Michael's Staff Favorites
I'm the store's events coordinator and publicist. A writer and musician in my spare time, I live in Southwest Portland with my wife and two cats.
I'm a fan of contemporary novels and short stories. Here are some of the latest books I've loved, followed by some of my all-time favorites:
What an intensely moving and beautiful novel. The Girl with the Louding Voice tells the story of fourteen-year-old Adunni, a girl from a Nigerian village whose worthless father sells her into marriage with an older man who already has two other wives. When a tragedy occurs in the household, Adunni believes she'll be held responsible and executed by the village chief. And so she flees, only to be sold once more into servitude, this time as the housekeeper for a wealthy fabric designer in Lagos. Despite the cruel treatment of her new "employer," Adunni is amazingly resilient, very bright, and has a generous heart. These qualities are recognized by a kindly neighbor with progressive views who secretly takes Adunni under her wing. But will Adunni ever be granted freedom to live her own life? The Girl with the Louding Voice is full of riveting tension and beautiful writing. This was among the very best novels of 2020.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors, the debut novel from Hawaiian author Kawai Strong Washburn, is a wonderful novel about family that also deftly tackles issues of race, poverty, and culture. Told from four points of view––siblings Noa, Dean, and Kaui, and their mother––this is largely the story of how the extraordinary abilities of one family member impacts the fates of everyone else in the family. As a child, Noa acquires healing powers after being spared during a shark attack. But getting treated as the golden child drives a wedge between Noa and his siblings. Despite Dean's basketball skills and Kaui's academic prowess, both struggle mightily with self-esteem, along with the displacement that comes from attending college on the mainland. Noa has his own struggles: as a healer, how does he balance his obligations to humanity, to family, to himself? Back in Hawai'i, their mother does her best to cope with her own problems and to guide her children from afar. When tragedy occurs, will it bring them closer together or drive them further apart? Washburn inhabits each of his characters deeply. He puts them through the wringer, but treats them lovingly as well. This is a beautiful story that is unlike any other while also exploring universal themes. A triumph!
I was deeply moved by The Night Always Comes, Willy Vlautin's novel about two days in the life of a person on the brink. Lynette is in her early thirties and lives with her mother and her developmentally disabled brother. She's been working three jobs so that she and her mom can buy their ramshackle house in Portland, Oregon. But, when her mom threatens to back out of the deal, Lynette spends one desperate night driving all over town, trying to collect the money owed to her by friends and clients. At every turn, people lie to her. They throw her troubled past in her face. They threaten to kill her. Vlautin's Hemingway-esque prose keeps the pages turning, as did my great sympathy for Lynette. She's had such a hard life and is trying her best to build a better future. This is also a story about how gentrification in Portland has pushed longtime residents to the margins. The odds are heavily stacked against Lynette. I rooted for her throughout every heart-pounding page of The Night Always Comes, and so will you.
We Run the Tides is a wonderfully written, deeply insightful, often funny, often heartbreaking, and endearingly quirky coming-of-age novel. In 1980s San Francisco, 14-year-old Eulabee struggles with the typical issues of that age––strained friendships and sexual awakening. But, in the hands of a writer as skilled and inventive as Vendela Vida, these topics feel utterly fresh and completely unique And Eulabee is a compelling narrator: a good and smart person whose naiveté gets her into all kinds of trouble. Much of this trouble is instigated by her best friend, the precocious and outrageous Maria Fabiola. Still more trouble is caused by Maria Fabiola's sensational disappearance, which Eulabee suspects is yet another of her friend's deceptions. Along with this compelling plot, the reader is also treated to Vida's wonderfully detailed depictions of Eulabee's family, the foibles of her all-girls school, the seaside neighborhood of great old houses, and the rocky beach where the titular tides crash and pull. What a wonderful read!
In her debut novel, international journalist Rebecca Sacks uses a cast of fascinating characters to offer readers her keen insights and earned wisdom on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. A writer of great empathy, Sacks exposes the hearts of those living on both sides of the borders that divide the region. Connecting most of the characters is a German journalist named Vera, who's covering the story of a Palestinian boy who was savagely beaten by Israeli teenagers as an act of revenge for the murder of an Israeli girl. The threat of violence permeates these pages. Mostly, though, this novel is about the tenuous links between humanely rendered people––the links between friends, within families, and across borders. City of a Thousand Gates is terrific.
I loved this novel from Autralian author Madeliene Watts. A young woman in Melbourne drops out of grad school and takes a job relaying emergency calls, while she and her coworkers watch the effects of climate collapse on muted TV screens. She drinks too much and is sleeping with an ex-boyfriend who's in a relationship with a friend of hers. She's haunted by childhood memories of her drunken and abusive father, and she's fascinated by her great-great-great-great-grandfather's fruitless search for a mythic sea in the dessicated center of Australia. This novel is propelled by the narrator's keen observations and associations, by her particular views of a world in dire straits. What makes her compelling is how remarkably self-perceptive she can be while acting so recklessly, so thoughtlessly. As a lifelong friend of hers observes, she always swims out too far. You will spend this novel at the water's edge, nervously watching to see whether the tide will finally pull her under.
Infinnite Country is a lovely and highly nuanced novel about Latin American immigration and its consequences for three generations of one Columbian family. Here is my coworker Mal's perfect encapsulation of its streangths and charms: "Infinite Country begins with a bang: we ride shot-gun to fifteen year old Talia's escape from a correctional facility and race with her across Colombia to reach her father, Mauro. Beginning with the choice that put Talia in the facility, it becomes clear early that the core of this book is choices: those borne from desperation, desire, youth, and hope. Each decision that Talia’s family makes pulls them apart and knits them together again across Colombian and American borders. Infinite Country is poignant and Engel uses lush descriptions mixed with Colombian mythology and history to bring these characters to life. By the end we can understand the justifications behind the worst and hardest of their decisions. This book will make your heart ache and will stay with you long after reading."
This wonderful debut novel is set in rural Pennsylvania during the early '80s. Narrated by 15-year-old Libby, this is a story of tangled lives and simmering danger. When Libby's 12-year-old sister Ellen pushes their exhausted mother over the brink, Ellen is forced to get out of the car and walk the remaining miles home alone in the dark. Her narrow escape from a predatory stranger kicks off a series of impulsive decisions from Libby, her older siblings, and mercurial local bad boy Wilson McVay. The adults are equally flawed in this novel: neglectful, adulterous, oblivious. With poetry and grit, Una Mannion evokes this rural world and its inhabitants, while investigating class structures, the backdrop of Reaganomics, and spinning a page-turner about coming-of-age in desperate circumstances. A thoroughly engrossing read!
In this excellent debut novel, we experience multiple deacdes of life in East Germany through the eyes of Beate Haas and her two children, Michael and Adela. Beate and her parents defected from the East in the '60s and evetually settled in America. Following German reunification in 1990, Beate receives a letter that she can reclaim her house in the sleepy coastal town of her East German childhood. Most of the story focuses on the family's struggles to acclimate to this new environment, which is nothing like how Beate remembered it. Meanwhile, the upheaval drives a wedge between teenaged Michael and Adela, who had been very close before the move. Michael comes out as gay and adapts recklessly to this new town of abandoned houses and partying youth, while Adela hides in her room, reading books about the Holocaust and other injustices. Their German cousins helps the family to settle, yet also complicate the fragile dynamics at play. Will one drastic act forever drive the Haas family apart? Propelled by fascinating and fully realized characters, Thaomas Grattan's The Recent East is wonderful from start to finish.
Turning to her mother's immigration story for inspiration for her latest novel, Angie Cruz has created a tender-hearted and inspiring character in Ana, the fifteen-year-old narrator of Dominicana. In 1965, when Ana is fifteen, her poor parents in rural Dominican Republic push her into marrying Juan Ruiz, an older man with ambitions. A contract is understood: in exchange for Ana, Juan will develop her parents' land and help the rest of her family immigrate to America. In an instant, teenage Ana is whisked off to a tiny apartment in New York City. She doesn't speak English and doesn't know a single person aside from Juan, who is controlling, abusive, frequently absent, and probably having an affair. In another author's hands, Juan could become a caricature, purely monstrous. But Cruz has created a fully realized human––an unlikable human, yet one whose deep flaws can be understood. His moods are realistically volatile, which makes him all the more terrifying to Ana. When she becomes pregnant, the walls close even more tightly around her. It's only when Juan is trapped in the DR during a military coup that Ana has the freedom to begin forging a life for herself. She explores her Washington Heights neighborhood and takes English lessons at the church across the street. But she also falls in love with Juan's kid brother, Cesar, who is watching over Ana while Juan is away. Throughout the novel, her already complicated life becomes more and more complicated. Cruz is a superb writer on every level: plot, character, backstory, setting, mood, psychology. You will find yourself utterly immersed in the wonderful Dominicana.
After writing YA books early in her career, Charlotte McConaghy leaps into the work of adult fiction with Migrations, her stunning novel about Franny and her obsessive quest to follow the world's last Arctic terns across the hemispheres. Set in a near future in which almost all animal life is extinct, Franny hitches a ride aboard one of the last remaining fishing boats. Its captain, Ennis, is a fellow obsessive: he's looking for one last "golden catch" before he retires. As we follow this ill-fated oceanic journey, Franny reveals more and more of her troubled past: her father's in prison, her mother left her as a child, her impulsive marriage to an ornithology professor is complicated by her restless soul, and Franny herself has spent time behind bars. McConaghy weaves these storylines brilliantly, her writing is poetic, and her characters are emotionally rich and deeply inhabited. This novel is breathtaking.
Mexican author Fernanda Melchor arrives on U.S. shores like the titular storm of her novel, her first to be translated into English. Her writing is torrential, her sprawling paragraphs equally beautiful and profane. The rotating cast of narrators in Hurricane Season all live in the same small, run-down town. They are brothel madams and strung-out junkies, big dreamers and colossal losers, mothers and husbands and girlfriends and sons. All of their fragile lives are connected by the Witch, who is equally renown for her promiscuity as for her potions. And everyone knows––or thinks they know––about the treasure locked away in the Witch's decrepit house. For Melchor's hard-luck characters, that temptation proves too strong to resist. Just like the visceral and heartbreaking Hurricane Season, itself.
This novel about two sisters who are abducted in Russia's isolated Kamchatka Peninsula is both a literary thriller and a kaleidoscopic character study. Author Julia Phillips delves into the messy lives of everyone connected to the missing girls: relatives, friends, search and rescue volunteers, police detectives. Through each character's story, we gain a deeper understanding of dysfunctions both interpersonal and societal––and we get closer to the truth of what happene to the missing girls. An exquisite debut novel.
In her novel Life Events, Karolina Waclawiak explores disconnection and grief in contemporary Los Angeles. Evelyn doesn't want to feel anything: not the sorrow of her father's imminent death from alcoholism, not the slow ripping apart of her marriage, and not the disappointment of career failure. She numbs herself with drug and drink, but knows she needs something more. While looking for support groups, she comes across a training seminar for exit guides for the dying and signs up. "How do you avoid pain?" When this question is posed to Evelyn during the seminar, she begins the messy journey of self-confrontation that propels the novel: into marriage counseling, into the homes of her terminally ill clients, into a car trip with her dysfunctional parents, into a cheap motel room with a fellow guide, into a cheesy afterlife convention, and into the vast emptiness of Death Valley. Waclawiak is brutally tender with her characters, writes insightfully about her themes, and evokes the Southwest landscape beautifully. Life Events is a novel that continues to resonate long after the final page.
"Tragedy or farce?" The narrator of Carlos Fonseca's novel asks this question as a sort of mantra throughout Natural History. When it comes to art and artists, the line between the two is often blurred. Or such is the experience of our narrator––a museum curator––as he unravels the family drama behind his former friendship with mysterious fashion designer Giovanna Luxembourg, who has died young and bequeathed him a series of documents. From there, Fonseca guides us through the obsessive lives of Giovanna's eccentric parents, an actress and a photographer, and the family's pivotal excursion into the jungles of South America in search of spiritual enlightenment. We also make trips to a nearly abandoned mining town where the earth is ablaze and to a courtroom in Puerto Rico where a gringa with a hidden past is on trial for manipulating the stock market with falsified press releases. Is this art or is it crime? Tragedy or farce? You'll have to read Natural History and decide for yourself.
The Lightness is the debut novel from Lit Hub editor Emily Temple. Not only does she recognize good writing, but Temple also writes beautifully, herself. I enjoyed this book for its attention to detail as much as for its story, about a teenage girl, Olivia, who signs herself up for a meditation retreat that is effectively a summer camp for other troubled teen girls. Yes, Olivia is troubled: by the disappearance of her Buddhist father at that same retreat and by the atrocious behavior of her mother, a sculptor. While looking for clues to her father's whereabouts, Olivia falls in with an outsider clique of girls who seek the key to achieving levitation. It's a dangerous game these girls are playing, involving a nighttime precipice, bloodletting, starvation, seduction, and lies. Temple explores all of these themes with prose that is fresh and attentive, bringing her characters fully alive. A wonderful novel.
An astonishing and gritty portrait of the interconnected lives of women in South LA: prostitutes and party girls, mothers and daughters and wives, and the only cop in the city who cares about doing her job well. Pochoda does a masterful job of embodying her characters through their narrations. A gripping and engrossing novel, from its grisly beginning to its sensational final pages.
In Lysley Tenorio's sweet and quirky debut novel, an undocumented teenage Filipino boy named Excel and his mother (a former B-movie stunt artist) are living in poverty in the San Francisco suburbs. The story begins with Excel's disgraced return home, following several months of having lived with his girlfriend in an artists' colony in the Southern California desert. While there, Excel made some costly mistakes, including with his now maybe ex-girlfriend. To fix things, he needs lots of money. But his old job at the crappy pizza joint is humiliating and pays poorly. His best shot at quick cash is to help his mom with one of her online dating scams, in which she cons sympathetic and lovesick men into sending her money. What could possibly go wrong? Heartfelt and brimming with wonderfully odd details, The Son of Good Fortune is a highly enjoyable read.
Nemens is equally skilled at conjuring the spirit of baseball as she is her cast of characters, all of whose lives pivot around star player Jason Goodyear's troubled spring training campaign. A lively, warm, and probing novel, The Cactus League is a boon for those of who love baseball and well-crafted literary fiction.
Olga Tokarczuk won the Booker Prize for her intricate and sprawling Flights. This newly translated novel is a completely different kind of work. Taking place entirely on the outskirts of a small Polish village, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is narrated by Janina, a schoolteacher, astrologer, staunch vegetarian, and resident crank living among a largely patriarchal community. One by one, men begin dying in mysterious circumstances. According to Janina, they've been murdered by animals who are exacting revenge. What's really going on here? This is a wonderful sort-of mystery that's propelled more by its quirky characters than any kind of whodunit plot. Tokarczuk is an astonighly observant writer--perhaps the strongest unifying trait between her diverse works--making this novel a singular joy to read.
In this wonderful and heartbreaking novel, fifteen-year-old Ilya is the best student in the small industrial town in remote Russia where he lives with his mother, his babushka, and his charismatic older brother, Vladimir. Ilya has won a scholarship to study abroad in America; a happy event that coincides with Vladimir being jailed for murder. We follow Ilya as he adjusts to living with a big Christian family in the rural Southern U.S., while also attempting to prove his brother's innocence from afar. In alternating chapters, we see Ilya's life during the year or so leading up to his departure, as Vladimir grows increasingly reckless and distant. Fitzpatrick creates vivid and believable characters, writes palpably of both remote Russia and the American South, and is masterful at slowly building tension throughout the novel. Beautiful, sad, powerful, sweet, and evocative, Lights All Night Long is storytelling at its finest.
In this heart-stopping debut novel, Adelaida's mother has just died. All around her, the Venezuelan capital is falling into chaos. The currency is devalued, protesters are gunned down or captured and tortured, and a band of paramilitary thugs is taking over her apartment building. Borgo skillfully interweaves Adelaida's present terror with scenes of her childhood, before Caracas went to hell. What must Adelaida do in order to survive? How will she be able to escape her homeland? Brutality and beauty go hand-in-hand in this compelling tale.
This wonderful novel is at once an achingly tender portrait of a grieving family, a muder mystery, a love story, and a nuanced look at immigrant life in America today. Lalami also provides a wonderful setting: a small town in the Morongo Valley of California, near Joshua Tree. Seen through the eyes of a dozen characters, this is an intricately woven story that will leave you feeling a part of this community, this family.
The entire Neapolitan Quartet is wonderful, but this second book is my favorite. Ferrante captures so well the struggles of this period of the characters' lives: young adulthood.
In this slim and lovely novel, Nunu, a young woman from Istanbul, moves to Paris, where she befriends an older male writer named M., whose novels are set in Turkey. Together, they wander the old streets, have picnics, and delight one another with their cultural observations. Beneath this bucolic friendship lies Nunu's desperate striving to impress M., a father figure for Nunu, whose own father died when she was young. And is M. a true friend, or is he using Nunu's memories to fuel his new novel? Woven with this story is Nunu's strained relationship with her mother back in Istanbul, which is revealed in flashbacks after her death. Savas's writing is quiet, intimate, and astute, and her novel is a delight.
Set in Johnson's former home of Portland in the late '90s and '00s, the author calls her debut novel a "homesick love love letter." She does an excellent job of conjuring the city's scrappier pre-gentrification era. More important, she's a gifted storyteller who's created an engaging set of characters who are so believable and companionable, you'll be very sorry to let them go. At the center of the novel is Andrea, a twenty-something starving artist and part of a group of friends who call themselves the Lesbian Mafia. Heartbroken from a recent breakup, Andrea starts secretly fooling around with a guy named Ryan--the lone male crush of her life. When she becomes pregnant, her entire world changes. Johnson writes tenderly and humorously about the heartbreak and joys of life. Readers from anywhere will enjoy the wonderful Stray City; longtime Portlanders will enjoy it even more.
In her debut novel, Daisy Johnson conjures a myth-like world from the riverlands outside Oxford, England, where a thirty-something woman named Gretel works as a lexographer. Raised on a riverboat, her mother vanished when Gretel was sixteen. After years of searching, she finally finds her again: older, demented, almost feral. What happened to Gretel's mother? How does Marcus fit into their tragic tale? And what kind of creature is the Bonak that dwells in the river? Everything Under is gorgeously written and super compelling from start to finish.
I agree with the National Book Award committee: Sigrid Nunez's The Friend is a terrific novel. With its cute cover, one could be forgiven for expecting a light read. While Nunez does have a wonderful, dry sense of humor, this novel about inheriting a departed friend's Great Dane is a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on grief. You will love this book.
This is a fascinating and highly imaginative work, weaving together stories and observations about travel and human anatomy (among many other topics) into a surprisingly unified whole. Tomarczuk presents fiction as travelogue, history as story, story as fact. In her deft hands, unrelated tales--of a man who loses his wife and child on an island, or a pioneering anatomist's journey to a lecture hall, or our occasional narrator listening to airport lectures on travel psychology--feel inextricably linked. Maybe it's Tomarczuk's clear prose, fierce intelligence, and dry humor that unify these disparate pieces? Let's just say that she's a very skilled writer, and every finely honed word in Flights is worth absorbing.
In his kaleidoscopic debut novel, Native American author Tommy Orange captures the "urban Indian" experience through a large cast of characters, all of whom are heading to a massive pow wow in Oakland. Orange writes with deep compasion about his complex characters, flaws and all. This is a wonderful novel.
Miller has woven a wonderful novel from the fragments of Circe's life, as culled from various Greek myths. Though probably best known as the witch who turns Odysseus's men to pigs, Circe is also the daughter of the sun god, Helios, and the aunt of Medea. Madeline Miller deconstructs these and others tales, recasting them through the glowing eyes of Circe. Most impressively, Miller brings the goddess-witch fully into being. You will feel as though you're walking with Circe across the island of Aiaia, where she has been banished for eternity. Fortunately, she gets plenty of visitors. Circe is a highly accomplished work that is also a joy to read.
This smart and enjoyable book explores the many plot structures novels can take. The title itself--Meander, Spiral, Explode--describes three of the main shapes that writer Jane Alison explores, as she dissects works from Tobias Wolff, Marguerite Duras, Philip Roth, Sandra Cisneros, and others. Useful to writers and fascinating for discerning readers, this is a wonderful investigation of how literature works.
In this wonderful and essential novel, Richard is a newly retired professor living in Berlin. When he learns of a group of African immigrants staging a protest, he finds himself drawn to their cause. He meets with the men at their temporary housing facility, he asks them questions, he learns their stories. Gradually, they befriend one another, and Richard does what he can to help them navigate the morass of challenges they face: from dentistry to the constant threat of deportation. This novel is subtly powerful and deeply empathic. A must read for our xenophobic times.
Would a world run by women result in a global utopia? This is the question at the heart of The Power, a novel that follows three women--the daughter of a British mobster, an abused Florida teen who hears voices, and an American mayor--who gain the newly awakened ability among females to unleash strong electrical forces from their bodies. A fourth central character--a young, male Nigerian journalist--chronicles the societal changes that unfurl across the world, from women rioting in the streets to more nuanced shifts in government and business, where power tends to corrupt, regardless of gender. Alderman unflinchingly follows her concept into disturbing territories, and the book is all the more successful for it. Smart, entertaining, and enthralling, The Power is a great novel for our times.
Completed before his death in May 2017, Denis Johnson's second short story collection comes 26 years after his first, Jesus' Son. Fittingly, the pieces in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are more reflective in tone, longer in the telling, and lighter on the mayhem. What hasn't changed is Johnson's masterful phrasing and his mordant humor. There's still some mayhem, too: characters besieged by ghosts and obsessed with graves. This collection is a welcome final gift from one of the great writers of a generation.
Makkai's lovely third novel, The Great Believers, is about two close friends, their stories told 30 years apart. In 1985, Yale Tishman is an art gallery development director and a proudly monogamous resident of Boystown, a largely gay neighborhood of Chicago. On the verge of acquiring a set of rare sketches, Yale discovers that his partner is HIV-positive, sending his life into a tailspin. In 2015, Fiona flies to Paris in search of her estranged adult daughter, Claire, who disappeared into a cult years before. Can Fiona ever repair their broken trust? Makkai has woven a rich tapestry of interconnected lives. These characters are so very real, you'll find yourself bereft at the conclusion of this beautiful and bittersweet novel.
In this gorgeously written debut novel, Shalini is a young woman living in upper class Bangalore when her mother--a complicated figure in her life--dies. Adrift in her grief, Shalini travels north to Kashmir to try to find Bashir Ahmed, a charming traveling salesman who frequently visited their home when Shalini was a girl, spinning tales and winning her mother's heart. Shalini is, however, terribly naive about the complicated interplay of religion, class, and militancy at play in the region of Kashmir that she visits. When she finally tracks down Bashir Ahmed's family in a small mountainous village, her presence disrupts the delicate balance of their lives, with grave consequences. Seen through the intimate lens of Shalini's interpersonal interactions, The Far Field is a bittersweet examination of privilege and selfishness, of longing and sorrow, of awakening to the world as it truly is.
(This book cannot be returned.)
With Girls, Emma Cline joins the elite club of accomplished debut authors under the age of 30. Set in Marin County in the late 1960s, this is both a coming-of-age story and a retelling of the Manson Family murders. Fourteen-year-old Evie is mostly ignored by her recently divorced parents and is captivated by the arrival in town of a gang of older girls who flaunt their detachment from society's rules. They espouse freedom, but live in squalor and are bound to a magnetic-yet-voltaile guru, who is both reliant upon and envious of a wealthy benefactor. In thrall to Suzanne, the raven-haired leader of the girls. Evie's enmeshment in the cult deepens over a long summer, even as growing tensions between guru and benefactor point toward a violent end. Cline's fresh prose sizzles with rich details and keen insights. This dazzling debut is a must-read.
From Portland writer Alexis M. Smith, author of Glaciers, comes her second novel, Marrow Island. The narrator's father died during an environmental disaster on the titular Pacific Northwest island. After years in Seattle working as a journalist, Lucie returns to her childhood home. We know at the outset that her estranged best friend, Kate, is involved in a cult that has tried to kill Lucie, and the novel unravels backward and forward through time from there. This is a beautiful, haunting, and probing story of family, place, friendship, love, sex, faith, ecology, and mushrooms.
From the author of The Orphan Master's Son comes this excellent collection of short stories. Some of these are similarly set in North (and South) Korea, while the majority probe the lives of Americans. Dark, funny, inventive, and unflinching, Adam Johnson's stories are masterfully written and deeply human. Fans of Geogre Saunders, take notice.
This terrific debut novel is set in a post-drought Califorina of the near future. A great mass of sand iscrawling like a glacier across the Southwest, and most of the region's human population has been evacuated. Gold Fame Citrus follows former billboard model Luz and her resourceful boyfriend Ray. After rescuing a mysterious toddler from a gang, Luz and Ray decide that they, too, must try to escape the condemned landscape of Southern California. While deeply connected to her characters, Watkins also provides a smart and layered portrayal of climate change, goverment, sociology, and human motivation. A Grapes of Wrath for the 21st century.
Written over the last four decades of the 20th century, the forty-plus stories collected here are both vivid and lived-in. Lucia Berlin moved all over the Western United States, married twice, raised four sons, experienced wealth and poverty, worked a wide variety of jobs, and battled assorted illnesses. All of these pieces of her life play out in her stories, many of which seem intimately autobiographical. Berlin possessed a rare ability to capture scenery, characters, and emotional states with an economy of language that nonetheless feels rich. These are wonderful slices of life from a master writer finally receiving the accolades she deserves.
In this beautiful and bittersweet novel set during World War II, Anthony Doerr tells the parallel tales of Marie Laure, a blind girl living in occupied France, and Werner, a young German radio enthusiast in the Hitler Youth program. Doerr's portrayal of Marie Laure's relationship with her father, the locksmith at Paris's Museum of Natural History, is tender and true. Werner's journey across Europe, where he helps ferret out resistors, is unflinching and richly detailed. Through these characters, Doerr encapsulates the great horrors of war. Moreover, he weaves a deeply compelling story of lives torn asunder and united.
In this beautiful and terrifying debut novel, twin twelve-year-old girls Stasha and Pearl are taken to Auschwitz toward the end of World War II, where they become the experimental subjects of Dr. Josef Mengele. Despite this horrifying premise, Affinity Konar imbues her dual narrators with both wondrous innocence and profound inner strength. Also, history tells us that liberation is coming soon ... but soon enough? And what happens then? Gorgeously written and well researched, this novel is among the very best books of 2016.
This homage to 19th century literature takes place in a small New Zealand gold rush town, where the newly arrived Walter Moody stumbles upon a clandestine meeting between a dozen men, including a priest, a druggist, a hotelier, a Maori warrior, and a pair of Chinamen. In turn, the members of this unlikely assemblage narrate to Moody the recent spate of events that have brought them together: a hermit's death, a prospector's disappearance, a prostitute's near-fatal overdose, a missing fortune in pure gold, and the recent arrivals of an ambitious politician, the dead hermit's mysterious wife, and a scar-faced ship's captain. Eleanor Catton brilliantly unfurls all of these interconnected plotlines via her richly drawn and fully inhabited characters. Though epic in length, I tore through this novel. Catton's Booker Prize was well earned.
One of today's very best story writers returns with Tenth of December, his fourth collection of short fiction. George Saunders builds off the minimalism of Raymond Chandler, but wields far more vibrant and darkly comic tools. The litrtle worlds he creates are vivid, as are the characters who populate them. Whether writing of ordinary suburban pre-teens or convicts in a bizarre psychiatric research facility, Saunders digs into both the pathos and the joy of life.
This is a sad, funny, beautifully written, and informative novel about the lives of a few ordinary people struggling to survive during the recent wars in Chechnya.
In Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, a young filmmaker moves from Reno to New York in 1977. There, she meets and moves in with Sandro Valera, a Minimalist artist and the black sheep son of a wealthy Italian motorcycle and tire manufacturer. "Reno" (as she's nicknamed) narrates her period of self-discovery in a vividly rendered NYC during perhaps its worst period of decrepitude, but also a very free era for artistic expression. Kushner's philiosophical, political, and psychological insights push this novel forward. Though the plot itself tends to meander a bit, Kushner nails everything else: characters, setting, overarching themes, and wonderful language.
In The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers disproves the old quote: "War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." The stretches of time between acts of violence are most of what occupies this beautifully written novel of the Iraq War. As they await their next mission, the two young privates here may grow restless and weary, but the omnipresent threat of danger is always palpable--while smoking, eating, talking. Powers renders these moments exquisitely, with spare, poetic prose.
Told in a series of linked stories, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a web of lives across the span of several decades. From late '70s San Francisco to a safari in Africa and back to a near-future America, Egan explores her characters through a variety of voices and perspectives. Whatever the scene or stance, these people come vividly alive one chapter at a time, and then echo throughout the novel. A study of inter-connectedness and human nature, this novel is a triumph.
Though typically shelved in sci-fi, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is actually a mixture of historical fiction, travel lit, and, in its own deliberate way, technological thriller. Most important, it's flat-out amazing. The novel focuses primarily on a morphine addicted World War II marine, an organ-playing cryptanalyst, and, half a century later, his entrepreneurial computer programmer grandson. The life paths of these characters reverberate across the generations and around the world, from America to Manila, Africa to Scandinavia, jungles to submarines, and luxury hotels to prison cells. Stephenson writes brilliantly about all of it. Smart, fun, and incredibly absorbing, Cryptonomicon has instantly become one of my very favorite books of all time.
David Mitchell might well be my favorite author of the 21st century. His third book, Cloud Atlas, shows off his masterful command of the English language. Comprised of six related stories spanning hundreds of years, each is convincingly told in the style of the era. From the journal of a man aboard a ship somewhere in Oceania in the 19th century to a tale of escape by an artificially intelligent restaurant worker in a future Japan, Mitchell explores his characters with depth and uncovers hidden patterns in the world at large. This novel is a stunning achievement and a great read from one of literature's new masters.
In his wonderful portrait of the Lost Boys of Sudan, What Is the What, Dave Eggers bridged the gap between fiction and biography. With Zeitoun, he fully embraces the real, chronicling one man's experience of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman Zeitoun was a middle-aged contractor, loyal husband, loving father, and devout Muslim. When Katrina struck, he stayed in New Orleans to care for his house and business, never anticipating the surreal nightmare that would become of his city. Eggers's keen eye for personal detail amidst a large-scale disaster renders Zeitoun a vivid and mesmerizing portrait of the astonishing conditions in which the residents of New Orleans survived (and perished) in the wake of calamity.
Completed shortly before his death, Roberto Bolano's 2666 is divided into five parts, all of which are linked by a series of murders of women in the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. Bolano evokes his settings with a mixture of reportorial spareness and streaks of poetry, as he fully constructs a lived-in city, its inhabitants, and the surrounding desert terrain, all in a style that is both accessible and makes for a rich reading experience. His characters, too, are very knowable. From European professors caught in a love quadrangle, to the Mexican detectives who hunt for the killer (or killers), to the near-fantastical story of the reclusive German author Benno von Archimboldi, Bolano invests each with a deep and flawed humanity. 2666 is astonishing.
One of my all-time Top 5 favorite books, David Foster Wallace's massive Infinite Jest is a totally original take on family dysfunction, a gut-wrenching treatise on the horrors of addiction, and a dark comedy about the terrifying power of entertainment to possess our lives. And the writing is amazing.
In her astonishingly good and delightfully clever debut collection of stories, Karen Russell unveils the magic realism of youth through her child and teen narrators, many of whom reside on an unnamed Florida isle (home of the recurring Bowl-a-Bed Hotel). Russell's vivid environs are sun-bleached and time-worn, populated by alligators, baby turtles, and giant conch shells. The adult characters, meanwhile, are absent, misguided, or foolish. Her young heroes, however, fight their fears and plunge headlong into the chimerical coves and sinkholes of their beautifully crafted worlds. These brilliant stories will transport you.
An incredible tale of a family divided by religion, war, insanity, and each member's own fiercely held ideologies. It is also a novel of baseball, of fully realized characters, and of America itself. A masterpiece.
Writteen at the close of the millennium, Don DeLillo's Underworld is a masterful meditation on America, from our great national pasttime, baseball, to our nation's consumptive terminus: trash. A rich and absorbing novel, don't let the length intimidate you.
The magical realism (and off-the-wall kookiness) in these short stories is probably not for beginners. But, for the slightly adventurous reader, this collection is full of delights, surprises, oddities, and characters who feel absolutely real, despite the unreality of the worlds Link has invented for them. As a caveat, Magic for Beginners, like most short story collections, is not without a clunker or two. This seems particularly inevitable when the author is so fearless about striking out into uncharted territories. Zombies, for instance. Kelly Link is sharpest when she has zombies on the brain, as is evidenced in the amazing, surreal, funny and sadness-tinged tale "The Hortlak," in which the two guys running a convenience store reinvent retail for their customers (undead or alive). The majority of her excellent stories work because, like our most unsettling dreams, they're grounded in reality. When she tries to create a whole new fairy tale in "Catskin," she loses her footing. But we'll allow her this one slip-up in an otherwise thoroughly compelling, continually surprising and always exuberant collection of short fiction. This is my runner-up for the best of 2005.