I’m always looking for good books and for some reason it’s harder to find them in this time of All The Information than it was in the days of What Is That Interesting Cover On The Bookshop Table?
So here’s the table in the front of my pretend book store. Complete with quirky signage and thumbnail reviews scribbled on little index cards. Organized into sections that have you wandering around the store thinking, “Why are biographies near fantasy?” and then getting lost in a semiotic haze from which you may never emerge.
2 Young To Young-ish Adult Fantasy Series
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
A series about some boys in high school, in Virginia, and their quest to find a legendary buried king. Also some bad guys, and a girl who lives with her mother and some friends and is actually the magical protagonist. The characters are so finely portrayed that I carry around an invented picture of each of them in my mind. You have your Kennedy-esque kid, your troubled poetic sort, your disappearing spirit. Of course a spirit disappears. It’s not that the characters are new, but they are vivid and particular and you feel you know them. I’m waiting for #4 in the series. Hopping from foot to foot kind of waiting.
The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
A story of some young men and women in college, in upstate New York (I think). I’ve seen it described as Twisted Harry Potter, and Narnia Grows Up Weird, both mostly apt. This series wins not for the characters, but for what I understand is called, “world-building,” by lovers of fantasy. In other words, the settings, the processes of magic, the depictions of creatures and beings. There’s an interstitial land, for example, that brings to mind Escher Does Venice. Read them all. But, heads up, the first one is the best, the second disappointing, the third pretty good again.
2 Books That Put You In A Different Reality That Isn’t Fantasy Per Se
How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life by Sheila Heti
The author is really asking, how should a person be today? The novel — mostly about the friendship between two young women — is written in very minute but evocative detail. Heti manages to incorporate modern technological communications, texts, etc., very naturally. She also manages to make us feel the thrum of anxiety and ironic despair that prevails in times when everything seems to fall apart, without provoking our own worry or sorrow. In other words, she narrates alienation without provoking it. Quite something.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeymi
Almost impossible to describe without making it sound like too much work to read. I suppose the book is centered in the telling of fiction, and the nature of relationships between men and women? Imagine a writer, and a woman who is sort of the spirit of the women in his books? The writing is so deft, lovely, and graceful, you feel almost no disbelief to then suspend. A conceptual novel that can be read at bedtime. How does she do it?
Two Books That Feel Almost Too Real
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler
A regular story about a regular family. Well, the parents are maybe more academic than many, the children a little more rebellious. But regular. Except. And I won’t say more but I thought this book’s “twist” was brilliant, creating meaning that echoes still.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
A regular story about a less common family. Chinese-American husband, Anglo-American mother who dreamed of becoming a doctor, their children. The New York Times’ review is perfect.
Two Books, Completely Different From Each Other, That Men Wrote About Being Men
I know that books written by men aren’t all the same. It’s probably dangerous, and outside my expertise in any case, to generalize about gender-associated characteristics in literary fiction. That said, the following two books illuminate such different aspects of singularly male stories that it seems productive to group them here.
Family Life: A Novel by Akhil Sharma
A young Indian boy grows up in America, his older brother has an accident, then the boy gets into Princeton. That is, of course, not the whole story. Excruciating and beautiful. The social anxiety of immigrants, fathers, mothers, grief, life as a man. Really, an experience of tragedy.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Had I known how good but muscular this book is I wouldn’t have tried to read it at bedtime. Not sleep-supportive. War. Lots of war. Men. Lots of men. But Flanagan has a talent for slow story-telling, for letting people’s lives and the meaning therein play out patiently. Historically, even. I’d never thought about Australian soldiers before, my apologies to our Antipodean friends, but I suppose now I’ll never forget them. Key locations – the jungle-horror of a prisoner-of-war work camp, a beachside hotel, a chip shop. Oh, and an automotive journey through fire you won’t forget. One caveat, a little image at the end weakened the impact for me, but, that might have been due to my skipping some of the earlier violence and therefore across the novel’s power like a stone. See, bedtime.
One Book Unlike Any Other
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
I just finished this. Gawande, to my mind, is one of our national treasures. He uses his Harvard Medical School education not only to doctor, but to write about how to make doctoring better. And, not incidentally, does the same for our inevitable processes of lgetting sick, failing, dying. It’s uplifting. How weird is that? A book about how to die in medical America, for that’s really what it is, that can comfort and elucidate all at once? And he tells his patients’ stories so beautifully. Especially the story of his father.
Didn’t Love Them And Actually Didn’t Even Like Them Maybe Even Disliked Them
Unlike real stores, I get to tell you which books I didn’t like.
Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford
A young woman feels class anxiety and lies about a bunch of stuff and suffers indignities while canoeing. I hate narratives – television, stage, literary, all of them — in which you wait for someone to be Found Out. The details of upper class life didn’t seem particularly vivid or new, and I felt bad for the heroine throughout all 200+ pages.
Speculation by Jenny Offill
Told, like “How Should A Person Be?” in modern technology-supported conversations. Unlike Heti’s book, however, I never engaged, I could not suspend disbelief. It should be said that this is the story of a marriage, and I may have baggage.
Revival: A Novel by Stephen King
I LOVE Stephen King. Sometimes. “It” terrified the bejeezus out of me, deliciously so. Drains, clowns, adolescents, oh my! I found “Revival” boring, I saw the ending coming a mile away, the territory felt all-too-King-familiar, I paged through the last 100 pages as fast as I could.
And there you have it. These are thumbnail reviews, you might explore other scrupulous opinions, but do keep on reading. There’s room in our lives for a revelatory great novel, or insightful, kind, non-fiction, right alongside the good binge-watches (Sons of Anarchy I’m looking at you.) But you knew that. I know you did.
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