Michael's Staff Favorites
I'm the store's events coordinator, publicist, and CD buyer. 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:
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 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.
I loved the voice of Sonja, a middle-aged woman in Copenhagen who's learning to drive for the first time. She's neurotic, but very thoughtful in how she navigates her anxieties––about using a stick shift, her bossy instructor, her overly familiar massage therapist, her overly familiar second driving instructor, her estranged sister, homesickness, and loneliness. Despite all these concerns, Sonja is a quick-witted and engaging narrator of her own little life. I was glad to share it, briefly.
From Maryse Meijer, who wrote a wonderful collection of short stories called Heartbreaker, this novella is a terrifying, gripping, fable-like tale of a young woman alone in the woods who has a brutal affair with a married man. Meijer's depiction of their twisted relationship is stark, poetic, and formally innovative. You will feel the narrator's needs and desires, and the pain (physical and psychological) that her desires bring. This feels both like a horror story and a memoir; it's simply very good fiction. If you want great writing and are willing to be unnerved for the couple of hours it will take you to devour this novella, Northwood is stunning.
In this debut coming-of-age novel, Gabriel, a mixed-race boy in Burundi in the 1990s watches as, first, his parents' marriage falls apart; then, his entire nation. As genocide swept through Rwanda in 1994, its neighbor to the south was torn apart by civil war, racism, social unrest, and a mounting refugee crisis. Gabriel's awakening into adolescence coincides with his broader awakening toward the world beyond the safety of his upper-class neighborhood. Faye is a very sensitive writer, and his novel is a bittersweet and intimate portrait of a family, a place, and a time.
Written by an international journalist, the protagonist of this excellent novel shares the author's peripatetic occupation. Catherine "Kit" Kittredge is assigned to cover the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. There, she falls in love with her Iraqi translator, the charming Ahmed. They are wary world-wanderers, both of them raised in Europe and America, estranged from family, and highly suspicious of all instututions: religions, governments, the military. Steavenson knows these topics well and does a wonderful job of weaving in her nuanced understanding of Arabic culture, terrorism, immigration, Islamophobia, and other current issues. More than just a novel of ideas, this is also the very tender story of Kit's struggle to raise Ahmed's son, Little Ahmed, in Paris. The elusive and often-absent Ahmed isn’t terribly helpful; instead, she's aided by her ersatz family: her godfather who's an ambassador, her friend Rousse who works at Charlie Hebdo, and a photojournalist friend named Zorro. These and others enigmatic characters enliven this very rich and deeply human world. The wonderful Paris Metro will live inside me for a long time to come.
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.
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.
Bill Beverly's beautifully written debut novel, Dodgers, is about a Compton kid named East, who is tasked with piling into a minivan with three other young gang members (including his estranged, violent younger brother) and driving across the Midwest in order to assassinate the man who would testify against their boss. That's the setup, but the real story is concerned with the psychology of displacement. This is a familiar condition for East, who chose to sleep in a cardboard box in an abandoned building, rather than live in his mother's house. Being on the road with virtual strangers, and traveling in unknown places under an assumed name, only exacerbates East's crisis of selfhood. How he manages himself and those around him is the fuel that burns throughout this wonderful, sweet, sad, and deeply sympathetic novel.
In this masterfully interwoven collection of linked short stories, Baird Harper writes with great affection, pathos, and some dark humor about the lives of contemporary Midwesterners who are connected by a fatal car crash. These stories dip and dart across the years, as we meet the man who will later be convicted of manslaughter, his estranged parents and his alcoholic wife, the victim's grief-bound sister and husband, and a broken man who wants the driver dead. Harper also captures the blight of small-town America, creating a vivid setting perfectly suited to the inner struggles of his deeply rendered characters. While each of these excellent stories stands on its own, together they form a satisfying and novelistic whole.
The stories in this debut collection are united by their unique setting: the titular marshlands of rural England. Johnson imbues many of these tales with magic, fantasy, and horror, but this is not genre writing. The fuel for her stories are her fully inhabited and deeply felt characters and their struggles with family, identity, love, small town blues, and, occasionally, the need to feed on human blood. This is a sad, weird, sweet, sharp, and finely rendered collection from a very promising young writer.
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.
Spanning nearly eighty years, these tales of Russian and Chechen lives are intricately and inextricably woven into a complex whole. Characters appear as narrators in one story, then return years (and sometimes thousands of miles) later as supporting players in another character's drama. Key objects--a painting, a photograph, a mixtape--are viewed through mutiple lenses. Marra in an exquisite chronicler of hidden beauty, rueful irony, small moments of grace, and tragedies so commonplace that only those most closely affected notice the loss. After reading this wonderful book, Russia remains as baffling to me as ever, but its people (or how Marra portrays its people, anyway) feel utterly knowable and vivid and alive ... even those who don't survive all the way to the final page.
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.
In his debut novel, Yuvi Zalkow writes about a neurotic Jewish writer, named Yuvi, who is writing his debut novel. Well, he's trying to write his debut novel, anyway. And he's trying to be a good husband. And he's trying to help out his ailing brother-in-law. But his fears, insecurities, and worries usually get the better of him. Zalkow updates the classic neurotic Jew for the twenty-first century, updating the self-obsessed humor of Woody Allen and the familial legacies of shame and guilt found in the works of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and their contemporaries. (And, by "updating," I mean he adds in anagrams, runaway pianos, and rhesus monkeys living on Uranus.) If any of this sounds clever or overly cute, be prepared for a very well-written, emotionally honest, and often heartbreaking tale of a man who must battle all of his worst impulses to keep his life from falling apart. Brilliant is the perfect word to describe this inventive novel.
Told in a series of linked stories, Jennifer Egan's smart new novel 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 interconnectedness and an exploration of human nature, A Visit from the Goon Squad 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.