People don’t get swept up by history, they make it. Walter’s latest is a grand and sweeping Western saga of the Wobblies 1909 free speech fight in Spokane. Over the course of a year, two vagrant brothers, a bawdy vaudeville performer, and firebrand labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn take actions big and small that change the West and America forever. Walter gets deep under the skin of people living during a time of upheaval, in a world that’s ever-shifting, bending, and changing – though he reminds us: when isn’t it? With moral obligations and the arc of history on the line, what’s a young dreamer to do? Which side are you on? Hopefully, the right one.
— Chris Lee
If I were to take Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and reflect it through the prism of The Sisters Brothers, I might come up with The Cold Millions, a period novel set during the rise of the IWW or The Wobblies. Gig and Rye are two brothers, the first a self-proclaimed hobo (mind you, not a bum or tramp) in early twentieth-century Spokane, and the second, his younger brother who seeks him out after their mom dies. The two become embroiled in a complicated scenario involving industrialists, organizers, prostitutes, sleuths, and bounty hunters, starting when Gig is arrested during a labor action and Rye unwittingly agrees to pass information. Keeping a plot as complicated and double-cross-filled as this one is no small feat, nor is creating what many would say is a modern take on Steinbeck. I love that this is the Spokane-iest book I’ve ever read. But once again, as in Beautiful Ruins, the thing that takes it home is the emotional heft, and with Rye, who slowly is revealed to be the center of this terrific novel, you’ve got that too.
— Daniel Goldin
Jess Walter carries us back to the Pacific Northwest of the early 1900s, using vivid details to show us the raucous, vibrant, fast growing town of Spokane. The heart of the story is two Dolan brothers jumping trains to get work, fighting for workers’ rights with the hard-nosed bosses and cops who routinely use men and then dump them as bums. Workers want decency. They have fearless leaders, but the people with wealth and power aren’t giving anything away. They don’t play nice, and they have ways of controlling it all. The brothers believe in the cause, but they're also looking to settle down in this new whirlwind home. Their stories and the way they turn phrases had me smiling ear to ear, and then shaking my head in amazement at their resilience. I think I’ll remember their hard-earned wisdom forever. It’s a suspenseful novel, a window into early days of labor battles, delivered with a sharp, clever style. It’s entertaining, and also very timely considering the gap between rich and poor has never been greater than it is now. The plot twists and characters are fascinating, many based on real events and people. The ending is satisfying. I stayed tied to each page.
— Tim McCarthy
Benson is a Black, gay, part-time day care instructor alienated from his parents, who are also alienated from each other. Mike is a Japanese cook whose parents are also no longer together. Mike invites his mother Mitsuko to Houston, only to leave for Osaka when he learns his estranged father has cancer. Not only does Ben not know what to do with Mitsuko except eat her food, he’s not even sure what he’s doing with Mike, who’s looking to open up the relationship. And while Ben’s mom has drifted away and can do fine on her own, his dad isn’t exactly healthy. The story moves from Benson to Mike and back again as each navigates the push/pull of family, responsibility, and commitment. Memorial is a sex positive, HIV positive, sort of comedy-love story with a magnetic emotional resonance that exerts its pull just when you least expect it.
— Daniel Goldin
It’s a myth, it’s a fable, it’s something like a newly discovered religious text. In a world with a seemingly endless supply of novels about the ends-of-the-earth reaching consequences of WWII and the Holocaust, The Lost Shtetl is a wondrous left turn – the story of one tiny Jewish village in Poland that the Nazis missed and time forgot. Learn along with the villagers of the past horrors they escaped and the present horrors (television, tourists, inflation, and postal codes, yech!) of the world that’s discovered them. With the village itself as a sly, sighing narrator, Gross has written a clever, affecting parable of the ways history, sooner or later, reaches us all.
— Chris Lee
In The Lost Shtetl, Kreskol, a Jewish settlement in present-day Poland, is discovered when, after a matrimonial fallout, the wife leaves town, the husband follows suit, and the town sends out a search party of one, a mamzer baker’s apprentice whom nobody will miss. When Yankel (the baker) is admitted to a hospital in nearby Smolskie, the cat’s out of the bag, or at least it will be if the medical staff don’t decide he’s either delusional or scamming them. On top of the circuitous paths of Yankel, Pesha, and Ishmael (the estranged couple), the newly discovered town must contend with greed, a tourism boom, an ideological rabbinical battle, and a good dollop of antisemitism. Meanwhile, the runaways must contend with what kind of people (and Jews) they are going to be, now that their reality rug has been pulled out from beneath them. When the copy for a novel name checks Gary Shteyngart, Michael Chabon, and Nathan Englander, what jazzy comparison is left for me? Would it be too much for me to call this philosophical and often hilarious novel the bastard child of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick?
— Daniel Goldin
The American bard of the great collapse has done it again. The Silence is a piercing novella that asks: what will we grasp for when we lose that which anchors us to modernity? As always, Delillo crafts uniquely jarring sentences to capture the quotidian ways in which language alienates us from our animal selves. Moreover, his genius really goes on display as he finds new ideas (and desires and fears!) in themes he’s been exploring for decades - football as war as annihilation, the obsession with the savior figure - even as he deconstructs them. An educated guess says this book was rushed to publication to meet the moment – and, in a rare case, rightly so. Who else could so humanely soothe us during crisis with a balm made from our terrors?
— Chris Lee