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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:
From Patricia Engel, the author of the excellent novel Infinite Country, comes her debut story collection, The Faraway World. Most of her characters are Colombians struggling to make their way in New York City; in a few stories, she explores the lives of Cubans in Havana who long to escape to America. Unlike many short stories that take place during a single day, hers read like miniature novels, often covering weeks, months, and years. At the same time, she writes vivid and fully inhabited scenes full of richly observed characters and narrative voices that will draw you in. Engel is an assured and empathic writer. The Faraway World is wonderful from cover to cover.
This new novel from the author of The Great Believers is a very compelling story with fully realized characters and a smart, witty, conversational narrator. Bodie, a true crime podcaster, returns to her prep school to teach. While there, she becomes immersed in re-investigating the '90s murder of her one-time roommate, Thalia. Was the right man convicted all those years ago? I Have Some Questions for You is that rare combination: a thoughtful read and a fun page-turner. Rebecca Makkai delivers another winner!
Another winner from Idra Novey! This novel offers a master class on "voice." The main characters are so distinctly depicted, it's as if two different authors wrote them. And what a character Jean is! I loved her desire and determination to create art, even (especially) in the bleak Appalachian surroundings that Novey so evocatively rendered. The novel is also an intelligent and empathetic dissection of what family means: who we take in, who we cast out. A microcosm of life in America today, Take What You Need is a wonderful novel.
Sing Her Down is another gritty and heartbreaking page-turner from Ivy Pochoda, author of the excellent These Women. During the COVID lockdown of spring 2020, inmates Florida and Dios are released from prison. Florida just wants to return to her old life, but Dios is hell-bent on forcing Florida to acknowledge her true inner demons. Their rampage across Arizona and California brings LA Detective Lobos onto the scene--a woman battling demons of her own. Sing Her Down is that rare beast: both deeply inhabited and explosive on the page.
In this slim but astonishing novel, Deborah Levy writes beautifully and empathically about a British classical pianist, Elsa, who's recently suffered a breakdown during a concert hall performance. Humiliated, she accepts jobs instructing young pianists across Europe. In Paris, she encounters a woman she believes is her double and, immediately obsessed, steals the woman's trilby hat. At the same time, Elsa's piano teacher/surrogate father falls ill in Sardinia. As Elsa ping-pongs through her new life, she also reckons with her past: a childhood in foster care, her mother a mystery. Levy masterfully interweaves repeated images throughout: horses, doorbells, articles of clothing, the sea. Her writing is exquisitely poetic, but never precious. August Blue is both heartbreaking and life-affirming. And all too brief. What a lovely read.
My favorite book of 2022, this brilliant and heartfelt novel blew me away. The central conceit: there's life on Mars, and they've been communicating with Earth via enormous, glowing mathematical puzzles since the 19th century, testing our intelligence. The latest equation from Mars has stumped the greatest minds on Earth for decades when, in 1960, a van full of American PhD candidates set ablaze a possible solution across miles of the desert Southwest. The obsessive genius behind the solution is Crystal Singer. Our narrator, Rick, is the practical man who loves her. Their success causes years of tumult for Crystal and Rick, driving them apart. Will Crystal solve the next Martian equation? How will heartbroken Rick manage life on his own? It's rare for a novel of big ideas to also excel at small, tender moments. In Singer Distance, Ethan Chatagnier displays great intelligence and, more important, a depth of humanity, skilled craft, and a wonderful gift for storytelling. This novel will live inside me for a very long time.
The Candy House is Jennifer Egan's sequel to her incredible 2011 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Here, minor characters from the previous work become major figures. While their stories vary widely--in setting, in time, in feel--they're all connected, both through personal bonds and through "Own Your Unconscious," a technology that allows for the uploading and sharing of memories. Egan is both an estute social critic and, more important, a wonderfully observant writer of the small moments between people that make fiction feel natural and real and true. The big ideas are fascinating, but it's the perfectly inhabited characters and their messy lives that propel this excellent novel.
Mercy Street is the name of a women's clinic in Boston, where the novel's main protagonist, Claudia, is a veteran counselor. Just outside the clinic, protestors set up camp daily. Haigh's generous and sympathetic novel introduces us to one of those protestors, Anthony, a devoutly religious loner with connections to a man from a message board, a survivalist and former truckdriver who makes it his mission to publicly shame women seeking abortions. We also get to meet Claudia's (and Anthony's) pot dealer, Timmy, who seeks to reconnect with his son in Florida. Mostly, we become deeply attached to Claudia herself, whose impoverished trailer home childhood has left her ashamed of her past and keeps her from being more connected to those around her. Mercy Street is a tender, complicated, and intimately lived novel. These characters will stay with you!
Wonderful, inventive, empathetic, and so beautifully written I paused many times to marvel at the author's sentences. The novel alternates between two perspectives. The first is a woman in the near future who works in artificial intelligence and, while grieving the recent death of her mother, takes on the project of translating a text written in Tamil in the collective voice of a group of female medical students in 1990s India, near Sri Lanka, during a time of starvation and genocide, and who form rival groups based on their studies not of medicine but of radical compassion. Meditative, sad, sometimes funny, dreamily peculiar, fiercely intelligent, and just gorgeous, this is among the very best novels of 2022.
This novel is a fascinating and moving portrait of love, sex, grief, feminism, morality, fortitude, and the complexities of human character. When Sybil returns from Boston to the West Coast town where she once lived, she's immediately empaneled on a jury for a murder trial. Also on the jury is her ex-husband. Sybil's sympathy for the woman on trial imperils her objectivity, as does her locked-away memory of the tragedy that prompted her to leave Boston. Riveting!
This second novel from Portland author Yuvi Zalkow is funny, sweet, melancholy, light, deep, absurd, and also endearingly real. Saul, a middle-aged tech worker, is separated from his wife, coparenting their child, trying to date, struggling to write a novel about his grandfather, and wrestling with an increasingly surreal software bug that threatens to destroy the company he begrudgingly works for. Acutely observed and uproariously funny, I Only Cry With Emoticons is an absolute delight.
Set on a small Scottish isle after World War 2, this is a lovely and spooky novel about a young woman, Leigh Welles, who returns home following the death of her father. It's October, which means everyone is alert to the presence of the sluagh: raven-like creatures of folklore who have been known to attack and kill livestock ... and even humans. Is that what happened to the boy who went missing on Bonfire Night? Leigh joins up with young widower and air force pilot Iain McTavish to explore the misty, rocky isle and uncover the haunting truth.
I immediately fell in love with the voice of Cara Romero. An unemployed and undocumented middle-aged Dominicana in New York City, she narrates her life story to her jobs counselor. And what a rich and vivid life it is. The author, Angie Cruz, wrote a previous staff favorite of mine, Dominicana. This new novel, How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, is just as wonderful. I was rooting for Cara every step of the way!
This novel from South African author Karen Jennings is a wonderfully written meditation on the long-term effects on a single person of imperialism, fascism, and persecution. When Samuel, a solitary lighthouse keeper, discovers a man washed ashore on his tiny island, his carefully tended life is upended. The situation evokes in William a cascade of memoires from his previous life on the mainland of the unnamed African country where he was born and raised--memories of homelessness, rebellion against tyrrany, and the 25 years he spent in prison. Because William doesn't speak the same language as the shipwrecked refugee, communication is strained, intentions misunderstood. William becomes increasingly paranoid, testing the two men's ability to share the humble cottage and tiny island. Psychologically riveting and emotionally complex, An Island is a marvel.
I really enjoyed this novel about a Chinese-American college professor who's called back to his homeland when his elderly father goes missing from their small village. While searching for his domineering father, Yitian reuintes with former crush Hanwen, a city girl who'd been "sent down" to work the fields in Yitian's village during the Cultural Revolution. The major themes are intellectual ambition, family of origin, and the compromises one makes across a lifetime.
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!
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.
A wonderful and deeply empathic novel about humanity, from the point of view of an android: an artificial friend of a sickly teenage girl. Driven by the interactions of Ishiguru's fully realized characters, this is both a quiet family drama and a subtly-drawn sci-fi dystopia that is nonetheless brimming with hope and kindness. A wonderful read.
A compelling debut! Smart and spirited protagonist Willa Marks is intent on saving the planet from climate collapse. When she finds a book called Living the Solution, Willa abandons her brilliant lover and menial job in Boston to join a commune of eco-crusaders on the island of Eleutheria. Allegra Hyde's smart and seductive writing crackles on the page.
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.
Great short story collection! Though the overriding topic is clearly race in America, Evans places her characters and their complications front and center. These are smartly written, confidently voiced, and memorable stories.
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!
This thoroughly researched and very readable book is a fascinating exporation of how people use words to gain authority over others. From literal cults such as the Manson Family and NXIVM to borderline cults (multi-level marketing schemes) to merely cultish institutions (certain fitness centers), Montell is a smart and entertaining guide to the power language has to lure in followers and, sometimes, do real harm.
Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations was my favorite book of 2020. Just one year later, her excellent Once There Were Wolves is a strong contender for the top spot on my 2021 list. Both novels have similar elements: a fierce female protagonist suffering a past trauma and whose passionate dedication to preserving the natural world leads her into peril. In this latest novel, Inti is an Australian biologist in rural Scotland. Part of a team trying to rehintroduce wolf packs back to the land, she is battling the entrenched local shepherds. She's also battling the demons of her past: a father who disappeared and a twin sister gone mute in the aftermath of a violent relationship. McConaghy is equally gifted at portraying the wonders of nature as she is the knife-edge tension between her characters. A super compelling read!
In Wayward, Eat the Document author Dana Spiotta once again deftly mixes the personal and the political. In the post-election malaise of late 2016, fifty-something Samantha Raymond leaves her stagnant marriage to purchase her dream home: an old fixer-upper in Syracuse. Sam is forced to balance her liberal ideals with the very real homeless population in her new neighborhood. She is also deeply worried about her mother's failing health. Meanwhile, Sam's teenage daughter, Ally, refuses to reply to her mother's texts. Feeling both abandoned and liberated by Sam's departure, Ally deepens her relationship with an older man. Sam and Ally remain incommunicado until a series of escalations throws mother and daughter back together again. Both women are strong and individual characters. Spiotta has painted a highly nuanced portrait of a contemporary family on the brink, and her poignant observations on politics, social issues, middle class, midlife, and love provide an added spark to Wayward that only Dana Spiotta could ignite.
S. A. Cosby's Blacktop Wasteland is a high-caliber literary thriller. Beauregard "Bug" Montage is an upstanding father, husband, and mechanic in a small Southern town. However, when Bug finds himself in dire financial straits, he returns to his criminal past as a getaway driver, for one final heist. Of course, the job doesn't go quite according to plan, and a host of bad dudes are soon threatening everything in life that Bug values most. Cosby is a clear writer with deep empathy for his characters, equally adept at evoking touching family scenes and blood-racing action. Blacktop Wasteland is superb.
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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.