Welcome to Chris's recommendations! Chris Lee is from West Virginia. He was raised on Oatmeal Crème Pies, Seinfeld, and dirt.
Brandon Taylor’s novel invites us into the world of Iowa City’s fledgling writers, dancers, and artists as they squabble, scrap, hope, love, and fight their way toward self-knowledge in a country that doesn’t have much more to offer them than, at best, indifference and economic insecurity. Art and sex, full hearts and empty wallets. A perfectly titled novel (each character so late to so many different parties) that deeply understands the roiling emotional landscape of lives of ideas as they’re lived in precarity. Truly impressive.
A central (perhaps the central) paradox of the writing life is this: in order to churn out the freest, most generous, truest work possible, the writer must embrace the utter and complete futility of the task of writing. As a writer at the beginning of a new project, I couldn’t ask for a better companion to carry me through the coming, inevitable, necessary days of failure, joy, and frustration. Marche’s essay is such a heartening guide through the writer’s life (of failure). As a reader, Marche’s perspective on the lives, hopes, frustrations, and failures of some all-time greats is nothing short of a marvel. It’s like being able to see into the upside-down of centuries of literature. Any person interested in language, books, stories, and meaning-making will find themselves richer for reading this exceptional little book.
What a moving, soulful, rangy little book. Als’s mini-memoir begins with meditations on Prince as queer Black icon, and from there he explores the artist’s performances (and obliterations) of dichotomies between masculinity and femininity, black and white, the sacred and profane. The way Prince made all of us fall in love with him. In his writing for The New Yorker, Als is especially adept at understanding the drives, desires, and wounds that shape an artist’s personality, how they influence her work, and in turn, how that work shapes and influences the culture at large. In this book, he doubles his gaze back (and forth and back and forth) from Prince to himself to contemplate how the artist’s transformations influenced his own becoming. My Pinup is an elegant ode to one of America’s greatest artists and a deeply personal account of the love that artist allowed a writer to crack open in himself.
Wow. The Rabbit Hutch is wonderful, insane, and brilliant, and I love, love, love it. Rust belt, Indiana. The denizens of a crumbling apartment building are desperate to transcend their crumbling lives; to transcend trauma, forgottenness, and fame, to transcend the emptiness of material circumstances. To transcend the body. This book is ALIVE. The lives within it pop, scream, and bleed off the page.
If, like me, you have a less-than-sunny outlook on the prospect of avoiding simultaneous civil collapse and climate catastrophe in your lifetime, then you may find it counterintuitive when I tell you this novel of a young man running from the aftermath of those very events is the most comforting thing I’ve read all year. A dark book for dark times, Lark Ascending is, all the same, written so beautifully, full of honesty and compassion. In his old age, Lark recalls his harrowing journey to escape an America ruled by fundamentalist and swept by massive fires, sail across a stormy Atlantic, and trek across Ireland to a thin place that may offer sanctuary. House offers something necessary - hope that through all the violence, hatred, death, scarcity, and destruction of the impending collapse, a glimmer of humanity might remain.
This memoir is so many things: a time capsule of 90s America from a West Coast outsider, a dissection of friendship through lenses of philosophy and language theory, a lived account of Asian diaspora in America. It’s road trips, cigarette breaks, mixtapes, and late nights goofing off. It’s the tone of nostalgia from a Smashing Pumpkins song. It’s the core-deep impact a friend can have, and it’s the tragedy of an early, senseless, violent loss. This book tore me completely apart. For anyone who’s ever found a friend who let them find themselves, for anyone who’s ever lost a friend who took a chunk of you with them, this book is going to destroy you then put you back together again, a little wiser and a little more tender.
Ross Gay has got to be one of the most generous human beings alive, and his essays in this book are beautifully messy, meandering, in-progress things, building onto and into each other as he searches his life for the connective tissue from which joy is made. It’s written the only way it could be while staying an honest exploration of the messy, in-progress thing that is being human. Gay casts a wide net in his search for joy, and the book ends up being about way too much to list, the result of a fierce and roaming intellect that delights in getting down into the nitty-gritty. But, a sample: his essay on masculinity and grief (and football, and fathers, and meditation, and… you get the idea) pretty much rended me completely apart and then, mercifully, rebuilt me again. Here’s a writer at the height of his powers accounting for himself and in turn inviting us join him in this accounting, this search for a gentler, more connected, joyful way to be. I would have finished this book faster except I kept having to take breaks to cry – tears of gratitude, of grief, and yes, most definitely, of joy.
The Coward is a spectacular dirtbag bildungsroman. Jarred is paralyzed after a car accident that killed a woman, and he blames himself for her death. In fact, blames himself for a lot of things; classic King Midas in reverse syndrome. Maybe the only person he blames more is his estranged, alcoholic father, under whose roof he’s now stuck living. Alas, Jarred can barely push himself down the block before he’s out of breath, so his tried and true method of running away from his problems is no longer a particularly viable option. Some soul-searching and past-confronting may be in order, as quick wit and anger are only going to carry him so far. Is he destined to spend the rest of his life as a living, breathing (and annoyed) cautionary tale / inspirational token to the able-bodied? How long can he dodge medical bill collectors? Could the barista at the fancy coffee shop actually be interested in him, like, that way? And can he reconcile with his father, finally mourn his mother, and learn not run out on the people who care about him? The Coward will probably not be the book for everybody – the voice is callous, sarcastic, and comes with quite the chip on the shoulder – but if your interest is piqued, I can promise this book will lend your heart some serious warmth by the end.
A young writer ditches the NYC publishing world to live cheap in Florida and finish his novel. Alas, when he finishes, the book’s crap and he’s full of ennui. But then, while catching up with a college acquaintance, he’s told the story of a vacation gone wild that’s full of intrigue, pathos, and sex that might just be the perfect vehicle for an upmarket literary hit. What could possibly go wrong? Andrew Lipstein’s Last Resort is a razor sharp retelling of Faust. It’s also the most fun you’ll have this year reading something so bruxism-inducing. And that’s not just due to the milieu – hipster elite millennial Brooklyn, rendered hilariously well. Here’s a book that just won’t quit as it stares wide-eyed at all the terrible decisions one writer makes, all the pieces of his life he’s willing to throw away, when he thinks he’s doing it for his art.
Moshfegh is the modern bard of violence and delusion, and Lapvona lies somewhere in the territory between lost books of the Bible and Shakespearian tragedy. In a medieval fiefdom struck by drought and ruled by superstition, a demented power struggle plays out between a bitter shepherd, his deformed but pious son, an ignorant priest, a blind, witchy midwife, and a heretical, frail lord. Is there a wolf among them, or are they all sheep for slaughter? Captivating and brutal, this is a heady novel of ideas that will grab you hard and shake away any scraps of complacency you might have left.
Stewart O’Nan writes novels that are can’t-look-away captivating, full of gorgeous prose, and just unrelentingly real. In Ocean State, teenage love goes terribly wrong in a little-to-lose, blue collar town on the East Coast. O’Nan gets so close to these people they feel like your family as he zooms in on the overlooked moments that nudge a young woman along from desperately in love to just plain desperate.
Happy Doll rides again in the second installment of Ames’s new noir series that’s even better than the first. Our stoned, aspiring-Buddhist hero barrels into back-alley fights, overpass encampments, and Hollywood Hills weirdness. It seems Ames’s embrace of the noir has cracked something open in his writing, and the limitations the genre has imposed have, paradoxically (apropos of his hero) unleashed his full powers as a writer of beautiful prose and catch-in-your-throat soul-searching reflections. Can’t wait for the next one!
Get through the work day, and don’t let the work get to you. That’s the goal of everyone who labors, at least to some degree. And, of course, it’s impossible. Manual work breaks down your body, the service industry eats away your personhood. And in her crisp, quick new novel, Hanna Bervoets tells the story of one woman’s year spent in the latest temple to soul-sucking drudgery: a social media company’s content moderation facility. The question is begged (I admit, I wondered, too): what’s the worst thing you ever saw? And boy oh boy are there ever some eye-watering answers. But there’s fun here, too, particularly that old dirtbag pleasure of getting away with as much as you can on the clock – loafing, drinking, smoking dope, and even screwing. We Had to Remove This Post is a very now working class novel that asks age-old and essential questions of life under capitalism: what does our work do to us? How much of ourselves will we give away for money? The answers Bervoets finds are disquieting at best, and the longer you think about them (and you’re going to keep thinking about them, trust me), the more your skin crawls. I really like this book.
Maybe it’s no surprise that a guy born smack in the middle of the Gen X years, whose salad days align pretty much exactly within the confines of 90s, is a little persnickety at the swell of nostalgia for the decade. Klosterman would like to set the record straight. Fortunately, he’s mostly uninterested in retrospective reevaluation and generally steers clear of ‘you couldn’t do that today!’ finger wagging, though he has his moments. What’s great about this book is how Klosterman surveys the years past to understand how we understood the world at the time. And yes, that’s the generic, generalized ‘we’ – were, he asks, the 90s the last era of American monoculture? Klosterman is most insightful when he’s going back to view things through the eyes of people as they lived through it – the Seinfeld finale, the siege in Waco, The Real World, OJ’s white Bronco, Nirvana’s earth-shaking pep rally - this is how it felt as it happened. And yeah, he gets a little lost in the swirl of his own ideas here and there, but what honest pontificating 90s slacker doesn’t? It’s all the more forgivable, because, really, he does a pretty darn good job at an impossible task. How can you expect to capture a whole decade in a few hundred pages? Especially as Klosterman’s central argument is that it was during the 90s when time, memory, and our understanding of world events collapsed into something of a sloppily mediated metanarrative. Do I just like reading about the staples of my (elder Millennial) childhood? Maybe – I do really miss Hollywood Video. But, honestly, for anyone who’s interested in recent history written with wit, a bit of contrarian snarl, and an eye for connections both subtle and weird (how did a change in credit card laws lead to the rise of indie filmmaking?), you will want to relive The Nineties.
Alone and dying, a father writes his life story in letters, trying to explain to his estranged son the harsh understanding of manhood he once thought necessary to survive as a Black man in America. Daniel Black welcomes you to rural Arkansas with a detailed portrait of country life and Black boyhood in the mid-20th century. Particularly well captured is the whiplash of how much time and change can pass in the span of just one life. Don’t Cry for Me immerses you in another time and place and lets you breathe, smell, taste, and feel another man’s life as he reckons with the good and bad that he’s done to the people he loves.
Jem Calder’s Reward System chronicles the deadened existence of the new lost generation. Pleasantly moment-to-moment, the stories meander through the current ordeals of being alive: The commodification of interactions and the inescapability of capitalism within even our most intimate relationships. The banal horror and ever-growing number of existential crises of background concern. Roommates, coworkers, university chums. Bad luck, mental health, diminishing momentum. Smartphones. Smartphones. Screens. Smartphones. Trajectorial prospects. The earning potential of adults under forty. And a question: exactly how futile is it now, today, right now, to try to start over? These are excellent stories, written with surgically precise language, that will fundamentally shift your understanding of how we do and don’t understand ourselves.
It’s weird! It’s wild! It’s full of cranks and cooks, utopians and grifters (and recently, Nazis. Yikes.). It’s the flat earth movement, and it’s back, baby! Kelly Weill’s fantastic book traces the history of flat earth, from utopian English communes to a cabin in the California desert to its resurgence online, and it’s totally not what you think it is. An example: if you ever said, “that’s back when people still thought the earth was flat,” you were probably wrong – we’ve known the world is round for well more than two millennia. Flat earth is a surprisingly young movement, as timelines for conceptions of basic facts go, surviving in fits and starts over just two centuries. So how then, in the last decade, has such an absurdly stupid, baldly false idea become a pet cause of pro athletes, white supremacists, and a fast-growing number of otherwise average normies? As American society further atomizes, the fringe is no longer the fringe. Weill offers an insightful examination of the way conspiracies, from flat earth to QAnon, untether believers from the reality. She details the sad necessity of methods for breaking believers away from conspiratorial ideologies, be they heinous and hateful or just plain dumb. Cult rescue specialists are involved. What a great book - a fascinating hidden history story and an investigation of a subset that sheds eye-opening light on the ways fringe ideas can take hold of entire cultures.
It is an ugly, cold comfort to say, “at least they have the same problems in France,” but here we are. Gendrot’s pulled off two major feats with this book. The first, of course, is spending two years undercover as a journalist in the Parisian police force without getting himself killed. The second is capturing on the page the crushing frustration of the central Catch-22 of changing policing: To fix the problem, you have to admit there’s a problem, but if you admit there’s a problem, now you’re the problem. In clean, clear-eyed reportage, Gendrot is unflinching but evenhanded about what he documents – the daily, casual acts of racism, violence, and misogyny of some fellow officers, the code of silence adopted by the rest, the lack of resources, support, and training for the front-line, and the disconnect between politicians and the brass from what’s happening in the streets. It’s farcically optimistic to think this book is going to be the catalyst for serious police reform. In fact, it begs the pessimistic question: are these problems actually problems or part of the design of how we police in the Western hemisphere? Still, Gendrot’s book is important, a necessary document of and confrontation with the current reality and its toll on those doing the policing and those being policed.
This is a sort of dangerous book, with the potential to become a manifesto that people rewrite their lives around - a blueprint for dropping out and a logic for bad action. That said, it’s also a gritted-teeth honest and gutsy exploration of whiteness and masculinity - of exceptionalism, savior complex, and class tourism. One guy has a lot of stolen cash and a strong desire to disappear from his old life and the surveillance state. Even as things go entirely off the rails, the writing is so compelling and clear that you can’t help but to tear through this novel and spend days afterwards attempting to triangulate the lines between good and bad actions and good and bad reasons. This is a bold one.
BELIEVE THE HYPE. In fact, call Afterparties the Goodbye, Columbus of Californian Cambodian-American life. So’s book is a glittering example of what the best story collections do – welcome you fully into a world and render it with diamond cut detail and deep well empathy. Sharply funny, dirty, unsparing, and full of longing, hopes, and American dreams of all kinds – dashed, wildly overachieved, hung onto by a thread, abandoned, and just discovered.
Generous, fearless, funny, and gentle, Broome chronicles his own story to understand how and where he (along with so many other Black outsiders) doesn’t fit in America. His sentences are pure style, a joy to read, and he slips between as many voices as he has existences: Black, gay, poor, masculine, abused, uncool, scared, addicted, ashamed, angry, proud, and full of joy. And on and on. Yes, that’s a lot of signifiers, but only because this is an awful lot of book. Where do you live when every space you inhabit is an intersection of tensions? How does a man who’s spent his life being choked finally learn to breathe? Broome interrogates the world with the rigor and tenacity of the greats, and Punch Me Up to the Gods is everything a great memoir should be.
Amazing, heart-wrenching, wondrous. A years-spanning story of an intense friendship and how history (you know, wars and stuff) weighs on people's bonds. More than a decade ago, Sara left Bosnia, never to return. Now, drawn back by a long-lost childhood friend, she’s on a road trip through the Western Balkans, her own past, and a landscape scarred by social and political violence. Bastašić wrestles questions of obligation and understanding into one woman’s deeply personal reckoning. What do we owe the people who’ve shaped us, who taught us how to feel alive? What we know (and un-know) of our friends, our histories, and ourselves? It’s a story of how a person can misunderstand her friend and herself and then be completely wrecked and rebuilt as she grows to a new understanding of her world. Prepare to be split in two. WOW!
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Extraordinary. I love every word Shteyngart’s ever written, and this is his best novel by an upstate country mile. I said I never wanted to read a 2020 pandemic novel, but I was wrong. I needed to read one – this one.
Wow. If you want a classic, capital N, The Novel kind of book, you couldn’t do much better than The Great Mistake. As a stylist, Lee is top shelf; he so obviously delights in the English language, and each of his sentences is a masterclass in wonder, humor, and precision – even the shapes and sounds of his lines are full of surprises. You want more than style? You got it. Lee tracks the life of Andrew Haswell Green (the mostly forgotten Father of Greater New York) through the 19th century, creating a remarkably full measure of the man’s life, public and private. In doing so, the book offers a window into the life of America’s greatest city as it came into its modern form. Honestly, the best comparison I can think of is that this is the novel Charles Dickens might write if he’d recently crawled out of the grave.
Ashley Nelson Levy’s language-y, hyper-smart debut is a breathless confessional burst and big-family-questions book all at once. A confessionquestional, if you will. You ever talk to people in your head, imagine conversations and arguments? That’s the whole book. Here’s how it goes: the narrator’s brother begs a last-minute wedding toast of her, which sets her off down memory lane, recounting their life, from his adoption in Thailand at 3 years old to the day of his nuptials. Along the way she questions, essays, and debates with herself about adoption, infertility, and cultural histories of both, plus race, addiction, theft, territory and country, motherhood, heritage and genetics, and those eternal biggies: what makes a family? What breaks one? All of it’s explored with the open-hearted intimacy of someone talking in her head to the brother she’s realizing she’s desperate to reconnect with. Lame pun hard sell line: if you want a beautiful, intelligent family novel, buy this one immediately.
The essayist as skater / cultural historian - a perfect pairing. I love the way Vadi considers the history attached to spaces – the memories that live in the ground, buried by people like the Mexican immigrants turned Okies who picked California’s Salad Bowl and the skate video heroes who thrashed San Francisco’s Hubba Hideout. As development and erosion erase physical history, Vadi searches for what’s left. He traverses his home state in meandering journeys of insight, winding wander-abouts, point A to point L, then B to Z - free form thoughts carried along by the author’s two feet. And an undercurrent through the essays is a distinctly millennial experience – stretching and searching for any foothold in a world that’s kind of maybe dying. Inter State asks, what does California mean? An impossible question, of course, but as he traces map lines through history, the intersections Vadi discovers are profound, and he illuminates them with wit, intelligence, and verve. My highest recommendation.
When his heart and his neck both get broken, semi-pro circuit wrestler Ricky sets off on a journey to find his absentee father upon whose Native American heritage Ricky’s identity (not to mention his semi-offensive wrestling persona) is based. This book rules. Ricky’s voice is unforgettable – an internet bro full of swagger, jokes, and pain. And his story, like him, is messy, flawed, and wandering, from the top of the ropes to Omaha’s dive bars, halfway across the country twice then back home again. A wholly original, of-the-moment take on how a young man in middle America searches for answers to those eternal questions: who the hell am I, and how am I going to live with it? This is a heck of a good book.
In the best way possible, Chuck Wendig has quite clearly taken all his favorite parts from all of his favorite Stephen King novels and mashed them into one book. An everything-and-the-kitchen-sink novel. I love it. After an active shooter drill creates real trauma, a Philadelphia cop moves his wife and his dangerously empathetic (one could even say supernaturally so!) teenage song to his rural PA hometown, where a lot of gruesome, terrible things have happened over the last century. And away we go on a winding adventure that asks that oh-so central question: can one family’s love keep the world from collapsing under the weight of a globe’s worth of murder, destruction, and evils? Along the way, we’ll meet a dead father’s violent ghost, a trailer park kid full of tricky magic, a lightning-riding serial killer, a charming fish and game warden, and a cantankerous true-crime author with his own secrets. Definitely my top beach read pick of the year for both everyone who loves horror and anyone else who wants to dip their toes into some murky, magic waters this summer.
By now, anyone who’s paying attention at all knows what happens to the families on the losing end of gentrification. And if we’re being honest, we don’t care – that’s development, that’s progress, catch up or get left behind. That’s the starting place for Vlautin’s latest. Lynette wakes up before the sun to work shifts at two crappy jobs (plus her sex work side hustle) as she tries to scrape together enough cash to buy the house she lives in with her alcoholic mother and developmentally disabled brother from their absentee landlord. Vlautin brings a razor-sharp eye for detail to his dirty realism version of ‘the night of crime that changes it all.’ This isn’t just what happens when a person is pushed over the edge – Vlautin is unflinching about staring back at the economic, social, and familial pressures can shove a person over the cliff. It’s also a tour of the “before” photo of Portland – definitely the latest & greatest book for those who dig glimpses of the parts of cities that lousy new money hasn’t ruined yet. Also, I’ll say that the vibe of the novel is that of an Eagles song turned into a book by someone who hates the Eagles because they’re too soft. This a compliment. I think I’ll be walking around Vlautin’s Portland in my head for a long time to come.
Boyle’s penned one humdinger of a crime novel. You get a twisty, “when will their paths cross and how bad will it get?” sort of plot, characters full of big-time dreams and even bigger feelings, and local color out the wazoo. I certainly won’t be the only person to compare Boyle’s style, story, and milieu to Scorsese. And here’s something I like – Boyle runs far away from the corny, ‘man’s gotta do..,’ moralistic posturing that so many contemporary thrillers are full of. Let’s be honest – every season of books comes with a bundle of them about thieving, cheating, and killing. Shoot the Moonlight Out deserves a spot all of this fall’s most wanted lists.
Just an odd fellow, his beloved dog, and a whole lot of dead bodies. This is crime fiction the way it was meant to be: sly, sad, and a little weird. And I love it. It’s also a Jonathan Ames book that feels like it was written by a Jonathan Ames character – read it as the book Ames’s Bored to Death alter ego broke out with. But then, don’t, because it’s not just a goof or some literary lark. Ames captures the soul of classic American noir with a perfect balance of violence, money, and irreverence. His Los Angeles is heir to the City of Angels as penned by Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. The kind of book that reminds me why I fell in love with detective novels.
Castleberry’s debut is an American original, an epic told in tangents. The book doesn’t just begin from the understanding that each event in history has fractured reverberations that ripple throughout the rest of time - it’s an embodiment of that reality. Beginning with the (real) 1947 Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting over the Cascade mountains - admittedly, why I picked up the book - the story shoots off just like Arnold’s flying pie tins into nine wildly different directions. A utopian commune gathers out west, seeking a vision from another world, and from there we check in each five years with another person whose life has been nudged one way or another by histories micro and marcro. One of things to really savor is the way each section bristles against the general ideas and shared memory of each era’s vibe. And Castleberry is so good at crafting sentences packed with delight and surprise that you'll barely notice until he end that he’s just swept you through a half century of America history in a dauntingly creative formal invention of a novel. Yowza.
The people: well education, witty, and already washed-out twenty & thirty somethings – yes, they’re millennials. The places: back and forth between Missoula, MT and the cities and their exurban territories of the East Coast. And the theme: is something like, not really despair, and not quite resignation, but also not not those things, and maybe most of all these stories are centered around people beginning to understand and acknowledge that their lives of diminishing expectations and returns are just going to keep happening to them, and maybe they can do something about it, but even their best intentions may not improve matters. It’s also streaked through with people feeling just plain old alone. But don’t worry, because it’s also pretty funny, and not in the dumb, goofy “check out this zany idea” way so many contemporary short stories rely on for funny. And there are moments of real compassion, connection, and tenderness, made all the more precious by how impossible those things can seem in the so real world that Martin writes. Most of all, these stories have something I’ve been wishing for in book after book of recent short stories: real, honest-to-god, emotionally resonant, capital E endings, something that so many lesser writers, especially with material like this, will just gesture toward at best. But not Martin – he sticks landing after landing. There’s just nothing else to say except: these are really great stories.
Is loving yourself just a matter of hating yourself less? What’s more important - finding the truth of the past, some sort of personal inciting incident, or learning to live without the need for it? Lansky’s novel is rangy, searching, and razor-sharply self-critical autofiction about Sam, a (self-described) broken young writer desperate to be healed via a weekend ayahuasca trip led by a bougie middle-aged white guy shaman who promises (then spends the whole book infuriatingly, hilariously hedging) to fix everything that’s wrong in three days or less. Lansky’s sickness is a symptom and a symbol; a cultural signifier, a self-manifested punishment, and simple bad luck. Sam relives layers of memory (particularly his relationships and sexual history, his sobriety and identify as an addict) rediscovering and recontextualizing the stories he tells as an act of self-definition. And so what if, at the end of three days, Sam isn’t fixed? Lansky makes this question feel breathtakingly, viscerally life-or-death until, beautifully, it isn’t, and the real question emerges: can a broken person accept that he doesn’t need to be fixed?
The Knockout Queen is an intimate, articulate, violent book about good and bad people and good and bad things and all of them just happening to each other all the time for no reason except that they can. Definitely an early contender for the book of 2020. Michael, the drollest teenaged narrator since forever, lives tenuously in an LA suburb with his scraping-by aunt after mom’s gone to jail for stabbing abusive, drunk dad. His only close relationships are the decades-older men he hooks up with on Craigslist and his neighbor Bunny, daughter of the town’s leading real estate shyster. She’s an Olympic hopeful, but she’s also a teenager trying to navigate high school, loyalty, and boys as a girl who’s 6-foot-3. So much of the novel is about examining morality – how do you judge a person’s moment at the edge, how do you put it into context? – but those questions are put into sharp relief when juxtaposed against the book’s numbing understanding (is this the new nihilism?) that no matter what they do, this generation is going to end up worse off than the one before them. Does it even matter if their futures are dashed? What’s left are a couple of kids clinging to each other to whom Thorpe gives the enviable, pitiable, beautiful, and ugly depth of real, living, breathing human beings. Are they moral? Who cares - they are ALIVE.
Akhtar might just have written that good and daring thing, a new entry into my favorite genre: the Great American Novel. Certainly it’s one of the boldest books on existing in this country post-9/11. Not since Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (and those in the know will know what I mean) can I recall a novel in which a writer was so unashamed to expose the ugliest parts of his country and of himself to create a portrait of an American living in, with, and against America. There’s far too much in this novel for any sort of reductive summary of its parts to give you an idea of what it’s ‘about,’ which of course is a part of its brilliance; there’s little so rare and as rewarding as to read a writer who is willing to do the necessary peeling away of layer after layer of nuance and contradiction, not just throwing out but dismantling and subverting platitudes and easy, false truths, to approach the world honestly. But here, a few broad strokes - it’s about being an immigrant, about being perceived at once as an enemy of the state and an enemy of your family’s homeland. It’s about how history, geography, education, economics, medicine, and yes, Donald Trump, put a father and son at odds with each other, with themselves, and with their country. Most of all, it is an exhaustive examination of that most base, central question in a time when it’s most needed - what is to be an American? This novel is astounding.
Alexandra Petri glares into maw of the American abyss, and the abyss stares back, but then Petri smirks, and the abyss kinda chuckles, and everybody says, aw, jeez, and gets to have a laugh at our horrible, horrible mess. If good comics punch up, then Petri is firing a bazooka at the sky, blowing up the bad faith charlatans in charge with a direct and deviously brilliant trick: asking you realize just how baldly, absurdly evil the president and his sycophants are if you take them and their lies at face value. Petri doesn’t flinch in the only book about politics this year worth the time it takes to read. Standing ovation.
Sam Pink just gets it. It being the stupid-funny highs and kick-in-the-heart lows of being a classic American low-rent dirtbag. Punch drunk, weird, and weary, these stories get right down to the day-in, day-out business of what it’s like to survive the grating, ridiculous grind of being poor and aimless. The dishwater’s hatred, sprinkles of kitchen Spanish, a temporary sense of accomplishment, drinking in the alley, bologna and cheese. Working for the weekend, feeling free. Sam Pink gets it, man.
In what should well become an essential portrait of the fight against the Islamic State, Salar Abdoh’s novel reinvigorates the way we write about war. Saleh, an Iranian journalist and reluctant drama-as-propaganda television writer, travels between the urbane art world of Tehran and the battlefields near the northern border of Syria and Iraq, where he’s gotten more involved than a reporter is supposed to be. The novel digs into Saleh’s meditations and struggle to understand: why do we choose to bloody our hands? The answers are many, uneasy and contradictory, but as Abdoh riffs on the Western canon of war – the adrift disillusionment of Hemingway, the absurdity and commerce of Catch-22 – Out of Mesopotamia is nothing less than profound.
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.
Pizza Girl delivers a piping hot and fresh update on the classic slacker novel. The titular pie slinger is 18 and aimless. She could use some personal space and time to figure out life. Instead, she’s stuck in close quarters at home with her mom and moved-in boyfriend. She’s driving deliveries in a compact clunker to an isolated housewife whose son must have his weekly large pepperoni and pickle to survive. She’s hiding out in her self-destructive dead father’s shed to watch infomercials, drink beers, and mourn him as she wonders if she’s only inherited his worst habits. And she’s pregnant, too. Frazier’s penned a sardonic self-help antidote that’s not about fixing-healing-cleansing-improving but about coming to terms with the person you are and figuring out how to live with it.
Well, if you’ve ever said to yourself, ‘Man, I sure wish Taxicab Confessions was set in Mississippi and the stories were told by a UFO chasing, Shakespeare worshipping Buddhist with anger issues,’ then boy oh boy do I have the book for you. The Last Taxi Driver is one glorious, delirious cruise into the depths of the downtrodden folks of the South as told by your new favorite person, Lou, a cabbie trying desperately to be as compassionate as is reasonably possible and maybe even scrounge a little truth, all while not getting himself killed by an idiot taking driver’s seat selfies. Crank up the car tunes (skip Skynyrd, opt for David Banner), jump into the back seat, and get ready to have the best time ever riding along for the worst day of Lou’s life.
This is the kind of first novel that’s so good it makes me, as a writer, super-duper jealous. Conell takes on an upstairs-downstairs-in-NYC premise that has every bit of potential to fall into clichés, but her aim is true – even that title is layered with extra dashes of evocation, reference, and resonance. The drive of the story is the brewing fight between back-at-home-swimming-in-liberal-arts-education-debt Ruby, her meditating-birdwatching-trying-to-avoid-a-mental-breakdown-building-super father Martin, and her grew-up-in-the-penthouse-but-definitely-doesn’t-think-she’s-better-than-you oldest friend Caroline. The voice of the building’s last rent controlled Marxist Grandma figure even drops in from time to time with gently reminders that strife in work, relationships, meditation, and birdwatching is all a quite natural byproduct of the structures of capitalism. You don’t say? It’s definitely a big ideas novel about the tense intersections where money, class, and power become personal, but it’s the way Conell puts the pressure on character’s hearts as much as their wallets that make The Party Upstairs one you won’t soon forget.
It’s the late 90’s in Topeka, and high school senior Adam Gordon is partying, going to school, preparing for national speech and debate competition - living a life that he, looking forward, expects to reflect back upon with irony and detachment in an urbane, imagined future. Lerner shifts between perspectives, stealing stylistic bits from autofiction and documentary, to reinvent the way narrative can place the moments of our lives in the context of history, global and hyper-local, as he explores how history inflicts trauma onto us, and how we, in turn, inflict that trauma back onto history. And he does all this while also toying with language and the spaces where it breaks down as we attempt to self-define. Simply put, The Topeka School is a work of genius.
I laughed, I cried, it moved me. (And yes, it’s better than Cats.) Seriously - this is Chicken Soup for the Soul for smart people, which I mean in the best way possible. This book is going to make you feel better about being alive. Ross Gay kept a Delight Diary for a year, chronicling his daily experiences of delight. Delight, not joy; a subtle difference, yeah, but it’s there - Gay’s moments of delight seem more self-aware, more grounded, maybe, than pure joy, and yet, simultaneously, more spontaneous, likely to catch him by surprise. He also drifts back and forth between delight as noun and verb, significant for the agency it gives the delighter. Whittled down to just over 100 entries, Gay uses a poet’s formula (brevity + depth = truth nuggets) to live an examined life in moments. Throughout, he’s bold enough to deep-dive into the messy reality of life’s bits of levity, to remain open-eyed and honest, historically and contextually aware. Recurring themes are race, the complications of the black male body in space, mortality, the personal and communal tragedies that separate and unite us, and the reached-out fingertips that occasionally manage to brush each other across that divide. I could talk about how impossibly uplifting this book is forever, but what I should really do is just put it in your hands and hope it has even a fraction of the effect on you that it’s had on me, because that would truly be a delight.
Poet Edgar Kunz debut collection is something like vaguely Midwesterny/Rust Belty dirty-realism-narrative-verse. But that’s not what I love here, not what moved me about this book. Kunz writes from his coming of age in the kind of place where I grew up, where many people are poor and hard and the first question a lot of guys’ dads will ask you as they poke a thick finger in your chest is, are you tough? Full disclosure, Kunz grew up far more in the midst of this world than I – he writes about his simultaneous love and disgust of his alcoholic father, the long suffering and death of his mentally ill mother – but the truth he might as well have written from my own life is the realization, early on, that you’ve got to get away from the place you come from. Kunz tracks how that original bolt becomes habitual, the learned impulse at the first sign of trouble in any place, in any relationship, that tells you, run away. And yet, he complicates it, because once you’ve bolted, then what? These poems are a portrait of some of the frayed edges of masculinity and identity, of inheritance and possibility, that captures a truth about people’s fractured relationships with home.
One summer night four high school classmates, now in their late 20's and varying degrees of lost, converge by chance in their middle-of-nowhere, Rust Belt broken hometown. Each on a mission - deliver a maybe-it's-drugs package, hook up with an ex - that winds through a landscape of memories and of painkillers, higher ed., wars in the Middle East, wars at home, the aftermath of American industrial decline, high school romance, sex tapes, date rape, and lost love of all kinds. Remembering leads to violence. Markley weaves it all together seamlessly. Ohio is a portrait of incredible depth that tells the truth of a generation doomed from the start but still swinging for the fences as they run out the strings of their wrecked lives.
The way AV club kids geek out over the latest adventures of Batman or whatever, that’s the way I am about each installment of these comix about a depressed stoner witch, her passive aggressive cat boyfriend, their drug dealing werewolf roommate, and the rest of the crew. Things are getting down and dark as reality, from the outside and in, encroaches into their hangout lives and the partying that used to be an escape has morphed into self-destruction. Nothing’s realer than real about the ups and downs of slacker layabout druggie life than Bad Gateway, and nothing’s better.
A woman can give the whole world the finger just as well as any Angry Young Man™. Summer, 2000, NYC, a brand new century full of glossy optimism. On the Upper East Side, though, one woman wants nothing to do with it. Beautiful, blonde, educated, and rich with inheritance money, she's loathe to go outside and wants only to watch her Whoopi Goldberg tapes, self-medicate, and sleep. It's a book about detachment, alienation, grief, anger, heritage, and surviving by any means what should be a life of privilege and means. Oh, yeah, and it's amazing. Moshfegh's writing feels, to me, maybe a little reminiscent of the cool, detached ache of early Bret Easton Ellis, but that's just a touchstone - her voice is all her own, raw, flip, tender, cruel, and just barely a little, tiny bit hopeful all at once.
If you are the type of person who looks up from your book and reads the good bits out loud - the funny parts, the poignant parts, the punch-in-the-stomach truths - then, when you finish The New Me, you'll hand it to your couch partner and say, "you've got to read this," and they'll say to you, "you’ve already read the whole book to me." This is an anxiety-inducing, brutal, bleak delight. Halle Butler understands deeply how the young people are living right now, and you will love her and maybe also hate her for telling it so truthfully.
Rose McLarney’s nature is beauty, brutality, history, rot, mortality, survival, and destruction. In Forage, she explores our capability for destruction, how it surprises us with its swift appearance and totality, and she sincerely asks and seriously considers - is this violence inherent in our being? She answers with details of our relationship to the land, the scars we leave, the earth’s eons long cycles that we reap, and the ways the earth can and cannot cleanse itself of our history. Especially poignant are her observations of the suburban landscape, how its sprawl divides us from our animal selves. These poems are nothing short of breathtaking.
Cherry is Full Metal Jacket for the Iraq War, kicking in doors until it's boring and watching friends die ugly, pointless deaths. But then it comes home to an addict's life of dope boys and thieving, living from shot to shot. It's a love story, too, of two lost soul junkies who swear they'd do anything for each other and maybe have done everything to hurt one another. It's a book written with a technicolor pathos that's jaw-clenched, eyes-peeled, wired-awake funny until it hurts. And then it keeps laughing right in your face. You know this story doesn't end well from the start, but when the only finish lines are dead or in jail, you're just happy just to see someone wring a little bit of joy out of any day in this burnt out, sorry world.
Bored, curious, a little angry, a little scared, Miles Lover drifts through the summer before high school getting drunk and high, crashing his divorcing parents' condos, and wandering the streets of Baltimore, looking for something, though he's not sure exactly what. This is the absolute best book I've ever read about being a teenage boy, feeling aimless and invisible. It ditches the cliché eye rolls and angsty sighs for a voice that's realer than real and tells the truth of those nervous, empty, unsure moments between adolescence and adulthood as life begins tripping toward one of any infinite number of different paths.
The Great Believers is the kind of book that reminds me why I love reading in the first place, a book that lets you live a part of someone else's life. It's the kind of book that throws open the door of a world and welcomes you inside. It's about Yale Tishman in Chicago in the 80s, as his art world career begins to take off, watching his friends - his family (one genius conceit of the novel is the family saga structure Makkai uses to tell these friends' story) - decimated by the AIDS crisis during its American height. And there's a second storyline, 30 years on, as Yale's dear friend Fiona searches for her runaway daughter in Paris, pulling old friends back into her orbit as she comes to terms with the toll of losing those closest to her decades before - there's a devastating understanding in this book that the damage of PTSD comes from more than one kind of war. This is a beautiful, heart wrenching, and true novel.
"History marks its territory. The past scars the land, erodes rocky soil and streams. It lives in the shape of boulders and peaks. In Null's stories, people shudder against the seismic pressure of time that shapes their lives in the ancient Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. This collection is hard, deep, and true as the mountains' darkest hollows, as Null sweeps through moments in the last century, making each feel as urgent as your foot caught in the rocks and your body pulled under swirling white water rapids." --Chris
"McClanahan recounts his time as a kid living with a grandma who battles the trash cat that just won't die and palsied uncle who sends what little money he has to the TV preacher, years spent with little else to do but hang out watching the action at the gas station next door. This book will break your heart, but you won't mind for all the laughing you'll do. It's truest book I've ever read about growing up in my home, the hills and hollers West Virginia, and if you don't like it I will fight you." --Chris
Jamie Paddock is living the standard-issue millennial New York life - overpriced apartment, underpaid bank account, sorta cool media company writing gig. The only piece of his former life is an arrowhead from the woods of his childhood, carried like a totem. He’s floating, drifting along, semi-lost, semi-attached, semi-high. Then his father dies under strange circumstances, and he’s drawn back to West Virginia and the accent he’s suppressed, the family he’s ignored, and the life he’s left behind. Halstead’s book explores the tensions between home’s hold on us and our desire to make a new life and leave our roots behind, especially coming from a such a hard, poor, dark place as the hollers of West Virginia. The story captures the way a place shapes who we are and who we let ourselves become and the unique sense of folks born in the mountains who feel like outsiders from both the world and from their own kind and kin.
Terrifying. Reading Kehlmann's latest novel is like watching a horror movie from the inside. A writer takes his family for a mountain retreat, hoping to escape the city, finish his newest screenplay, and maybe find a bit of serenity. But something in the rented house isn't right. Rooms shift, hallways expand, reflections fade. Brisk and gripping, you'll read this slim novel in one sitting, consumed, disappearing into the book as the writer disappears into the house, stunned as you turn the last page, compelled to check in a mirror to be sure you still exist, then turning back to the first page to immediately begin rereading.
"In this haunting debut Dana Cann has created a hybrid genre, the supernatural suburban suspense, a dope fiend domestic drama. In the wake of two seemingly unrelated deaths, the lives of three survivors are unhinged, a woman drifting into addiction and a couple’s marriage dissolving. In deftly plotted chapters these lives intertwine as the characters’ grief and guilt manifest as ghosts both metaphoric and real. The emotions are big and complicated, drawn so expertly the discomfort of their experience is felt before it’s understood, a feat not easily accomplished. The novel drives to its conclusion like a traditional mystery, but the question of ‘whodunit’ is an afterthought to Cann asking how we repair our lives after bearing witness to death." --Chris
"An unfortunately oft-overlooked classic, A Fan's Notes might just be the Great American Novel that everyone is looking for. Exley's reflections on "that long malaise," his life, is a roaring, hilarious mediation on fame and football, on living on the outside and looking in, on masculinity, sanity, booze, and the impossibility of surviving a life lived in America." --Chris