day, already finished, and said, “I’m going to buy my own copy and eat it.” That pretty much sums up the impact of this book for the right reader. A new favorite for me.
S. or Ship of Theseus is an intensely satisfying reading experience for those who enjoy metafiction and experimental literature. It is a time-consuming but deliciously tactile journey that lends the same surge of intrigue as unfolding a handwritten note that falls out of somewhere unexpected. You don’t know what it contains, or who wrote it, but as you read, you see the traces of the writer–an employer, a friend, a lover, a parent, whomever–writing from a specific place in time, to a specific recipient. And you feel that forbidden drive to read… because of the fact that those words that weren’t meant for you. Combine that feeling with an actual entire literary novel-within-a-novel that is, in itself, spooky, stirring, and Hemingway-esque. And, as garnish, you feel the unique pull of an academic obsession that multiplies as commonality and connection reaches two people who find that their obsession is shared.
This is not a normal book. It is an amalgamation of multi-colored annotations, footnotes, letters, postcards, newspapers, cards, and drawings that exist because of the book. It takes patience. All of it is an absolutely staggering invention. Hats off to Doug Dorst (writer) and J.J. Abrams (concept/story) on this unique tribute to the love of literature.
Sarah Moss writes beautifully–and with a keen sense of danger–in this novella. The evocative imagery spun for Ghost Wall‘s Northumbrian setting pulls heavily, just like the thick of a bog. It’s an uncomfortable but resplendent story that presents a vulnerable type of hero we rarely see: someone who is young and extremely capable, but also extremely helpless to use that capability to save herself. In many ways, a story of constraint runs parallel to one of awakening, and that’s mirrored in a really lovely way as Moss describes how bodies look and feel, long for and resist. More than anything, this fierce little book asks us who our ghosts become, and whether they function as hungry entities to appease or as shadowy warning cries that we only hear when we most need to. Also: a reminder to notice and act when we need to protect someone who can’t protect themselves.
This book is wildly experimental and very, very, very weird. It’s an ambitious and powerful hellscape with a spellbinding staying power. Matt Bell makes a torrential statement with this novel, the narrative structure of which resembles something like echoes that you can see bouncing off of a set of mirrors that you can hear. It’s truly beyond literal description and yet finds its footing in classical allegorical territory–it’s a psychological tour through grief, marital love and resentment, self-hatred, and the perverse (or courageous) will to keep going through any despair. The reader who approaches this monstrosity needs to be willing to accept almost anything as truth, and must be up for constant gut-turning imagery and lots and lots of pain. But: the reward is great. The story is a spinning, dreamlike voyage that I found impossible to go back from once I began. Bell pulls his reader deeper and deeper in, until it’s done. The rage and sorrow communicated in this story are as real as the plot is impossible, and that’s the towering literary feat of this pitch-dark, fantastical read. It reminds us that our choices, however we may choose to move on from them, are irreversible, and only our own to atone for.
Lincoln in the Bardo is simply a brilliant work of art. George Saunders takes the historical truth of President Lincoln’s grief over his dead son, and imagines it into a bizarre and stunning meditation on the unseen tension between the living and the dead. The story’s mouthpiece is not one, but rather a cacophony of restless ghosts–a structural risk that pays off admirably for Saunders, creating something as weird and gorgeous as it is indelible. The novel romps, slinks, and keens through the liminal space of haunting, exploring the uncertainties of identity that characterize our uneasy relationship with mortality. This book is remarkable.