Thinking about my reading habits, I'm really not sure what draws me to a particular book--just a gut sense that we'll get along. Lately I've been drawn to narrative nonfiction and short stories. I like novels with a strong voice and some humor.
I don't know if Samantha Irby had any idea how brutal 2020 was going to be when she decided to publish another essay collection this spring, but I'm thankful for her foresight. "Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever changed out of one cozy shirt into an even cozier shirt" is an appropriate epitaph for the entire month of April. If your head's going in a million different directions right now, making novels feel like a chore, and you like a good voice and a sense of humor that's hiding some pretty sharp cultural commentary, treat yourself to this book.
Sophia Spencer is a seven-year-old girl who became fascinated with bugs when she was only two. Like a lot of kids with passionate interests, though, she was teased by other kids--to the point where she stopped sharing her love of insects altogether, until she met a community of supportive adult entomologists. This book reassures you that it's okay to love something that other people think is weird, and that you can find your people as long as you reach out to them.
After Mia's grandmother suffers a stroke, Mia moves from Boston to Vermont with a broken arm and a secret. Could it have something to do with why she has suddenly lost interest in gymnastics, even though she was a rising star back home? As Mia's grandmother recovers, the Vermont cricket farm suffers a series of bizarre mishaps, which Mia investigates with the help of her new summer-camp friends. Once again, Kate Messner crafts a kid-friendly plot and characters and sensitively explores a difficult subject--though there are literal crickets, they become a metaphor too--in a middle-grade-appropriate way. This book hits the Judy Blume spot!
Oh, Rebecca Stead--queen of the perfect detail! Middle schooler Bea looks back on a time of transition--her parents divorce, amicably, then her dad comes out and brings a new partner and possible stepsister into Bea's life--in a way that perfectly depicts how it feels to be quirky, emotional, anxiety-prone and twelve-ish. The story is subtly suspenseful and the characters are so real, you root for them all. This might just be Rebecca Stead's best one yet.
Joni Mitchell painted with words.
Sitting at her piano or strumming the guitar, she turned the words into songs.
The songs were like brushstrokes on a canvas, saying things that were not only happy or sad but true.
Joni Mitchell's music captivated me when I was little, and I would have loved this picture book biography of her. The collage illustrations vary to evoke the moods of her songs, and difficult adult stuff is explained in an age-appropriate way. From childhood on the Canadian prairie to adult artist of genius, this is a fascinating life story well told.
This is the book that jump-started my love of all things medieval!
This accessible picture book biography, written with a charming directness, explains how Fred Rogers revolutionized television by validating children's feelings. Fred was a sensitive child who understood what it was like to feel deeply and wanted other children to know that they weren't alone. The beautiful illustrations by Brigette Barrager are a bit 1950s-retro but depict a diverse group of children
Jia Tolentino's verbose, neurotic style is perfect for 2019. She likes to worry away at cultural issues from all angles in a way that might be polarizing, but that I, personally, find charming. (If all that worrying leads to nothing conclusive, well, that feels appropriate for 2019, too.) Subjects include modern-day scams (social media, Nasty Gal, student debt), the cultural imperative to "optimize," the Rolling Stone University of Virginia story, and the sudden glut of feminist writing about "difficult" women. If you took David Foster Wallace in reporter mode, but made him grow up as a teenage girl with a Livejournal, you might end up with writing like this.
I probably won't get anyone too psyched on a novel by describing at as perfectly faithful to the actual, emotional experience of adult loneliess. (Nobody in this book is a loveable curmudgeon, thank God.) But we've all felt lonely sometimes, and it's nice to see the condition described without there being an immediate narrative impulse to correct it. One of the two lonely middle-aged characters works at a bookstore; he sometimes says aloud what most booksellers try not to. The other character, like Russel Hoban, is an author of children's books. The two meet at a turtle tank in a London aquarium and conspire to free the sea turtles. This book is awesome and I'm glad Russell Hoban exists.
This beautifully-illustrated nonfiction book is a feast for the curious kid. Jennifer Thermes explores the uglier and sometimes hidden parts of the island's history, serves up a lot of quirky NYC lore (what might be buried under Central Park?), and all the famous landmarks make an appearance too. She also looks to the post-Hurricane Sandy, climate change future. This would make a great gift and is a school-library essential!
An instant quirky-kid picture book classic in the vein of Frog Belly Rat Bone, with a visual nod to Ralph Steadman. Amariyah gives you step-by-step instructions for finding, befriending and walking ants, and you'll learn some ant facts too. I would have been sointo this book if someone had given it to me when I was six or seven.
This collection is only 146 pages long (plus notes) and there are no bad sentences in it. The shortest of these stories, including the title story, achieve a prose poem-like compression, but the amazing thing is that none of them feel overworked--and they're funny. If you can get through the one about people who work in a New York City dog shelter without crying, you're tougher than I am. This is a book to sit with and to savor.
Damon Young is a co-founder of verysmartbrothas.com. You might be thinking that lots of people write personal-political essays, so what makes this collection stand out? It's all about the voice. Every single one of these essays, even when addressing the hardest stuff, contains a bunch of witty aperçus that will forever change how you see certain people and things. (There are several politicians who I'll forever associate with their Youngian nicknames.) Young's riffs on things he particularly dislikes, where he really lets it rip, bring me a lot of joy.
This extremely readable book is half true-crime story, half history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The main narrative concerns a horrifying crime: a mother of ten was taken from her apartment in a Belfast public housing complex that served as a flashpoint during the height of the Troubles and never heard from again. The stories of several prominent Provisional IRA families are also told in detail. (Check out the massive "notes" section to understand the depth of research that went into this book). Patrick Radden Keefe is a New Yorker staff writer and this reads like a New Yorker article in the best possible way.
This short, sharp satirical novel might be for you if, like me, you're so over earnest realism right now. Korede, the plain, responsible one, is compelled to clean up the literal and figurative messes left by her beautiful, murderous sister Ayoola (who has a social media addiction that undermines her half-hearted attempts to present herself as the grieving girlfriend of her deceased boyfriends). I don't have a sibling, but I loved how the author explores the bond between sisters.
The "last pass" of the title concerns Bob Cousy's late-in-life letter to his Celtics teammate and friend, Bill Russell. While Cousy was enlightened for his time on matters of race -- the product of a difficult childhood, he empathized with those who felt like outsiders -- he wishes he'd done more to publicly and privately support Russell during a particularly racist era in Boston history. The coming-of-age of basketball as a professional sport, the Red Auerbach Celtics, the racial strife surrounding Boston's attempt to integrate its public schools, and the national Civil Rights movement are all sensitively woven into the story of the partnership between these two men.
Escape to the music-hall stages of turn-of-the-century England with Sarah Waters' fast-paced, racy debut novel. Waters plays it loose with history--she has described this book as being set in a sort of 1990s version of Victorian times--but you will absolutely fall for Nan King, an oyster girl from Whitstable, as she transforms a from shy provincial girl to a worldly Londoner, and learns a lot about herself and the wider world along the way. She's interesting even when she's acting like a jerk. Outlandish, absorbing and bursting with first-novel enthusiasm.
A delightful, endlessly browseable history that explores the culture that the Beastie Boys came from as well as their creations and legacy. It's mostly written by Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz -- the loss of Adam Yauch in 2012 and the surviving members' evident love for him lend this project weight and poignancy -- with some excellent contributions from pals & associates including Luc Sante, Amy Poehler and Andre Leon Talley (who hilariously eviscerates the group's many "interesting" fashion moments).
This is a complicated, intense reckoning with family and personal history by one of the sharpest writers out there. Of his mother, Laymon writes: "You gave me a black southern laboratory to work with words. In that space, I learned how to assemble memory and imagination when I most wanted to die."
The protagonist -- a writing teacher and a cat person -- inherits a Great Dane after the death of her friend and mentor with whom she shares a long and complicated history. Fans of pared-down writing and sensitive explorations of human/animal (and human/human) bonds will love this novel. It has also been nominated for a National Book Award.
Reading How to be Famous is like lingering in the pub with your smartest friend and getting buzzed off of the conversation as much as whatever's in your pint glasses. This is a sequel of sorts to How to Build a Girl, but the story's more polished and the politics feel more urgent. Queue up the Britpop playlist and throw this one in your beach bag.
It's been years since I've been this excited about a new novel. Tommy Orange weaves together the stories of many individuals meeting at a large Oakland pow-wow, examining what it means to be an "Urban Indian" (his term) existing off the reservation. Whenever something gets pre-publication comparisons to both Gertrude Stein and George Saunders, the seasoned bookseller might be forgiven for rolling his or her eyes, but the comparison turns out to be weirdly appropriate in this case--though neither reference prepares you for the emotional experience of reading this novel.
This is sort of the anti-Shape of Water. A woman, adrift in her late 30s, falls in love with a merman who seems like an appealing contrast to the human world of demeaning sex and bad Tinder dates. Deadpan, funny and kinda gross.
Man, is this book weird -- my kind of weird. Beautiful illustrations pair with loopy text about a literal baby monkey-turned-detective whose only shortcoming as a private eye is his inability to get dressed properly. (Let's face it, putting on your pants is kind of the worst.) Great for beginning readers who want a big-kid book.
I love the art; I love the text, and I need to quote another reviewer who called it "the ultimate black boy joy book." Whether going to the barbershop is a regular feature of their lives or not, kids everywhere will love the fun, heart and sense of pride in this book.
This immediately appealing New England noir is set in a small coastal Massachusetts town in the sleepy, early 1960s. With shades of Patricia Highsmith, Ottessa Moshfegh takes us into the mind of a repressed, self-effacing young woman who is ready to snap.
As an experiment in "immersive attention," Ruth Ozeki observes her face for three hours while recording her thoughts and feelings. This probably sounds pretentious, but she brings to this project her knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Japanese-American history, and her general curiosity and brilliance. A chapter on the effort involved in creating Noh theater masks is particularly delightful. A gem!
Matthew Desmond tells an urgent story of landlords and renters in several present-day Milwaukee neighborhoods. He follows families over the course of multiple forced moves, often from bad apartments to even worse ones, while analyzing the complicated relationship between poverty and eviction. This is a complex tale of anguish, ingenuity, and sacrifices made of necessity.
Prepare to become totally immersed in the story of two best friends, Lila and Elena, growing up in a provincial 1950s Naples neighborhood. The children of "the neighborhood" experience hardship; there's a pretty high body count for a relatively quiet book. Stasis reigns; one family's departure from the neighborhood later becomes mythic. Electricity flows between the two girls as they recognize in each other an intelligence that is underappreciated by everyone else. Elena studies and wins praise from from her teachers; Lila must leave school to work at her father's shoe factory, but meanwhile she's devising her own plan of escape, so she hopes. This is the first of four books. (yay!)
These ten stories are funny, plain-spoken tales about people out of their depth. My favorites are "Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love".and "Desert Hearts," but they're all good!
Detail by detail, slowly and patiently, Tessa Hadley builds a life so rich and so ordinary, it's easy to forget you're reading fiction. The protagonist, Stella, observes everything at a calm remove, even when she's describing chaos. The result feels like a kind of reckoning with how much control we really have over our lives. Subtly different from anything else I've read.
These laugh-out-loud funny stories are mostly set in a disquieting future that isn't so different from our present. Pretty much any adjectives you can think of to describe these stories sound po-faced ("surreal," "deadpan," etc.) so I'll just say that his writing is sort of your-brain-but-smarter. Saunders also has a real knack for satirical brand names.
This is one of the best novels I'll read this year - it has the dark pull of a really great mystery and a raunchy, heartbreaking narrator in 13-year-old Joe Coutts, who's growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in the 1980s. Joe's mother survives a violent assault on her way to work at the tribal offices. Her subsequent depression renders her unable to help the police investigation, and the other adults seem frustratingly ineffectual, so Joe decides to pursue justice on his own.
Junot Diaz returns to writing about his character Yunior from Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This time his themes are machismo, the legacy of racial/colonial violence and the possibility of finding what he calls "decolonial love." Because this is Junot Diaz, though, the delightful writing manages to carry all this heavy stuff lightly. This story collection is quieter than Oscar Wao and a little more unified than Drown - but, like Drown, has an amazing final story that seems to sum up the rest of the book while going beyond.
Margaret Atwood really takes you for a ride with this book, but in a good way. The lives of three women are revealed through their interactions with a mysterious fourth woman who acts as a transformative force. I love the structure of this novel, with all of its layers and echoes. Why didn't I read this sooner?!
The author's love of words makes these stories exceptionally powerful - read Pink (page 39) and you'll understand. Despite the difficult subject, this collection is a delight!
This novel requires a bit of patience at first, but give it time: beautiful writing, full of readable detail; layers of psychological complication; and slow building tension. Leo, who is the young narrator of the book, spends the summer of 1900 at his upper-class school friend's estate. He becomes smitten with both his friend's older sister and the man she loves, who works nearby as a tenant farmer. This is, of course, a socially unacceptable love, which naive Leo unwittingly facilitates by serving as a secret "go-between"for the couple. This is a quiet novel that sneaks up on you with its emotional impact.